Why you should care

“Never again” – that’s what people said after more than half a million people were killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The chaotic situation in the Central African Republic is putting that maxim to the test.

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We’ve seen this movie before. Machete-wielding forces, egged on by historical grievances, ethnic divisions and meddling foreign governments, fuel a spiral of violence and retribution that leads to genocide.

What happened in Rwanda nearly two decades ago is now threatening to play out again in the Central African Republic, an impoverished country of roughly 5 million people smack in the heart of the African continent. A simmering conflict broke out into open interreligious warfare this fall, spiking at the beginning of December when Christian militias launched an assault on Muslim civilians. The same week, the United Nations Security Council authorized an expanded French and African Union-led peacekeeping force to try and stop the fighting. Hundreds and probably thousands of people have died and more than half a million are now estimated to have fled their homes.

Halting the spate of killing is the start of what the international community will need to do to pull Africa’s latest failed state out of the abyss.

For the Obama White House, the conflict in CAR, as it is known in shorthand, has become an important test of new government tools they’ve developed for exactly this purpose – preventing another Rwanda. President Obama outlined his commitment to preventing mass atrocities and genocide in 2011, calling it ”a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.”

Aid organizations caution that halting the current spate of killing is just the start of what the international community will need to do to pull Africa’s latest failed state out of the abyss. But given the microscopic attention spans of today’s political leaders and the lack of clear security or economic interests in the Central African Republic it won’t be easy to sustain Western engagement.

As part of Obama’s genocide prevention strategy the White House created the Atrocities Prevention Board, a committee of senior officials from across the executive branch, in 2012. Though it’s been criticized for not being more active on U.S. policy in Syria, humanitarian organizations have qualified praise for its performance on CAR.

“Even though externally it’s kind of hard to see,” the Atrocities Prevention Board has ”been operating in a kind of extraordinary way” on CAR, says Madeline Rose, legislative associate for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the advocacy arm of the Quaker church.

Indeed, according to a senior administration official, during a critical period between the end of November and the second week of December, the board convened senior level White House meetings every day or every other day.

Protestors outdoors with street fire.

Demonstrators gather in Bangui to call for the resignation of interim president Michel Djotodia.

Source Williams Daniels/Panos

In that time frame, the White House released just over $100 million to support the peacekeeping forces in CAR and coordinated with international partners on the U.N. resolution and peacekeeping logistics – warp speed for government institutions. Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., flew into capital city Bangui on Thursday. President Obama also recorded a message earlier this month directed at “the people of the Central African Republic” encouraging reconciliation, not violence. Obama’s message was translated into local languages and has been played on radio stations across CAR – a stark contrast with the hateful rhetoric infamously played on Rwandan radio in the lead up to the massacre there.

”I can’t imagine we would have been prepared with that range and that spectrum of actions,” if not for the planning and awareness created by the president’s genocide prevention strategy, the administration official says.

That’s not to say aid groups have been entirely happy with the Obama administration’s response.

“We should have been able to see this coming further in advance,” says Rose, noting there were ”warning signs of potential conflict escalation” as far back as December 2012. In March 2013, a coalition of predominantly Muslim rebel forces known as Seleka overthrew the government in Bangui. The International Crisis Group, a highly-regarded human rights monitor, issued a report in June warning that the Central African Republic was in the midst of ”a state collapse of historical proportion,” as ICG’s Mark Schneider testified in the Senate earlier this week.

The concern now, however, is that once the worst of the crisis is contained, international attention will wane.

American officials, however, did not really start mobilizing until this fall, even though CAR had been on the Atrocities Prevention Board’s radar for quite some time.

”Clearly the red flags did not get there soon enough. That said, once the red flags did get up the ladder … decisions were made very, very fast, and I think that’s the difference,” Rose says of the board’s role.

The concern now, however, is that once the worst of the crisis is contained, international attention will wane.

”We’re quickly seeing the mainstream narrative falling into the false assumption that conflict broke out, peace keepers are coming, and that’s sort of the end,” says Rose.

The White House released an additional $15 million for humanitarian assistance on Thursday.

But aid groups say much more will be necessary to stabilize CAR and respond to immediate humanitarian needs. Uncertainty about the political process could also fuel future unrest. Michael Djotodia, the coup leader who installed himself as president, has committed to a transitional process culminating in 2015 elections. But recently he has been moving to consolidate power, and analysts doubt he is really willing to leave office. Aid groups are also dubious that elections can really come off in less than two years, as planned, given the country’s abject lack of infrastructure.

That will not necessarily be a role for the Atrocities Prevention Board, but CAR, like Rwanda before it, will continue to be on their minds. “Everyone is trying to get ever better at raising red flags,” says Rose. ”Everyone is still scarred from Rwanda.”

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