What makes a conflict sexy? Why the international community can’t get it up for the Central African Republic

It may seem strange to describe a conflict as ‘sexy’—but in our world full of varied forms of suffering, it seems certain violent events compel the global imagination and interest far more than others. As a matter of foreign policy, this dynamic results in the popular attitude that racial biases and big power interests drive UN Security Council decisions, which has severely weakened perceptions of the international community’s, namely the West’s, integrity—and rightly so. One needs only to recall the infamous events of 1994 Rwanda to justify any doubts concerning the total altruism of the United Nations and its accompanying actors. Meanwhile, asking why certain conflicts pick up more traction in Hollywood, successfully attracting the attentions of notable ‘celebrity humanitarians’ such as George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, or Bono, opens the conversation to a broader question: what does it take for a conflict to elicit sympathy, outrage or apathy from the international public consciousness? Theoretically, the forces of geopolitics and the ‘CNN effect’ collate to produce a response from the international community in the form of resources, knowledge, and human capital necessary to affect change.

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Image courtesy of Rwanda Government, ©2014, some rights reserved

The very real nature of this problem has led to institutionalised mechanisms designed to trigger an international reaction, such as the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) ‘L3 emergency declarations,’ which mobilise UN departments and the NGO community through a systemic overhaul of humanitarian capacity building. The importance of these safeguards was demonstrated when the Central African Republic (CAR) underwent a coup d’etat by the Seleka rebel coalition in April 2013, and the country became embroiled in civil war leading to the complete break-down of law and order. Under the new government led by the Muslim minority, chaos ensued as the proliferation of armed groups, including Christian ‘anti-Balaka’ militias, began targeting civilian populations along sectarian lines. Unable to contain the violence, then President Djotodia announced his resignation on 10 January 2014, causing a surge in retaliatory violence against the Muslim population that included gruesome reports of cannibalism. In December 2013 an African Union-led peacekeeping mission, with French backing, was passed and OCHA designated the conflict as an L3 emergency—representing, at the very least, some effort from the international community. But what happens when this isn’t enough?

While the country has stabilised more recently and efforts to rebuild the state continue, the reduction in violence is largely a result of the success of the attempted ethnic cleansing; recent reports have claimed well over 800,000 people displaced—more than 90% of which are Muslim and constitute approximately one fifth of its total population. A ‘CNN effect’, where sheer public visibility acts as a force of accountability and pressures international efforts to yield real progress, would likely help support efforts—but sheer numbers appear insufficient to qualify for media attention.  Perhaps the country’s absence in the common consciousness, which the crises in Iraq and Syria have attained—is to blame? Outrage over a conflict is likely more difficult for an individual to muster if one would struggle to point to the country’s location on a map. That, or, the ‘storyline’ of CAR’s conflict lacks the digestible qualities of a clear villain or victim and instead requires the acceptance of devastating violence that exists without the clear divisions of good and evil. Furthermore, if the mutual nature of the country’s sectarian violence blurs the West’s picture of the conflict, than the fact that the majority of those killed and displaced have been Muslim likely obscures it completely.

While the dilemma of the ‘unknown African country’ may explain why Anderson Cooper has yet to show up in Bangui, the more debilitating factors that have obstructed peace-building are practical constraints within the humanitarian response. More than just a dearth in resources, the intervention in CAR lacks qualified French-speaking staffs that are willing to make the type of long-term commitments necessary to build a sustainable peace. The environment remains extremely insecure and the country’s serious underdevelopment in terms of infrastructure and governing institutions makes the prospect of building a livelihood in CAR, including support for one’s family, incredibly challenging. Attracting talented senior staff to UN or INGO posts has become one of the peace effort’s biggest challenges, what little development there was has since been destroyed by the constant looting and destruction of government institutions since the conflict broke out. The lack of infrastructure presents complications for peace-building, as the civilian staff are essentially limited to the capital, which leaves relations with local populations outside the capital mostly to the military, obviously affecting the nature of dialogue possible.

The interim peacekeeping force (MISCA) has had some successes, but they have been tempered by various reports of misbehaviour among its troops as well as practical challenges, including under-equipped troops and outstanding payments from the African Union. The impending transfer to MINUSCA, and UN oversight, carries some hope for stronger logistical support. The challenges stemming from CAR’s underdevelopment, however, will continue to impede the stabilisation process. To bring ‘underdevelopment’ out of the abstract, this means everything the peacekeeping mission needs—men, equipment, materials—must be shipped to Mombasa and then driven in armed personal carriers to CAR. This creates a huge financial drain on the mission’s scant resources that could assist protection, shelter or recovery efforts.

Ultimately, the crux of the CAR crisis is not that it has yet to attract a suitable celebrity spokesperson (although Mia Farrow has taken some interest), or that it has not been prioritised by the G-8, but an extreme capacity gap within CAR that stems from its peripheral station in the international economy far pre-dating the years of ‘interventionism’. The land-locked country lacks accessible natural resources or strategic location to attract foreign investment, leaving its economy dependent on foreign aid and ranking third lowest in the world on the Human Development Index. In this age of information, when claiming ignorance to conflicts in counties even as far away as CAR is no longer defensible, we must begin to turn our attention to countries long-ignored, before they become conflicts. CAR’s lack of ‘appeal’ didn’t begin in December 2013; rather, since its independence from colonial-rule, CAR has suffered exclusion from the global economy that has both directly led to a level of deprivation that inherently produces conflict and also makes them near impossible to control. This idea of protracted systemic neglect and the resultant task of re-building a state’s institutions from the ground up, including training administrative officials and investing in transportation infrastructure, may not get the global public ‘going’, but it will serve as the best safeguard against CAR and its people plunging into further conflict.