Back in 2014, when the Central African Republic was on the world's radar, the United Nations stepped up and sent peacekeepers to take over from an African-Union-led mission there as an effort to avoid a deepening human rights and humanitarian disaster. MINUSCA, as the peacekeeping mission is known, prevented the worst and facilitated the election process in 2016.
However, three years into the mission, it still struggles to maintain security and needs more troops. Over a dozen abusive armed groups now roam the country. Attacks on civilians, some of them sectarian, are on the rise in the eastern provinces and impunity still reigns. Since 2014, 73 members of the mission have been killed.
Worse, civilians across the country continue to suffer from violence, even if they've never joined the fight. More than one million Central Africans, or one in five, are displaced inside or outside the country. Thousands are living in makeshift camps deprived of their livelihoods and without basic access to food, water, or health care.
At the same time, the violence and the growing insecurity reduce access to humanitarian aid for the people most affected. The Central African Republic is one of the most dangerous countries for humanitarian agencies. In many parts of the country aid workers literally risk their lives by driving on the roads. Already in 2017, staff have been threatened or attacked in 232 incidents, limiting the areas where aid organizations can provide lifesaving support. Entire cities are now cut off from any aid, as nongovernmental organizations - in many areas the only service providers on the ground - don't have access.
Confronted with all this violence on a daily basis, MINUSCA is overwhelmed.
Recognizing that the mission is struggling, on October 18 Secretary-General António Guterres requested an additional 900 troops "to shape and influence security situations, rather than react to them." These troops, if of the right quality, could make a huge difference. We have seen first-hand how the blue helmets can save lives when they act rapidly and effectively. In May, MINUSCA stabilized Alindao, a town in the Basse-Kotto province, after days of horrific violence. Their presence continues to have a positive effect.
But these first-hand examples are too few.
As MINUSCA faces its yearly mandate renewal review on Wednesday, the Security Council should allocate these extra troops. And for the mission to be successful it should also take stock and recognize where it can do better.
First, the mission needs to keep civilian protection a core priority. Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter MINUSCA is already authorized to take all necessary means to protect the civilian population from threat of physical violence and to "implement a mission-wide civilian protection strategy." Three years in, armed groups continue to test MINUSCA's ability to protect civilians. Popular resentment against the force is rising as communities too often see it do nothing in the face of attacks. Some of the positive results the mission has managed to achieve are easily erased when major towns fall to armed groups who kill, rape, burn and loot at will. A message needs to be sent to the commanders of these groups: MINUSCA will redouble its commitment on civilian protection.
A peacekeeping mission able to respond more robustly will be better able to protect civilians and, hopefully, deter attackers. More protection means safer roads, for civilians and for aid workers trying to help them put their lives back together.
Second the mission should lobby for long term support for the Special Criminal Court, a unique judicial body with national and international judges and prosecutors, mandated to investigate and prosecute grave human rights violations in the country since 2003. The court offers a meaningful opportunity to break the cycles of impunity that have plagued the country for years.
UN peacekeeping missions are hardly perfect solutions. MINUSCA and many others have a mixed track record and peacekeepers themselves have engaged in sexual exploitation and abuse of the very people they were sent to help - something Secretary-General Guterres has vowed to stamp out. But in the Central African Republic, peacekeepers offer the best chance to stabilize the country, allow support to its struggling civilian population and help the nation to rebuild.
Now, more than ever, an effective, well-staffed mission is needed. It is up to the UN Security Council to take a crucial step by approving the requested 900 additional troops. That will send a strong message to armed groups that the UN will not cut and run but will spare no effort to save civilians' lives.