Can sanctions stop Dangerous Speech in the Central African Republic?

In January 2018, for only the third time in history, the UN issued sanctions regarding speech: this time against the Central African Republic (CAR).  The unanimously adopted resolution was particularly notable for its inclusion of incitement to hatred as an act that could trigger sanctions. But are sanctions really an effective method to quell Dangerous Speech?

UN sanctions are non-military penalties and can include actions such as the imposition of travel bans, arms embargoes, targeted asset freezes, and even comprehensive trade restrictions. Some of these, such as arms embargoes, are aimed at entire countries. Others, like travel bans and asset freezes, are imposed directly on individuals who violate the conditions established by the sanctioning committee. As speech-related sanctions are designed to change the behavior of individuals, the accompanying punishments are also on the individual level.  Since the UN Security Council began issuing sanctions in 1966, they have established 26 sanctioning regimes.[1] 14 of these are ongoing.

The UN’s sanctioning body in the CAR, known as MINUSCA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic) has been in place since 2013, after local violence escalated and increasingly began occurring along ethnic and religious lines. Over the years, the UN has extended the sanctioning regime to reflect the current situation in the CAR, including the 2018 addition of “incitement to violence” as a charge that can trigger the imposition of individual sanctions. Paragraph 22 of the resolution condemns “all acts of incitement to violence, in particular on an ethnic or religious basis, that undermine the peace, stability or security of the Central African Republic.”[2]  The resolution also states that individuals or entities found to have committed such incitement may be held accountable by travel bans or asset freezes.

The decision to include incitement to violence in the sanctioning regime came at the recommendation of a panel of experts. Although now largely characterized as a religious war, the current wave of violence, which started in 2012, began as primarily a political battle. As a response to then-President François Bozizé’s economic and political neglect of largely Muslim areas of the country, various rebel groups, known collectively as Séléka, began claiming territory throughout the country. By 2013, the Séléka forces had taken the capital. Bozizé fled the country, and militia groups calling themselves “anti-Balaka” sprung up in his support.[3] The conflict continued, despite a peace agreement, and groups within the country increasingly divided along religious line, creating a de facto partition, with Christian anti-Balaka militias controlling the south and west and primarily Muslim ex-Seleka forces remaining in the north and east of the country.[4] An estimated 5,000 people have died[5] in the current wave of violence, while an additional 601,600 people have been displaced from their homes.[6]

Dangerous rhetoric, particularly aimed at Anti-Muslim groups and UN peacekeepers, has reached notable levels in the country. The panel noted specifically that, although the rhetoric was not new, it was increasingly being spread by politicians, army officers, other political leaders, and “traditional and religious authorities.”[7] The narratives being used by these speakers framed Muslims as foreigners and supporters of ex-Séléka militia groups. At the same time, anti-balaka groups reframed themselves as “self-defense groups,” giving the impression that Muslim groups pose a threat to Christians in the CAR.  Violence against civilians has been committed by both Christian and Muslim militia groups, but according to Médecins Sans Frontières, it has been particularly strong against groups that the anti-balaka rebels view as “foreigners,” including Muslims, Arabs, and Fulani populations.[8]

UN peacekeepers have also become targets of Dangerous Speech, as any actions taken to protect Muslim communities in the CAR are immediately reframed as active support of ex-Séléka fighters and therefore active hostility against Christian groups in the south. In one instance, on August 7, 2017, Member of Parliament Michel Kpingo gave a radio interview in which he accused Moroccan peacekeeping forces of complicity with ex-Séléka groups who, he stated, were slaughtering civilians.  The same MP had earlier in the year justified the killing of five peacekeepers in the village of Yongofongo as an act of self-defense, arguing that the victims had provided support to Muslim fighters who were preparing to attack Christian groups.[9]

These examples illustrate several of the hallmarks of Dangerous Speech, including framing the target group as an immediate threat to members of the in-group, thereby justifying violence as “self-defense.”[10] The inclusion of peacekeepers as a target also highlights the manner in which those seen as sympathetic to a target group are quickly lumped together with that group, making attacks against them also seem justified.

The situation in the CAR also points to the importance of speaker authority and other contextual factors in encouraging the audience to hear particular messages as calls to condone and commit violence. For example, the UN’s panel of experts noted that hateful speech was now being spread by influential members of communities, making it particularly likely to mobilize violence. Years of conflict and political turmoil have also created a context in which the audience for these messages is particularly fearful and economically desperate – qualities that predatory armed groups have specifically exploited in their recruitment of members and support.[11]

This is not the first time that the United Nations has attempted to fight hateful speech and incitement to violence through sanctions. In 2004, the Security Council passed a resolution expanding the mandate of their Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI).[12] The resolution was, in part, responding to increasing “hate messages” promoting ethnic division and xenophobia being issued by political leaders. In efforts to block the opposition, political leaders endorsed hateful Dangerous Speech against people described as not real Ivoirians.[13] The new resolution demanded that the Ivorian government “stop all radio and television broadcasting inciting hatred, intolerance and violence” and authorized the use of travel bans and asset freezes against any “person who incites publicly hatred and violence.”

