Justice at last in the Central African Republic, but the government’s work is not finished yet

In late October the internationally-backed Special Criminal Court in the Central African Republic (CAR) released a verdict in the chamber’s first full trial. The case was brought against three leaders of the armed group Retour, Réclamation et Réhabilitation (3R), who were found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Issa Sallet Adoum (alias Bozizé) was sentenced to life imprisonment, and his co-defendants, Mahamat Tahir and Yaouba Ousman, each received 20-year prison sentences.

All three were accused of orchestrating attacks on the northwestern villages of Koundjili and Lomouna on 21 May 2019 in which at least 46 unarmed civilians were killed and dozens more were injured. The men are said to have targeted civilian populations that did not support 3R, tying up and shooting civilians before proceeding to subject women and girls in the villages to mass rape and sexual violence.

AFP news reported one relative’s response after the verdict: ‘I was there at the attack on Koundjili, where my elder brother … was killed, along with 13 other people I knew… I am pleased with the ruling and also that the court mentioned the rape, which affected six of my sisters.’

Such an account reveals the impact of these violent attacks on close knit communities, all too familiar in CAR. However, the steps taken by the Special Criminal Court, in coordination with the government and the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), demonstrate the importance and impact of justice mechanisms in the country.

At the time of the attacks, the leader of 3R was serving as a presidential advisor, having been brought into government through the February 2019 peace agreement. The political association made for a complex governmental response. MINUSCA condemned the attack immediately, while the government of CAR called on the leaders of the movement to surrender the perpetrators of the crime to the relevant authorities. 3R representatives in government condemned the attack and pledged to cooperate with the authorities.

The trial and verdict are a momentous day for justice in CAR, and for those who were affected by the violence.

Throughout the cycles of conflict, a consistent thread in the process of securing peace has been the need for effective justice mechanisms where those responsible for atrocity attacks can be held to account. It is therefore a relief that even the presence of armed groups within the government, which initially raised questions over whether their political positions would impede the judicial process, did not prevent justice from being served in this case.

It is important to note the political situation in CAR has changed significantly since the 2019 attack. After the 2020/21 presidential and parliamentary elections, armed groups which were party to the peace agreement joined an armed offensive against the government. A new alliance named the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) was created in December 2020 after the Constitutional Court ruled that former President Francois Bozizé could not participate in the presidential election due to UN sanctions and an international arrest warrant for possible atrocity crimes. Five major armed groups which were signatories to the 2019 peace agreement, including 3R, joined the CPC and attacked government forces. President Faustin-Archange Touadéra eventually won a second term and proceeded to reframe the political arrangements due to the emergence of the CPC. Efforts are also underway to negotiate a new republican pact that will reduce conflicts and violence perpetrated by armed groups.

But while there has been progress, there are also fresh challenges.

Steps taken by the government in collaboration with so-called Russian trainers in response to the actions of armed groups in the country have resulted in gross human rights abuses. UN experts, including the Working Group on Mercenaries, have raised concerns over serious violations perpetrated by  Russian nationals connected with the Wagner Group as it operates freely in the country in coordination with the government, while human rights reports from MINUSCA have noted an increase in attacks on civilians by the national army and Russian mercenaries.

The level of violence and violations meted out against communities suspected of supporting armed groups are severe in nature and include enforced disappearances, summary executions, and sexual and gender-based violence by Russian mercenaries. There are also concerning reports of Russian mercenaries working with the national army to target the country’s minority Muslim communities in particular.

An immediate national response is essential, and central to this is the need for political will in the government to hold perpetrators of violence to account, regardless of their identity or political affiliation. Key to a response at national level is ensuing the functionality of mechanisms such as the Special Criminal Court. Judicial mechanisms work best when they have secure and unhindered access to victims, evidence collection and security to ensure that witnesses can be protected.

It is vital to have the support of the government in this work, particularly in demonstrating how to respond to threats by armed groups against civilians while maintaining cohesive social policies where post-conflict community reconstruction can thrive.

It is important that the international community works together with the government of CAR to respond to such violence, and where the government is unwilling to take action, accountability must be ensured at an international level, as any peace that is established through aggressive action that is not accompanied by justice, is no peace at all.

By CSW’s Central African Republic Team

Featured Image: A member of the Anti-Balaka armed militia poses as he displays his weapon in the town of Bocaranga Central African Republic, April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Baz Ratner