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UN peacekeepers in Central African Republic 'not effective'

Amnesty International has called for the strengthening of the UN's peacekeeping mission in CAR, known as MINUSCA. According to a new report, there are too few troops, who lack the right skills and equipment.

A report released by Amnesty International on Monday has highlighted weakenesses in the UN's MINUSCA peacekeeping mission. The human rights group says problems with the mission became evident in September, when UN troops took almost two days to intervene against a three-day surge of violence in the capital, Bangui, that killed at least 75 people. About 12000 peacekeepers are currently in Central African Republic (CAR), having been deployed to stabilize the country following the conflict which erupted in 2013 when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels overthrew Christian president Francois Bozize. New presidential elections set to take place in a week's time.

To find out more about the weaknesses of MINUSCA, DW spoke to Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International's Deputy Regional Director for Western and Central Africa.

DW: What exactly is the major problem facing the UN troops in CAR?

Steve Cockburn: It is important to note that the UN peacekeeping mission has done and is still doing an important job in the Central African Republic. They have prevented much bloodshed and prevented the conflict from getting worse and degenerating further. But we and others have also been concerned for some time about some significant gaps in its capacity to protect civilians from large scale outbreaks of violence. In September 2015, the country experienced some of the worst violence it had seen since early 2014. This led to the death of about 75 people, displacement of 4,200 others, many rapes and also the escape of over 500 prisoners from the main prison. The troops' slow response exposed some of the long standing weaknesses of MINUSCA. This makes us worry that unless measures are taken, these things could happen again.

portrait of Steve Cockburn

Steve Cockburn is Amnesty International's Deputy Director for Western and Central Africa

MINUSCA's presence in CAR has been a mixture of success and failure. What are the body's biggest weakness?

First of all, it has been fairly clear that there have been too few troops and police in the country to be able to manage a very large country with a lot of different challenges. Although there have been some reinforcements since September, the big question still remains whether there are enough personnel, especially when you consider that the French forces [who make up three quarters of the troops] announced that majority of them will leave at the end of the year. Just as important is the issue of a number different national forces in the country not performing to the standards that the UN would expect. Many are lacking very important equipment or training that they need to do their job in such an environment.

There were even cases in which some soldiers had not received their salaries for months. Even where a number of forces were deployed, they were not effective and not disciplined to do the job that they were supposed to do. MINUSCA has taken a number of measures to overcome some of these gaps. There has been a period of relative calm, but certainly I think that much more needs to be done by the international community if we want to the force to protect civilians and really help the country to turn the page on its past.

Much as you are calling on the UN peacekeepers to strengthen their operations, one should not run away from allegations of the blue boys having been involved in human rights violations, including raping women. There is also growing suspicion and hostility towards MINUSCA as people lose hope in the force. How can we be sure that history will not repeat itself?

The issue of sexual abuse and other abuses by peacekeepers is absolutely critical, not just for the credibility of the peacekeeping force, but more so to make sure that victims are supported, that we prevent this kind of crimes and that justice is done. While we are calling for the mission to be reinforced, there have to be serious efforts to put an to these practices. That means there has to be accountability.

There are currently 12000 UN peacekeepers in CAR. Is this number big enough to provide adequate protection in an area surrounded by so much insecurity?

What we have seen over the past year or so is that they have struggled to be able to effectively deter armed groups all across the territory. CAR is huge and it has many different armed groups in many different parts of the region. It is a very difficult territory to control. What we have been calling for is a review of those numbers to see if they have what they need. The review should aslo investigate the quality of the troops that are there. It is about looking at the number of personnel, their equipment, training and coordination to make sure that MINUSCA can deliver its promises to the country and the people of CAR.

Steve Cockburn is the Deputy Regional Director for Amnesty International, Western and Central Africa. He co-authored the report ‘Mandated to protect, equipped to succeed? Strengthening peacekeeping in Central African Republic.'

The UN on Monday appointed Jane Holl Lute, a US security expert, to coordinate the body's response to allegations of exploitation and abuse by its peacekeepers.

Interview: Jane Ayeko-Kümmeth