A MISCA soldier on patrol in Bangui A MISCA soldier on patrol in Bangui Photo credit: Vincent Tremeau/Oxfam
Safeguarding distinction in the Central African Republic
by Emma Fanning September 2014

The Central African Republic (CAR) government, regional and donor governments, humanitarian organisations and faith leaders agree that a comprehensive security, political and humanitarian approach is needed in the CAR – a comprehensive approach that includes security, political and humanitarian goals. However, in CAR’s complex operating environment the approaches and goals of these different tracks vary. Political and security efforts are needed to help the government re-establish basic security and state administration. These efforts take a robust stance against armed groups and support the restoration of the state. Humanitarians on the other hand aim to alleviate suffering and need community acceptance and agreement from armed actors in order to access vulnerable people across shifting front lines.

Whilst political, security and humanitarian activities may have a shared vision for the country, as the United Nations Multi-dimensional Stabilisation Mission for Central Africa (MINUSCA), the new UN mission for CAR, is established, safeguards should be put in place to ensure that humanitarian decision-making is distinct from political and military efforts, and that humanitarian actors are perceived as neutral and independent, enabling acceptance and access. These safeguards include strategic decisions about mission structure and operational mechanisms that maintain a distinction in actions, visibility and communications. Whilst lessons from peacekeeping missions in other countries show how difficult it is to get this right, investment in doing so now will pay long-lasting dividends.


CAR is deteriorating into a chronic conflict, and both humanitarian aid and the UN mission are likely to be needed for years. The country risks de facto division, with ex-Seleka forces dominant in the north and east, and anti-balaka dominating the south and west. In many areas the state has all but stopped functioning, main traders (largely Muslims) have been forced out, markets have broken down and the planting season has been missed. The operating environment for humanitarian actors is very difficult, not least due to humanitarian aid being the only injection of resources into the collapsed economy; several organisations have temporarily suspended operations in some areas due to insecurity. Whilst attacks against humanitarians have long been part of the operational environment in CAR, they are currently the main access constraint; according to OCHA, 72% of the 890 incidents between January and July 2014 were due to violence against humanitarian personnel or assets.+See http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/AccessHum_CARjuly_2014.pdf

Perceptions of peacekeeping operations in CAR

Current peacekeeping operations are a long way from establishing security across the country. At the time of writing, there are three peacekeeping missions in CAR: the African Union (AU)’s International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA), due to become MINUSCA on 15 September; the French operation Sangaris; and the European Union Force (EUFOR).+In mid-June, EUFOR was just starting to reach initial operational capacity, so this article does not discuss it. When Sangaris and MISCA arrived in mid-December 2013, it was expected that a short, sharp burst of force would bring armed actors under control, paving the way for a UN peacekeeping mission. This improved security remains elusive.

Neither MISCA nor Sangaris is perceived as neutral by the local population. On arrival in the country both missions were tasked with controlling Muslim militia (the Seleka). In January the situation rapidly changed as President Michel Djotodia resigned and Muslims became the target of attacks. It took several weeks for international peacekeepers to alter their strategies to protect them. While Chadian troops were perceived as supporting Muslims, troops from some other countries were initially perceived as being pro-Christian.

As MISCA and Sangaris became involved in forcible disarmament targeting Christian militia (the anti-balaka) from mid-February, perceptions of their partiality changed, and they were seen as being pro-Muslim. When French troops allegedly killed several civilians in Grimari in April 2014, one woman complained ‘We thought the French had come to save us but they have murdered our children’.+See http://reliefweb.int/report/central-african-republic/centrafrique-la-population-de-grimari-en-rage-contre-la-force-fran The difficulty in distinguishing between civilians and armed actors further complicates protection efforts. In some cases armed actors have used civilians, including women and children, to front demonstrations which have turned violent. Whilst there is no civilian casualty tracking system within either MISCA or Sangaris, there have been reports of civilians being killed by MISCA troops. Allegations of misconduct and human rights abuse by some contingents further complicate relations and create mistrust between particular communities and peacekeepers.+See http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/06/02/central-african-republic-peacekeepers-tied-abuse At the same time, MISCA and Sangaris are targeted in regular attacks because they are seen as supporting the other side.

