Conscientious objection is not a total repudiation of force; it is a refusal to surrender moral responsibility for one’s actions. – Kenneth Barnes
In 2011, President Obama issued Presidential Study Directive 10 making the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities “a core national security interest and core moral responsibility of the United States.” Today, violence in the Central Africa Republic (CAR) that has been called “pre-genocidal” by United Nations officials, is putting that commitment to the test. Over recent months, decades of chronic conflict, poverty, and poor governance in CAR have crystalized horrifically into a new phase of violence characterized by the targeted slaughter of civilians, focused along religious lines in a country where Christians and Muslims have lived peacefully together for generations. How can such violence be stopped? Are peaceful means available to do so?
The U.S. response to the crisis in CAR has been impressive in its speed and scope. From President Obama himself calling for nonviolence and reconciliation through a radio message aired across the country, to direct funding for religious peacemaking efforts and radio networks to help dispel rumors and promote peace, to added millions in humanitarian assistance and support to African peacekeepers, the United States has mobilized across different agencies, civilian and military, to try to help halt the violence in CAR. Last week US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power flew to CAR herself to demonstrate US commitment and meet with government officials and civil society leaders.
Still, the balance and nature of the response to the unfolding violence in CAR illustrate the problem of reacting after the killing has already begin, and with a still heavily militarized US foreign policy toolbox. The US mobilized over $100 million to support the African-led peacekeeping mission, $15 million in additional humanitarian assistance, and $7.5 million in conflict mitigation, peacebuilding, and human rights funding. Civilian peacemaking and human rights work is inherently less expensive then military operations, but the balance says something about US funding priorities and the tools available to US policymakers. We are still much better at thinking of and funding military solutions than we are at imagining creative, nonviolent responses that could interrupt violence without adding to it. And once violence is underway, the options for creative response shrink drastically.
What peaceful means are available to halt the kind of organized killing we have seen in CAR? The most powerful forces for peace have been the courageous religious leaders – Muslim and Christian – who stepped into the midst of the violence in their country to protect people who fled to their churches and mosques and to directly mediate with those doing the killing. In many cases, they put their own lives directly at risk to try to save others, carrying nothing but a Bible or Koran as protection. The fact that supporting these leaders was at the top of the interagency priorities in responding to the CAR crisis says something about the important progress being made in US policy to lift up peaceful options for responding to violence. But why aren’t we providing such support for local peace builders long before the violence erupts and in ways that help support and sustain their work through tensions and social and political upheaval?
Moreover, once violence is underway and, as in CAR, civilian rule of law no longer exists, halting the killing and creating a space for such peacemaking becomes extremely difficult. Some peacebuilding pioneers, like the Nonviolent Peaceforce, imagine and work toward the day when nonviolent peacekeepers are ready and equipped to quickly step into such situations in adequate numbers and appropriately supported to succeed. But that day remains a long way off. UN and regional peacekeeping forces, in the meantime, remain a flawed but critical tool that will sometimes, as in the case of CAR, be the best response the international community has available to it once violence is underway. To minimize violence and harm, however, such forces should be trained and prepared to protect civilians and help restore rule of law so the real peacemaking can take place. That is a very different task than fighting and defeating an enemy, and requires more of a civilian policing approach than a war-fighting one.
Creating more peaceful means for peaceful ends for the future means investing in much earlier prevention through civilian peacebuilding and just development long before a crisis erupts. After all, the CAR was caught for decades in cycles of conflict and with some of the world’s lowest development indicators. It also means changing the balance and make up of the US foreign policy toolbox – getting rid of outdated military machinery that serves little purpose in today’s world and investing seriously in nonviolent tools to protect civilians, prevent violent conflict, and build durable peace.
US response to the situation in CAR shows we are making baby steps forward in that direction, but a much bigger paradigm and resources shift is still needed.