Justice Delayed is Justice Denied

Next week the United Nations’ (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) is holding a high level dialogue to assess the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR). The last time the HRC considered the situation of CAR was in September 2017, when President Faustin-Archange Touadéra made an unexpected appearance, and addressed member states, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and human rights mandate holders.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) was present during this address and noted the positive engagement CAR maintains with the UN’s human rights mechanisms, including by granting access to the Independent Expert on CAR, Ms. Marie-Therese Keita Bocoum.

End of transition was not the end of the security crisis

During his speech, President Touadéra noted that the end of the transitional government and the return to democracy did not bring an end to the security crisis in CAR. Since November 2016, armed groups that were once part of the Seleka Alliance have clashed in the north and eastern regions. This violence has been characterised by the targeting of civilians and destruction of civilian infrastructure leading to mass displacement.

Editor’s Note: CAR’s recent conflict assumed a religious dimension in March 2013 when Seleka, a predominantly Muslim rebel coalition, took power in a coup, suspending the constitution, dissolving the government and National Assembly and installing one of its leaders, Michael Djotodia, as president. In September 2013, Djotodia officially disbanded Seleka; however, many rebels refused to disarm and sectarian violence increased. Sustained and severe human rights violations eventually resulted in equally severe retributive violence following the emergence of anti-Seleka groups commonly referred to as ‘anti–Balaka’. The emergence of the anti – Balaka in December 2013 led to violence targeting CAR’s minority Muslim population, which a UN Commission of Inquiry described as ethnic cleansing. Although the anti-Balaka groups have been widely described as ‘Christian militia’, they are in reality composed of pre-existing village defence groups bolstered by former soldiers loyal to deposed President Bozize, former Seleka fighters, angry youths seeking revenge for Seleka violations and common criminals.

Other parts of the country have experienced similar violence. On 7 February 2017, a church leader was killed and three churches in the KM5 district of Bangui were razed to the ground. The attack occurred after a former Seleka leader was killed in a clash with MINUSCA, the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR. The former Seleka leader had seized a vehicle belonging to an Imam and opposed plans to rebuild Saint Matthias Church.

In the south east of the country, anti-Balaka fighters targeted the Muslim community living near Bangassou. Since May 2017 the Catholic Church has provided shelter for fleeing Muslims and almost 2,000 are currently living in the church’s compound.

In an attempt to bring about peace, in June 2017 the CAR government signed a peace agreement with the majority of armed groups. But within days of signing it, hundreds of civilians were displaced as fighting broke out between armed groups.  Over 40,000 civilians were displaced in CAR’s eastern region in the months that followed. In the north west, close to the border with Chad, 65,000 people have been displaced since 27 December 2017 as former Seleka National Movement for the Liberation of the Central African Republic (MNCL) attacked civilians. The majority of the internally displaced persons (IDP) have sought refuge in the town of Paoua, which has a population of and resources for 40,000 people. The arrival of an extra 65,000 people will put a strain on resources and may ultimately cause a rise in tensions  between the host community and IDPs.

Justice and peace are complimentary principles

President Touadéra noted that peace and justice are complementary principles.

At times in CAR’s recent crisis there has been a desire to silence the guns and bring an end to the violence. However, while efforts to engage with armed groups in order to bring about peace for the sake of civilians are important, the issue of impunity must not be neglected.

In 2016, CSW met with Jean Paul* an Evangelical church leader involved in the national peace platform. Together with Muslim and animist community leaders, he has been travelling to the country’s interior since December 2012, speaking to communities who had been attacked by the Seleka and other armed groups.

“Every time there were atrocities, acts of violence in a town I went to see for myself…I had to speak to the communities affected to get Muslims and Christians together, to speak to them that they shouldn’t be fighting; that they don’t need to take up arms against each other; that they need to be patient; that there will be justice,” he said.

“That was what I promised them, that there will be justice, but it was difficult for them to accept what I was saying, because there were dead bodies lying around.  But I had to say to them, ‘Don’t take revenge, there will be justice’”.

However, Pastor Jean Paul told CSW that as the country has transitioned into democratic rule, commitments to justice have yet to be fully realised.

Notably, the Special Criminal Court, which was created by the Transitional Government in June 2015 to try those accused of having committed serious crimes since January 2003, has not held a single hearing. Steps were taken during 2017 to move things forward, with international judges and support staff taking up positions. In February, the court’s prosecutor, Toussaint Muntazini Mukimapa, announced that investigations would begin in April.

However, the country’s judicial system has limited financial and human capacity to effectively execute its duties. As the country rebuilds, the government desperately needs to restore courts, prisons and a full criminal system to try those responsible for human rights violations during the crisis period. The international community must support President Touadéra’s government as it respond to these challenges.

A delay in justice threatens peace

Delaying the establishment of justice mechanisms threatens the work of peacebuilding and reconciliation.

Pastor Jean Paul told CSW of an incident that took place in Bangui as religious leaders met for a planning meeting. The story illustrates that failure to prosecute those who perpetrated human rights violations during the crisis risks destabilising the fragile peace that community and religious leaders have worked so hard to protect:

“I remember one particular meeting – I arranged to get together some pastors, Catholic priests and Muslim imams.  Unfortunately, there was a Catholic priest and a Muslim imam who were coming from another part of town and their driver was actually a Séléka colonel. As we were starting the meeting there was a woman who saw this Séléka driver, the colonel, and she recognised him as the man who had killed her husband.  And there was a young man who recognised the same man as the one who had killed his older brother.

“And that caused an uproar and a crowd descended and attacked the vehicle and were about to kill this Séléka driver. They wanted to carry out justice themselves. Why? Because people like this man were not being punished, they were not being prosecuted and they had to take vengeance themselves, as they saw it.

“But we as Christian pastors could not allow, could not accept that this should happen. So we rushed to this man’s protection, we took blows in his place and we managed to get him into the church building.  There were people trying to break down the doors of the church. They had respect for nobody, all they wanted was to kill this man. They set fire to the vehicle.

“People were just expressing what was in their hearts.

“If there is no justice that is what is going to happen. People will feel obliged to carry out justice themselves. And since a lot of the main killers are known to everybody, it will just lead to a never ending cycle of violence in the country.  It is essential that justice is done.”

It is important for the international community to support the government of CAR to restore peace and security across the country, but justice must be an essential element of the peace process. Leaders of armed groups who are suspected of violating international human rights and humanitarian law must be held to account, as there can be no lasting peace where impunity is allowed to reign.

By CSW’s CAR Desk Officer 

*name has been changed for security reasons.