Remarks Sarah Sewall Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights New York City October 1, 2015
We gather at an extremely tense moment for the Central African Republic. Over the last few days, we have witnessed the alarming outbreak of violence in Bangui. At least 36 people have reportedly been killed and a hundred injured. According to UNICEF, children have been “deliberately targeted” by this violence. In addition, armed men have set up make-shift barricades across the capital; peacekeepers from the UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) have come under attack; and more than 500 inmates escaped from the Ngaragba prison, including many members of the Anti-Balaka and Seleka militias. Taking advantage of the turmoil, armed thugs have looted businesses and the offices of several international organizations, and even ransacked the humanitarian stockpiles intended for the 2.7 million people in the Central African Republic in need of humanitarian aid. As a result of the recent spike in violence, more than 27,000 Central Africans have fled their homes, joining the hundreds of thousands already displaced.
The brutality of the reported attacks — the throat of 16-year-old boy slit; a 17-year-old shot and burned; armed men going room to room in hospitals searching out victims on the basis of their religion or ethnicity — seems deliberately aimed at stoking more violence and fear. And the timing — starting right after President Samba-Panza, senior officials from the transitional government, and MINUSCA leaders flew to New York for the UN General Assembly — has led many to ask whether the perpetrators intentionally stoked the violence to maximize instability while key actors in the country’s political transition were abroad.
Yet it would be a mistake for us to blame this surge in violence on a single barbaric act — no matter how deplorable it was. Instead, what recent events reveal is just how fragile the situation in the Central African Republic continues to be, how tattered the nation’s social fabric is after years of widespread strife, and the enduring specter of mass violence that threatens this fragile nation. So the question for the international community is: How can we build a more resilient and inclusive peace in these circumstances? Let me recommend four steps.
First, we — and by “we” I mean all of the countries here today, as well as others that are committed to the future of the Central African Republic — must redouble our support for the transitional government led by President Samba-Panza, which has made a determined effort to foster stability, reconciliation, and accountability in the face of daunting challenges. Our support is especially crucial in the next two months, when both legislative and presidential elections are scheduled to take place. In that spirit, I have a simple message from the United States to President Samba-Panza and all Central Africans: You have America’s full and unwavering support as you work towards building peace, unity, and a democratic transition of power. That is why today the United States is announcing an additional $15.5 million to support your ongoing transition, including elections, which comes atop $40 million we have already dedicated to strengthening your nation’s rule of law, and nearly $268 million we have provided in life-saving humanitarian assistance.
Second, the international community must maintain a robust security presence in the Central African Republic. Deadly as this spasm of violence has been, it would have been much worse were it not for the presence of peacekeepers from MINUSCA and French forces deployed under Operation Sangaris. At the same time, the difficulty these international forces and their national counterparts have experienced over recent days in containing the violence and restoring order in the capital should force a candid assessment of what must be done to prevent this from happening again. We welcome the decision of France to maintain their force now deployed.
Third, we must continue to support long-term efforts to promote accountability and the rule of law in the Central African Republic. That means continuing to support the development of justice institutions eroded over decades of impunity and graft. In June, the National Transitional Council established a Special Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. This body has already played a critically important role by granting Central African refugees the right to participate in the upcoming elections, increasing their legitimacy for all Central Africans, particularly Muslims, who have been displaced in disproportionate numbers. Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court continues its own investigation into the horrific crimes committed in the country during the conflict. Finally, we have imposed tough sanctions on the individuals who fed ethnic and religious violence — sanctions we all must be prepared to expand and apply to other individuals.
Fourth, regional actors must take steps to prevent former regime officials living outside the Central African Republic from stoking violence for their own cynical political gains. We all know who these individuals are — they are people who have consistently have put their own interests ahead of the welfare of their fellow citizens. Unchecked, you can be sure they will do everything they can do to undermine the transition.
As we catalogue the enduring sources of tension and instability in the Central African Republic, it can at times feel challenging to maintain a sense of optimism about the country’s future. But let me close by citing a number that should give us faith in the people of the country. Seventy percent. That is the number of Central Africans who, according to recent reports, have already registered to vote in the upcoming elections. It amounts to nearly 1.6 million Central Africans, an overwhelming majority, who are ready to exercise their right to vote. And that number will grow as refugees living outside of the country register to take part in the upcoming elections. This number speaks to a basic aspiration on the part of Central Africans to choose their leaders and their country’s future — a right they have not been able to exercise for some time, or arguably ever. And that persistent aspiration — even in the face of violence and enduing divisions — is a fundamental building block of any democracy. If Central Africans can hold firm to that aspiration, so can we. And we must do everything we can to give that aspiration a chance to prosper. Thank you.