French President Francois Hollande will visit Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic today, his first visit since the nation’s new president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, took over from a transitional government on March 30, 2016. His visit comes as France is in the midst of drawing down its peacekeeping force, known as Sangaris.
The Central African Republic has been in crisis since late 2012, when the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted the government in a coup and committed widespread abuses. In mid-2013 antibalaka militia carried out large scale reprisal attacks against Muslim civilians in Bangui and western parts of the country. The result of this violence was thousands dead and almost a million people, many of them from the minority Muslim population, forced to flee their homes.
France, the former colonial power, has maintained a military presence in the country since the start of this most recent crisis and President Hollande’s visit is billed as an opportunity to support the peace and stabilization efforts of the new government. To support these efforts, he should publically and privately highlight three critical points: impunity, refugee return and peacekeeper abuses.
An important contributing factor to the violence is that almost none of those responsible for terrible human rights abuses have been held accountable. A step in tackling this impunity was taken by the transitional government when it created a Special Criminal Court. This court, established within the national justice system to complement ongoing investigations by the International Criminal Court, will consist of national and international staff and will investigate and prosecute serious crimes committed since 2003. Making this court a reality will require financial support and technical expertise. It is therefore crucial that President Hollande announce that France recognizes this court as the country’s best chance to end impunity, and pledge concrete support.
Almost half a million people, the majority Muslim, remain refugees outside of the country, while another 420,000 are displaced internally, including some 36,000 Muslims living in enclaves. President Hollande should use his visit to emphasize that the Central African Republic will never be stable while a critical part of its population – Muslims – do not feel secure to return home. Returns of refugees and displaced will not be easy in what remains a country deeply divided on sectarian lines. In order to achieve this the new government will need international cooperation, including from France, to reduce tensions, protect civilians from further attacks and disarm rebel and militia groups. The Sangaris’ drawdown should allow some flexibility to continue to support the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country and France should remain ready to increase troop numbers if needed.
Last year allegations emerged accusing French peacekeepers of raping children and demanding sex in exchange for food at a displacement camp in Bangui. If found to be true and left unresolved, these despicable crimes threaten to undermine the country’s fragile peace. President Hollande should declare that no international peacekeeper is above the law and that France will do what it takes to ensure those responsible are held to account. He should also provide details about the progress on French investigations into the abuses committed by French troops.
We have seen how French Sangaris troops helped save lives and provided stability, particularly last September when Bangui erupted in violence. While there is naturally mistrust of France following the allegations of sexual abuse, it should remain a close partner to the new Central African government. By advocating for accountability, both of rebels and its own Sangaris troops, and supporting the return of refugees and displaced, France can take the international lead in supporting the new government on a path towards stability and justice.