In 2016, the concepts of hate speech and incitement to hatred were also incorporated into the sanctioning regime of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). In section 7(b) of a resolution passed to extend the mission’s mandate for one year, the Security Council authorized the mission to “monitor, investigate and report on incidents of hate speech and incitement to violence in cooperation with the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide.”[14] In contrast to the mandates issued for the Central African Republic and Côte d’Ivoire, however, the UNMISS sanctions do not spell out potential consequences for those who create or spread hate speech. This leaves the UNMISS mandate far more focused on monitoring and reporting hateful speech and incitement than on actually compelling a change of behavior through the threat of sanctions.

But can the imposition of sanctions designed to punish those who engage in creating or spreading hate speech actually change behavior? Scholars and policymakers have long debated the efficacy of other types of sanctions.[15] One thing on which most experts do agree, however, is that for a sanction to be effective, the threat of punishment must be credible. For example, in the case of Côte d’Ivoire, then UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide Juan Méndez made a point to “remind” political leaders that if they continued to incite ethnic violence through hate speech, their actions could be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The UN Secretary general asserted that after the implementation of sanctions and the issuing of this “reminder,” the rhetoric quickly abated.[16]

In the Central African Republic, at least so far, the threats imposed by UN sanctions have been less effective. There are several reasons for this. First the United Nations does not hold a great deal of legitimacy within the region. As described above, peacekeepers are seen as complicit in the battle between anti-Balaka and ex-Seleka groups. With multiple failed peace agreements, many leaders on both sides see a military victory as the only possible durable solution for the country. The UN’s neutral diplomatic mission is therefore met with suspicion. In addition to this, peacekeepers in the country have themselves been charged with violations of human rights, limiting their regional legitimacy.[17]

Second, the 2013 sanctions have been only partially enforced. 11 individuals, including former president François Bozizé, have been banned from leaving their country and technically have been subject to having their outside assets frozen. In their report, however, the panel of experts tasked with making recommendations to the sanctioning committee found that the sanctions were toothless. The report noted that, despite the Chair of the MINUSCA committee sending multiple notifications to government leaders in the CAR reminding them of their obligation to enforce sanctions, it has yet to freeze the assets of those who violated of the UN sanctions. There have also been violations of the travel ban, with evidence suggesting that President Bozizé has continued to travel using forged identification documents.[18] All of these factors taken together make the threat of punishment for incitement to hatred significantly less credible, and therefore much less likely to diminish Dangerous Speech.



[1] Southern Rhodesia, South Africa, the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, Iraq, Angola, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Eritrea, Liberia, DRC, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan (2), Lebanon, DPRK, Iran, Libya (2), Guinea-Bissau, CAR, Yemen, South Sudan and Mali, as well as against ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida and the Taliban (2).

[2] “Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2399 (2018), Security Council Extends Sanctions Regime against Central African Republic.”

[3] As Graeme Wood notes, “In the national language Sango, balaka means machete, and in French, balles-AK refers to bullets from AK-47’s.”

[4] McCormick, Ty. “One Day, We Will Start a Big War.” Foreign Policy. October 28, 2015.

[5] Amnesty International. “Central African Republic: Mandated to Protect, Equipped to Succeed? Strengthening Peacekeeping in Central African Republic.” February 8, 2016.

[6] Council on Foreign Relations. “Global Conflict Tracker: Violence in the Central African Republic.” March 29, 2018.!/conflict/violence-in-the-central-african-republic

[7] United Nations Security Council. “Letter dated 6 December 2017 from the Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic extended pursuant to resolution 2339 (2017) addressed to the President of the Security Council.” Page 16, II.A(63).

[8] Médecins Sans Frontières“Central African Republic: Renewed violence threatens people and healthcare in Bria.” January 31, 2018.

[9] United Nations Security Council. “Letter dated 6 December 2017 from the Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic extended pursuant to resolution 2339 (2017) addressed to the President of the Security Council.” Page 18, II.A(72).

[10] For more information, see the concept of “accusation in a mirror”:

[11] Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. “Central African. March 15, 2018. Republic.”

[12] UN Security Council. “Security Council Imposes Immediate, 13-Month Arms Embargo on Côte d’Ivoire Unanimously Adopting Resolution 1572 (2004).”

[13] Afrol News. “Genocide Concerns over Côte d’Ivoire Hate Speech.” November 15, 2004.

[14] UN Security Council. “Adopting Resolution 2327 (2016), Security Council Grants Mandate Extension of United Nations Mission in South Sudan, Considers Possible Sanctions.” December 16, 2016.

[15] See Crawford, Neta C., and Audie Klotz. “How sanctions work: a framework for analysis.” How sanctions work. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1999. 25-42. See also Dashti-Gibson, Jaleh, Patricia Davis, and Benjamin Radcliff. “On the determinants of the success of economic sanctions: An empirical analysis.” American Journal of Political Science (1997): 608-618.

[16] UN General Assembly. “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect. Report of the Secretary-General.” January 12, 2009. Page 24.

[17] Searcey, Dionne. “U.N. Peacekeepers Accused of Rape in Central African Republic.” The New York Times. February 4, 2016.

[18] United Nations Security Council. “Letter dated 6 December 2017 from the Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic extended pursuant to resolution 2339 (2017) addressed to the President of the Security Council.” Page 11, II.B(32).