Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Evan Cinq-Mars is an advocacy officer at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and author of “Too Little, Too Late: Failing to Prevent Atrocities in the Central African Republic.”

The Central African Republic, a landlocked country of 4.6 million people, seems ready for a fresh start. Voters went to the polls on Valentine’s Day to choose their next president, and initial reports suggest the run-off between Anicet Dologuélé and Faustin-Archange Touadéra was conducted entirely peacefully.

Peace may seem nearer on the horizon than it has been for years, but whichever candidate wins will have to confront the reality that the protracted conflict that began more than three years ago is not yet over. The warnings ignored and atrocities committed serve as proof that the international community still struggles to respond to atrocity situations, despite the tools adopted by the United Nations to protect innocent civilians.

Predatory armed groups continue to control swathes of territory, which is largely ungoverned. More than 900,000 Central Africans are still displaced, with 465,000 seeking shelter in neighboring countries and 435,000 internally dislocated. Another 2.7 million people are also in need of humanitarian assistance, and half the population faces hunger.

These troubling statistics are a result of the crisis that erupted in December 2012: one that the international community failed to prevent despite clear warning signs and subsequently failed to respond to for almost two full years. Following a failed cease-fire in January 2013, President François Bozizé was overthrown by the predominantly Muslim Séléka rebel alliance in March 2013. The group’s fighters committed brutal violations of human rights, often targeting the majority-Christian population in its exactions. The Séléka’s predatory rule led to the emergence of anti-balaka (“anti-machete” in the local Sango language) militias in the summer of 2013. Fueled by real and manipulated grievances towards the Séléka, the anti-balaka took vengeance upon civilians from the CAR’s Muslim minority.

The scale of suffering since has been tremendous. The U.N. estimates between 3,000 and 6,000 people have been killed since December 2013, although it recognizes that this figure is a “radical under-estimate.” Approximately 80 percent of the CAR’s Muslim population has been forcibly displaced or killed in the carnage. An International Commission of Inquiry has called this a “policy of ethnic cleansing” by the anti-balaka and has charged both armed groups as responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Universally adopted in 2005, the Responsibility to Protect is concerned with the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity – some of the crimes committed in the CAR. Every state has the responsibility to protect its populations, and the wider international community has a responsibility to assist them in doing so. The international community must also be prepared to take appropriate action in a timely and decisive manner when a state is manifestly unable or unwilling to protect its populations.

Yet despite clear warnings of the threat of mass atrocity crimes in the CAR throughout 2013, as well as an obvious inability of any national authority to protect civilians, the international response was largely a failure. A peace-building and political support office led by the U.N. proved insufficient in a rapidly deteriorating and complex emergency, and the U.N. Security Council was slow to respond as well.

Only after warnings of potential genocide rang out in late 2013 and a surge of violence claimed more than 1,000 lives in the capital of Bangui did the council finally turn to the CAR’s former colonial power, France, to militarily intervene, followed by the scaling up of an African Union peace operation mission on the ground and a European Union-led military operation in the capital. Finally, a fully-fledged U.N. peace operation, MINUSCA, was deployed in 2014.

The influx of peacekeepers no doubt reduced further bloodshed, but the crisis continued to outpace the response. By the end of 2013, the situation had already reached a turning point: Widespread and systematic mass atrocity crimes, including killings on the basis of religious identity, had become the dominant feature of a rapidly expanding catastrophe.

The situation in the CAR demonstrates that the international community still struggles in translating early warning into timely and effective responses. Peacekeepers, tasked with the difficult job of protecting civilians, are too often ill-equipped, under-trained and insufficiently supported. Competing priorities of regional and international organizations, and among members of the Security Council, also continue to impede decisive responses to atrocity situations. These issues arose in the response to the CAR but have also hamstrung responses to other atrocity situations such as those in South Sudan and Syria.

The story of R2P implementation in the CAR may have begun with tragic failure, but it is still being written. The elections present an opportunity for the international community to stand alongside Central Africans as they say “no more” to violence through the ballot box. Assisting the government in protecting civilians, addressing impunity, fostering reconciliation and laying the groundwork for a sustainable peace will be the true tests of R2P in the Central African Republic.

Preventing mass atrocity crimes and protecting civilians are never easy policy objectives. And there should be no illusions that there will not be other failures. But failure to consistently and successfully uphold R2P is no excuse to abandon hope for the project altogether. If anything, it must strengthen the international community’s resolve to learn from cases such as the CAR and refine, as precisely as it can, the collective aspiration of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine: to end genocide and mass atrocity crimes once and for all.

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