Civilians have high expectations of peacekeeping forces. To date, where either MISCA or Sangaris have deployed, their role in protection has been largely welcomed by communities, and their influence on the situation is notable. However, the number of peacekeeping troops in the country is not sufficient to protect all civilians, and MISCA, particularly since the departure of over 800 Chadian troops in April, lacks the manpower, logistics and communication equipment to rapidly respond to new protection threats or consistently secure critical areas. Experience from peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Darfur and South Sudan shows that, when high expectations are not met, relations quickly turn sour. Any misconduct by peacekeeping forces, as has happened in other peacekeeping contexts, risks damaging relations and trust between peacekeepers and communities, affecting perceptions and undermining the capacity to protect.

It does not seem probable that MINUSCA, which like MISCA has a Chapter 7 mandate, will immediately be perceived as distinct from MISCA. As much of MISCA will be rehatted into MINUSCA, communities are unlikely to perceive a significant change, as few did in Mali in 2013 when the AU mission AFISMA became MINUSMA. Additionally, while a slight increase in troop numbers in regional force headquarters is expected as MINUSCA becomes operational, given CAR’s lack of geopolitical strategic importance, it remains to be seen whether the full complement of 10,000 troops and 1,800 police, the budget and the equipment needed will be found. There is unlikely to be an immediate significant difference in MINUSCA’s operational capacity, and therefore a change in people’s perception of it.

Perceptions of political interventions

Along with Protection of Civilians (PoC), MINUSCA’s priority will be to establish state authority across the country, working closely with the current government. However, whilst President Catherine Samba-Panza was widely welcomed in early 2014, competing political interests and the economic and security crisis facing the state present multiple challenges for the government. Moreover, there is a long history of international involvement in CAR, particularly during shifts of power.+France, Chad and Libya have all been accused of supporting coups in CAR and to date six of the seven power changes since independence in 1960 have been internationally backed. Sangaris and MISCA troops are often perceived as looking after national interests, not least when some MISCA troops have been deployed along their own borders. MINUSCA is mandated to facilitate elections ‘no later than 15 February 2015’, a task that is inherently political and risks being manipulated, further politicising perceptions of the mission.

Distinction in operations

Humanitarian action aims to alleviate suffering on the basis of impartiality. To ensure access to populations in need of assistance, community acceptance and the agreement of armed groups is essential. In order to maintain access, humanitarian action must be seen as independent of national and international political agendas, and perceived as not supporting any side in the conflict.

In CAR ensuring that populations understand the different goals of humanitarian, political and military activities is difficult. The history of foreign intervention in the country and the simultaneous arrival of peacekeeping troops and many humanitarians confuse the distinction between the various actors. This is compounded by localised specificities in conflict dynamics, the fragmentation of armed actors and their lack of cohesive command and control structures. Whilst difficult to substantiate in a context of generalised criminality, there are regular rumours of armed actors targeting certain nationalities and religious affiliations, and an apparent conflation of humanitarian and political action.

Armed escorts from peacekeepers are often the most visible symbol of close collaboration between missions and humanitarians, and are likely to influence community perceptions of neutrality. In some cases the use of armed escorts has been unavoidable, particularly when supporting the movement of trapped Muslim populations. In other cases, some humanitarian actors have chosen to request escorts to mitigate security risks. These decisions by individual organisations influence perceptions of the proximity of humanitarian action to peacekeepers, and therefore their neutrality.

The actions and communications of peacekeepers also blur distinctions. MISCA has referred to its work as humanitarian, particularly around convoys on the road to Cameroon, which have had a significant impact on food security and allowed many people to flee the country. In some areas where there is no humanitarian presence MISCA troops have provided medical services for local people. Meanwhile, French troops have distributed teaching equipment in Bangui and EUFOR is anticipating implementing Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) which, if they look like work that humanitarians would usually do, again risk blurring the distinction between humanitarian, military and political activities.

Where are we now?

As MINUSCA is established, decisions about structure are being made. However, certainly to international NGOs, it is not clear who is making them, how or where they are being made. Greater transparency and inclusion in the process are important in ensuring these decisions suitable for the context and have wide buy-in.

