UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council voted Friday to slightly ease the arms embargo against the Central African Republic, with Russia and China abstaining because they wanted a greater easing of the weapons ban to help the government's forces combat armed groups and protect the population.
The vote on the French-drafted resolution — 13-0 with the two abstentions — followed contentious negotiations in the 15-member council over the extent the arms embargo should be eased. At one point Russia presented a rival draft resolution, diplomats said.
Acting U.S. Deputy Ambassador Cherith Norman Chalet expressed deep concern after the vote that Russia's ambassador to Central African Republic had publicly stated that council members that disagreed with Moscow's position opposed peace in the country and were against the interests of its people.
"In fact nothing could be further from the truth," she said.
While council members differ over the elements of an effective sanctions regime, Chalet said, "all of us are engaged on this matter because we want to see peace and security in the Central African Republic and elevate the interests of the Central African people."
Central African Republic has faced deadly interreligious and intercommunal fighting since 2013, when predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the capital, Bangui. Mostly Christian anti-Balaka militias fought back, resulting in thousands of people killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. The impoverished country saw a period of relative peace in late 2015 and 2016 but violence intensified and spread afterward. In February 2019, the government signed a peace agreement with 14 armed groups.
In response to the peace agreement and progress in reforming its security sector, the Security Council gave a green light last September for the country's security forces to be supplied with weapons with a caliber of 14.5 mm or less, and ammunition for them, with at least 20 days advance notification and specific requirements including that they not be transferred or sold.
The resolution adopted Friday goes further, allowing the government forces to be supplied with military vehicles and vehicles mounted with weapons with a caliber of 14.5 mm or less, with the same notification procedures.
The previous arms embargo was extended for one year but Friday's resolution only extends it for six months, until July 31, 2020.
It requests Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in close consultation with the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country and the panel of experts monitoring sanctions, to report by June 30 on the government's progress in implementing benchmarks that could guide a review of the arms embargo. These include security sector reform, the demobilization and reintegration of combatants, and the management of weapons and ammunition.
France's Deputy Ambassador Anne Gueguen told the council after the vote that "against a security backdrop which is still unstable" it's important that the council assist Central African authorities toward meeting the benchmarks, which is "a key element for enduring peace and security" in the country.
Niger's U.N. Ambassador Abdou Abarry, speaking on behalf of the three African council members including South Africa and Tunisia, said the resolution "will pave the way for armed forces to reequip themselves so they can regain control over the entire country and push back the armed groups that continue to threaten peace and security."
The Central African Republic's government has called for the lifting of the arms embargo.
Russia's Deputy Ambassador Dmitry Polyansky and China's Deputy Ambassador Wu Haitao said the Security Council should have gone further in easing sanctions.
"The arms embargo against the Central African Republic might have been beneficial at the early stages," Polyansky said. "However, currently it is, de facto, an obstacle to the rearming of the national army and the security forces — the very institutions that bear the primary responsibility for ensuring security and peace of their own citizens. Meanwhile, the spoilers of the peace process have no obstacles when it comes to obtaining arms through trafficking."
He said Russia intends to review the sanctions in July when the arms embargo must be renewed again "with a view to their easing and ultimately their full lifting."
Wu said the council should lift sanctions "at an early date," citing improving security in the country and progress on meeting the benchmarks.