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Envoy Power Visits Central African Republic Testing Views

United Nations U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaks with children in a refugee camp in Bangui after arriving to the Central African Republic on Dec. 19, 2013. Photographer: Pacombe Pabandji/AFP via Getty Images

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a prize-winning author on America’s past failures to act against genocide, arrived today in the Central African Republic to express the Obama administration’s commitment to avert further atrocities there.

“Thousands sheltered at airport seeking safety,” Power wrote in a posting on Twitter Inc. after landing in Bangui, the capital. “Has become a giant, makeshift refugee camp.” In another posting, she said she is meeting “transitional government leaders, commander of AU-France force, religious & civil society leaders, & survivors of violence.”

The trip tests Power’s role as a top policy maker after years as a journalist, scholar and behind-the-scenes government adviser who criticized governments for not doing more to deter crimes against humanity. The UN Security Council voted unanimously on Dec. 5 to back a French and African Union military operation in the Central African Republic rather than sending a UN peacekeeping force, as human-rights groups urged.

Fighting between ethnic groups in the African nation has killed more than 1,000 people as “war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed by all parties to the conflict,” Amnesty International said in a report that called for sending an international force.

“Somalia taught us what can happen in a failed state, and Rwanda showed us what can happen in a deeply divided one,” Power, who became President Barack Obama’s UN envoy in August, told reporters on a conference call yesterday before leaving Nigeria for the Central African Republic. “The people in CAR are in profound danger and we all have a responsibility which we must meet to help them move away from the abyss.”

‘Age of Genocide’

In the book that won her a Pulitzer Prize in 2003, “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” Power laid out her support for the UN’s “responsibility to protect” doctrine. The philosophy obligates the international community to intervene and protect civilians if a regime fails to protect its citizens from war crimes such as genocide or ethnic cleansing.

At the UN, the U.S. delegation led by Power lobbied against the immediate dispatch of a UN peacekeeping operation to the Central African Republic, according to a UN diplomat who asked not to be named discussing closed-door deliberations. The Americans doubted the Obama administration could win congressional support to finance UN intervention, the diplomat said.

Philippe Bolopion, a spokesman for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, said UN peacekeepers should have been dispatched because the blue-helmeted troops “are better formed, better equipped and better backed in terms of logistics.”

Transitional Leadership

While discussion has been focused on whether to send an international force, Power said yesterday, “It’s very important that I stress to you, and that we stress in CAR, that the responsibility for the people of the Central African Republic begins with the transitional leadership.”

France has deployed 1,600 troops to its former colony and there are currently fewer than 3,000 African Union soldiers on the ground. The U.S. has allocated $100 million for security support to the mission and volunteered to airlift 850 African Union troops from Burundi into the country.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a Nov. 15 report that as many 9,000 African Union soldiers will be needed to contain the lawlessness that erupted after rebels overthrew President Francois Bozize in March and allowed Michel Djotodia to seize power.

Christian-Muslim Divide

The majority of the country’s population, like Bozize, is Christian. Djotodia and most members of the security forces are Muslim as are former rebel fighters, who are mainly from the northeast and neighboring Sudan and Chad. Power will also visit Chad on her trip.

Militias, known as anti-Balaka, have looted shops and burned houses in the largely Muslim-inhabited area of Bossangoa, 400 kilometers (249 miles) northwest of Bangui, while Christians have been the target of murder, theft and arson, the UN Refugee Agency said. Even places designed to be havens aren’t safe, and French and local troops should step up patrols, it said.

About 710,000 people have been displaced within the Central African Republic since the crisis began and an additional 75,000 have fled into exile, according to the refugee agency.

U.S. Aid

The Central African Republic is the world’s 11th biggest producer of rough diamonds by volume, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The gems, along with timber exports, are the largest source of foreign exchange for the $3.6 billion economy. The country also produces oil and has deposits of uranium, the USGS says on its website.

The Obama administration said today that the U.S. is adding $15 million to the $24 million it is already providing this fiscal year for humanitarian assistance, including food distribution and refugee assistance. In addition, the U.S. has allocated $101 million to support the African-led security efforts, according to a statement issued by the White House.

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