All multi-dimensional UN peacekeeping and political missions are integrated: MINUSCA is no exception. Peacekeeping, political and humanitarian tracks are expected to share analysis and planning at strategic level and a common UN vision, priorities and responsibilities to ensure that all departments work towards peace consolidation. How departments work together and how far they are structurally integrated is a decision which, according to the UN’s Integrated Assessment and Planning (IAP) policy, should be based on context.

Mission structure has implications for how decisions are made and resources dedicated, and how closely departments are interlinked. Eight of the ten UN peacekeeping missions with Protection of Civilian mandates+In addition to the UN mission in CAR, the UN missions in Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, South Sudan, Mali, Lebanon and Haiti. The UN mission in Abyei also has a PoC mandate but no civilian section, and UNAMID in Dafur is not structurally integrated. are currently structurally integrated and the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General (DSRSG) is ‘triple hatted’ as UN Resident Coordinator, Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) and deputy to the Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG). In the mission structure, the reporting of the humanitarian line to an SRSG who is also responsible for military and political interventions risks subsuming humanitarian objectives to other goals. At the time of writing the HC is outside MINUSCA’s structure, and humanitarian decisions have been made largely independently of political and military ones, on the basis of vulnerability and need.+A full assessment of the impact of this separation should be made as part of a second Operational Peer Review. However, in other peacekeeping missions there have been examples of political considerations outweighing humanitarian ones, for example in the allocation of funds.+Victoria Metcalfe, Alison Giffen and Samir Elhawary, UN Integration and Humanitarian Space: An Independent Study Commissioned by the UN Integration Steering Group, HPG and the Stimson Center, 2011.

The process for making decisions about mission structure is laid out in the IAP policy (April 2013) and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) guidelines A Framework for Integration (July 2013). The IAP policy states that, before the peacekeeping mission is established, an integrated strategic assessment must be made to orientate the mission. Guiding principles include inclusivity, form following function, flexibility to context, recognition of the diversity of UN mandates and principles and an up-front analysis of risks and benefits. The policy states that ‘most humanitarian interventions are likely to remain outside the scope of integration, which can, at times, challenge the ability of UN humanitarian actors to deliver according to humanitarian principles’.

The IASC guidelines for Humanitarian Country Teams (HCTs) lay out steps for risk analysis to inform decisions on structural integration. These guidelines provide a series of questions that should be asked in deciding the structure of the mission, and outline the process by which decisions should be made – through an Integrated Strategic Assessment, a Technical Assessment Mission (TAM) and strong inputs from the HCT. The guidelines are clear that participation needs to be inclusive and the process transparent. They recognise that triple hatting is an option, but ‘should not be the default’. Care is cautioned in moving too fast towards visible integration: ‘once relationships between humanitarian actors, local population and parties to conflict are damaged, confidence in the neutrality, impartiality and independence of humanitarian operations … is extremely difficult to regain’. Although a TAM took place in February 2014, discussions about the structure of the mission were avoided in order to focus on the support that the CAR desperately needed.

In mid-June the HC initiated a risk assessment by the HCT. At the time of writing many humanitarian organisations are sceptical of the influence this may have given that UN missions in Mali and Somalia were established with integrated structures in 2013 despite strong contextual arguments against doing so. It is hoped that it might influence decisions on the future of the mission, but given the multiple priorities for humanitarians and peacekeepers, risk and benefit analysis around structural integration has not been developed and championed fully by humanitarian actors in-country. The HCT should press for a strong risk assessment and engage with MINUSCA on this up-front as the mission structure rolls out. It should also establish operational measures to strengthen distinction and mitigate the risk of perceived inter-dependence, regularly updated and reviewed, and continue to ensure regular dialogue with peacekeepers to encourage them to avoid communications and actions that blur the distinction between peacekeeping and humanitarian action.

Ensuring operational distinction is a collective responsibility, but strategic decisions about mission structure need to take into account risk assessments and lessons from other contexts. They should provide the best possible safeguards for the independence of humanitarian action, rather than defaulting to structural integration. Humanitarian actors and the UN mission will be in CAR for some time. Establishing functioning structures that maintain a clear distinction between political and security interventions on the one hand, and humanitarian action on the other, and which support the delivery of humanitarian aid to isolated communities, will not be easy given the different mindsets and operating frameworks of humanitarians, peacekeepers and political actors. However, it is worth the investment.

Emma Fanning is part of the Humanitarian Policy and Campaigns team, Oxfam GB in the UK