January 03, 2014

Human Rights and National Security: The Case of the Central African Republic

As my colleague Richard Fontaine recently posted, “The promotion of human rights and democracy is part and parcel of America’s greatness, and intrinsically bound with how we are viewed by the world.” Recent atrocities in the Central African Republic (CAR) provide a tangible laboratory for U.S. policymakers and the American public alike to engage in the difficult discourse of human rights and national security.

Sectarian violence, general thuggery and the targeted killing of civilians have resulted in over 1,000 deaths in the month of December 2013 alone and displaced nearly 10 percent of the total CAR population over the past year. Children feature prominently both as recruits and victims; armed groups have reportedly recruited nearly 6,000 child soldiers and at least two children were beheaded in the month of December.

On the face of it, the Central African Republic appears to have little strategic value for the United States. For starters, the CAR is one of the most poverty-stricken countries on earth. Unlike Syria (another laboratory for this great debate), located near strategic interests for the United States (Iraq, Jordan), the CAR is landlocked by a series of other nations of little current strategic value to the United States. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, articulating the stance of those opposed to intervention (and with whom she disagrees) concedes that “the people of the CAR do not supply us with oil or buy many of our manufactured goods; they do not host an important U.S. military base, or lend vital diplomatic support to our position on international political questions.”

Yet the conflict has attracted the attention of a growing audience. Most notably, the recent escalation prompted an unannounced visit by Ambassador Samantha Power, interpreted by some as an effort to “drive home the point that the United States has a moral obligation to use a portion of its power and financial resources to help stem mass atrocities in a distant land with…few clear national security interests.” Power's visit is especially noteworthy given that no American official of her rank has ever visited the CAR before.

Accompanying the visit is a solution set that may have staying power. Backed by bipartisan legislative and executive support, the U.S. committed to providing $100 million in assistance for French and African Union peacekeepers in the CAR—thus enabling partner capacity for stability operations without committing to a U.S. troop presence. Tied to the assistance is increased support for accountability in the CAR through justice initiatives, enabling leaders to prosecute perpetrators of atrocities and thereby deescalating the impetus for retaliatory violence.

Of course, American investment in the CAR should ultimately be judged by measurable outcomes, such as decreased violence and an increasing capacity for good governance. Yet the willingness to engage in limited humanitarian intervention—especially in a country with little strategic value to the U.S.—is a promising step toward balancing our values with our interests.