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A swift response: Why the U.N. needs a rapid reaction force

By Theodore Terpstra
On March 31, 2014

Rich in resources, the Central African Republic is unfortunately also rich in corruption and violence. In a story all too familiar for the continent of Africa, CAR suffered a period of political strife and vicious war before descending into sectarian chaos. Hatred between the country's Muslim and Christian populations has led to the formation of militias and a rise in sectarian killings. Although the capital, Bangui, is relatively calm, fighting continues throughout much of the county. In an effort to quell the violence, a security force made up of 6,000 troops from various African nations joined around 2,000 troops from the French military. Belatedly, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon announced earlier this month his recommendation that around 10,000 peacekeepers be deployed to the CAR. Aid agencies and regional experts have warned the international community about the increasing possibility of genocide in the CAR since late last year, yet the U.N. does not plan to send the first batch of peacekeepers until the end of the summer. Meanwhile, both Christians and Muslims seek refuge and their places of worship or flee to the forest in an attempt to avoid the militias. So why has the U.N. waited so long to act?

Former U.N. Secretary-Geeral Kofi Annan once described the U.N. as "the only fire brigade in the world that has to wait for the fire to break out before it can acquire a fire engine." In order to avert a potential genocide, the U.N. has to first authorize a resolution, then gather up troops from its member states, then finally deploy said troops to the troubled region. This process can easily take more than six months to accomplish. It is painfully obvious that this process is a poor way to address the pressing threat of genocide. Some of the U.N.'s most infamous failures, such as Srebrenica and Rwanda, remind us of what is at stake. Most nations have a rapid reaction force to quickly respond to crises overseas, yet the U.N. has no such force. It is time to create a U.N. detachment, which can quickly act to prevent atrocities in nations all around the world.
As head of the U.N. assistance mission to Rwanda in 1994, Romeo Dalliare quickly learned that the U.N. is an organization of penny pinchers. Here lies the first obstacle to the creation of any rapid reaction force: The cost of keeping a small force of soldiers on retainer is a strong factor in the U.N.'s reluctance to form such a unit. Officially, the U.N. says that it is less costly to recruit a military force when action is required rather than to hold one in reserve. But there is one factor that the U.N. continually neglects to include in the cost analysis: time. As we now see with the events in the CAR, it takes months before a military force can be mustered from the member states. The question that member nations must ask themselves is: "How much would we pay to avert genocide?"
The second obstacle is the long delay before a resolution is finally passed. A standing regulation of the U.N. is that a peacekeeping force cannot be deployed anywhere unless a resolution is passed. This becomes a big complication as it can take weeks to months for even the most uncontroversial resolutions to pass the assembly. In order to make any rapid reaction force effective, the U.N. would have to either streamline the process or place the rapid reaction force under a separate mandate. When time counts peacekeepers may be required within hours, not weeks or months, as the world saw back in 1994 when the Rwandan genocide began practically overnight.
Lastly there is the issue of the U.N. authorizing an offensive force. Genocide could be best avoided if the rapid reaction force was allowed to act proactively at the first sign of trouble instead of waiting until tensions are bad enough. Romeo Dalliare, whom I previously mentioned, was told beforehand of the imminent genocide in Rwanda by an informant. If only a portion of Dalliare's force had been under an offensive mandate, then maybe the Rwanda genocide could have been avoided. Today, more nations are willing to consider U.N. missions that have offensive mandates. The first offensive force was authorized last year when the U.N. allowed its stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo to form an intervention brigade to fight against M23 rebels. A U.N. rapid reaction force is no longer an unrealistic proposition.
If the world truly wants to prevent the chaos and slaughter that genocide brings, they member states must be willing to pay the price of forming a specialized standing force to act when necessary. For now, the nations of the world can only cross their fingers and hope that the violence in the CAR does not explode into genocide.  


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