If you had to make a reckoning of the United Nations’ failures in recent years, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Syria would both rank high on the list. The U.N.’s setbacks over Syria have been extensively chronicled. The trouble in CAR is less well-known, but equally depressing. In March this year, U.N. political officers in the persistently unstable country were caught off-guard as rebels advanced on its capital, Bangui. Their reports to New York were delayed and got no serious response—U.N. personnel were evacuated just in time, as the rebels triumphed and launched a reign of chaos that still continues.
The two cases pose different but significant threats to the U.N.’s credibility. Syria is a first-order crisis that has damaged the organization’s status. By contrast, CAR’s agonies have few geopolitical implications, as even diplomats who worry about the country admit. Its suffering is instead treated as a disturbing adjunct to the higher-profile humanitarian crises in neighboring South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo. But if the U.N. can’t get a grip on the situation in CAR, its reputation will suffer. The country is just the sort of second-order trouble-spot that the Security Council and U.N. officials are meant to prevent from escalating into greater calamities.
Last week, the Security Council took steps to revitalize the U.N.’s efforts to bring peace to both Syria and CAR. In both cases, the steps were tentative yet risky. Rather than laying out clear strategies for peace in either case, the council wants U.N. missions to probe both crises for new openings for diplomacy. This places a considerable burden on the U.N. Secretariat, which will struggle to find any breakthroughs.