After 10 months of bloody conflict that left thousands of people dead and more than half a million displaced, rebel groups in the Central African Republic signed a cease-fire on July 23 in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, promising to end violence against civilians, respect human rights and halt religious and tribal hate speech. The agreement between the Seleka and anti-balaka rebels, who have been fighting each other and brutally targeting the civilian population since September 2013, was an important milestone.
In March 2013, the largely Muslim Seleka rebels overthrew the government of President François Bozizé, which they said had committed abuses against Muslims in the northeast. After establishing an interim government in the capital, Bangui, Seleka fighters ransacked the city’s neighborhoods without concern for civilian lives, often looking for former government officials and army personnel whom they blamed for targeting and marginalizing the country’s Muslims. Bodies were discovered daily in the Oubangui and Mpoko rivers.
Outside of the capital, the Seleka attacked village after village, burning thousands of homes and killing scores of civilians as they shot at fleeing residents. Last October, while documenting the atrocities for Human Rights Watch (HRW), I walked into a bloodstained house in Bouar, in the northwestern part of the country, where Seleka fighters had massacred 18 people, mostly women and children.
In response to the violence, self-defense groups called the anti-balaka began committing large-scale reprisal attacks against Muslim civilians. (Anti-balaka means “anti-machete” in Sango, one of the main languages in the Central African Republic.) They began in Bossangoa, in the north, slaughtering hundreds of Muslims with shocking brutality. In a number of incidents, they cut the throats of young Muslim boys in front of their mothers.
In December the anti-balaka moved south and attacked Bangui, systematically destroying many Muslim neighborhoods. An estimated 300,000 Muslims fled the country. Those who remain in the western part of the country are sheltered in isolated enclaves hoping for continued protection from French and African Union peacekeepers. But anti-balaka fighters appear intent on killing those who remain. When I met with a group of anti-balaka in Berberati in March, they boasted that they were going to kill the remaining Muslims or drive them out of the country.
The latest truce is the first attempt to stop the cycle of killing that began with the Seleka’s coup. But there was one glaring omission from the agreement: Nowhere did the terms address whether those responsible for the violence would be brought to justice. Impunity for corruption and mass atrocities is an underlying ill that plagues the Central African Republic. For example, in 2008 Bozizé adopted an amnesty law that covered crimes committed, particularly in the Muslim northeast, between March 2003 and October 2008, despite unanimous opposition by rebel groups. Some of these groups went on to form the Seleka.
On a recent trip to Boali, a town about 80 km north of Bangui, a team of HRW researchers, including this writer, had to negotiate its way through 11 anti-balaka roadblocks. At each checkpoint the pattern was the same: A small group of armed men and boys stopped our vehicle and demanded money. At one point I asked a 13-year-old fighter, who called himself “captain,” if he was concerned about getting into trouble for stopping traffic and demanding money at gunpoint. He shrugged and said, “Who can stop me?”
The young captain understands there is no rule of law in CAR and no one is ever going to get arrested for committing crimes. So what incentive is there to stop?
In the weeks before the cease-fire was signed, HRW reported on the escalating violence in the eastern part of the country. At least 62 people were killed during a two-week period in June near Bambari, the Seleka military headquarters. Witnesses on both sides described the attacks as retaliatory, in a growing cycle of tit-for-tat revenge killings between the communities. Most of the victims were men and boys, hacked to death with machetes.
Efforts to re-establish law and order are met with harsh realities: Law enforcement authorities lack the means to make arrests, judicial authorities are unable to resume work outside Bangui and there is no functioning prison system. A special investigative cell established by presidential decree on April 9 still needs resources and logistical support to begin its work.
On May 30, interim President Catherine Samba-Panza formally asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor to open an investigation, acknowledging that Central African courts are not in a position to carry out the necessary investigations. A full ICC investigation would help send a signal that those responsible for the crimes in the Central African Republic might one day face justice.
At the closing ceremony, the Seleka representative, Mohammed Dhaffane, said he was signing on behalf of all Seleka rebel leaders, including Michel Djotodia and Nourredine Adam, two notorious leaders who did not attend the peace talks. “Those who refuse to take the path of peace will end up sooner or later before the judges,” said Dhaffane, as if signing the agreement had earned him and other Seleka leaders immunity.
It has not. International law is clear on the need to prosecute serious crimes. Having that clearly spelled out in the agreement would have sent a strong message that those with blood on their hands would be held accountable. Until authorities end impunity for corruption and human rights abuses, the people of the Central African Republic, who have already suffered so much, will witness still more violence. For those mediating the talks in Brazzaville, it is yet another lost opportunity to put CAR on the path to justice.