Stephen O'Brien, the U.N. Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, said on Aug. 7 that the situation in the Central African Republic had deteriorated to the point that "the early warning signs of genocide" were there. That a U.N. official is using the "g" word to describe the violence in the country is significant, given that fears of genocide has provoked intervention before, last in 2013. O'Brien called for a bolstering of the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), which currently comprises around 12,500 peacekeepers. He also noted that in Bangassou, in the country's south, some 2,000 Muslim Central Africans that had taken refuge at a church more than three months ago are at risk of being massacred by Christian militants who have surrounded them. Bangassou has been the site of recent instability, and at least 3 U.N. peacekeepers had been killed there as of the end of July.
The violence stems from deeper divisions created during the 2012-2013 crisis in which Seleka militants from the country's northeast overthrew the government of then-President Gen. Francois Bozize (allegedly with backing from some regional states). The ensuing chaos helped unleash violence and reported ethnic cleansing, forcing France to intervene with the help of African allies, including Chad, to halt the bloodshed. Since then, the Central African Republic has moved to a democratically elected government, but implementing profound state control over the vast, isolated country has remained a huge challenge. The proliferation of militant splinter groups with competing aims attests to this instability, complicating the ability of the U.N. mission and of the Central African Republic's feeble government to ensure order.
Since then the situation in the Central African Republic has clearly deteriorated further, with various militias repeatedly clashing, recently causing hundreds of deaths and reportedly creating more than 100,000 refugees (raising the total number to over 500,000). Moreover, MINUSCA has struggled to keep a hold on the large swaths of territory largely out of the purview of the cash-strapped mission. The decision of a U.N. official to employ the word genocide, then, is a key way to ratchet up international attention on a largely forgotten situation, especially since it accompanies calls for more troops and funding. That's why the crisis is worth tracking: It's happening in a country in which outside powers — even France — have little interest, except when it comes to halting a potential humanitarian disaster on the scale of that in Rwanda in 1994.