(Brussels) - The decision to open an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into crimes committed in the Central African Republic will help to end decades of impunity, Human Rights Watch said today.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC prosecutor, announced on May 22, 2007, that he would begin an investigation into crimes committed in the Central African Republic (CAR) by parties to the conflict in the region from 2002-2003. The CAR is a party to the Rome Statute establishing the ICC, and on December 21, 2004, the government referred the situation in its country to the ICC requesting the investigation.
"The ICC investigation in the Central African Republic could bring justice to victims who've suffered years of abuses without seeing anyone held to account," said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch.
The CAR has suffered a history of political instability. In October 2002, former Army Chief of Staff François Bozizé launched a coup against then-President Ange-Félix Patassé. This led to the overthrow of Patassé's government in March 2003. During the five-month armed conflict, Patassé enlisted the support of militia from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and mercenaries from Chad and Libya, to defend the capital, Bangui, from rebel attacks. These troops are accused of committing widespread crimes in the capital and other regions, including summary executions, rape and other sexual violence, enforced disappearances, and looting.
In mid-2004, judicial authorities in CAR instituted criminal proceedings against Patassé and several military commanders for crimes committed against the civilian population. Later, the Court of Appeals recommended referring the crimes to the ICC, and the government followed this advice. The highest court in CAR subsequently confirmed the Court of Appeals decision, citing the inability of the national judicial system to effectively investigate and prosecute the relevant crimes.
The ICC prosecutor's investigation is not limited to persons or events implicated in the national proceedings. When a government has voluntarily referred crimes committed on its territory, the prosecutor must impartially investigate crimes committed by all parties to the conflict and make clear that he is independent from political influence, Human Rights Watch said.
"The prosecutor should continue to gather information on recent crimes committed in northern CAR, and on any national attempts at prosecution," said Dicker. "The ICC needs to look at the most serious crimes committed by all sides and assess whether to bring charges."
Since May 2005, Bozizé's government has been fighting two rebellions in the northeastern and northwestern regions of CAR. Government forces have perpetrated serious abuses against the civilian population in these regions, including summary executions and the wholesale destruction of villages.
The CAR has become the fourth situation under investigation by the ICC. All of the ICC's investigations to date have been pursuant to referrals by national authorities or, in the case of Darfur, by the Security Council. Opening a new investigation will require more investigators, Human Rights Watch said.
"With four investigations under way, the ICC has an enormous amount of work on its plate, and the prosecutor needs more staff to work effectively," said Dicker.
As the ICC conducts its investigation, it must bear in mind the importance of keeping the communities most affected by these crimes informed about their work and the role and rights of victims in the process, Human Rights Watch said.