People displaced by the fighting between Seleka and anti-balaka forces take shelter in an old factory on the grounds of the Catholic church in Bossangoa.

(Bangui) – The International Contact Group for the Central African Republic, due to meet on November 11, 2014, should publicly call for an end to the sectarian violence, Human Rights Watch said today. The group, meeting for the first time in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, should remind all armed actors that those responsible for grave human rights abuses will be held to account.

“Ending the violence against civilians in the Central African Republic should be the top priority at the contact group’s first meeting in Bangui,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This is a critical moment for international policy makers to say loudly and clearly that those who kill, torture, and rape will one day face a court of law. The time of impunity is over.”

The contact group includes representatives of the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union, the Economic Community of Central African States, the United States, France and the Republic of Congo. It last met in in July in Addis Ababa.

The Central African Republic has been in acute crisis since early 2013, when the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in a campaign characterized by widespread killing of civilians, burning and looting of homes, and other serious crimes. In mid-2013, groups calling themselves the anti-balaka organized to fight against the Seleka. The anti-balaka began committing large-scale reprisal attacks against Muslim civilians and others.

The deadly cycle of sectarian violence has been escalating in central and eastern parts of the country in recent months, particularly in Ouaka and Nana-Gribizi prefectures, despite the signing of a ceasefire agreement in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, on July 23.

In September, Human Rights Watch documented the killing of at least 146 people since June in and around the towns of Bambari, Bakala, Mbres, and Dekoa, all in central and eastern regions. This figure represents only a fraction of the total since many killings were in remote areas that are difficult to reach. In October there was renewed violence in Bangui that left at least a dozen people dead.

Human Rights Watch urged the contact group to issue a public declaration after their meeting reminding all armed actors that the violence against civilians should cease and that that they could one day face justice, either in national courts or before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Following a request by the transitional government, the prosecutor of the ICC announced in September that her office was opening a second investigation in the Central African Republic for grave crimes allegedly committed since August 2012.

Important efforts are also underway to strengthen the capacity of the national judicial system to handle grave international crimes. In April, Interim President Catherine Samba Panza created by decree a Special Investigative Cell and discussions are ongoing about the establishment of a Special Criminal Court.

Contact group participants should urge the interim government to fully cooperate with the ICC and to move quickly to create an effective, impartial, and fair mechanism within the CAR penal system for the investigation and prosecution of grave crimes, Human Rights Watch said. 

The group should also insist that all humanitarian actors have access to those in need and note that deliberately blocking such access is a violation of international law. 

“The people of the Central African Republic need to know that international policy makers stand with them in their desire for an end to the violence and for justice,” Bekele said. “While in Bangui, the contact group should seize the opportunity to tell the armed actors directly that they must respect international humanitarian law.”