President Faustin Archange Touadera of the Central African Republic addresses the 71st United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 23, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

One year ago, a rare feeling of hope took hold in the Central African Republic as the new president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, was sworn in. His administration replaced a transition government that struggled to establish security and stop violence over the previous two years, and his election was a peaceful and legitimate transfer of power, something uncommon in the region.

But a year on the president is trying to quell fighting in the eastern Ouaka province and by some measures the situation is worse than in March 2016. Violence has spread to the northwest, where a new rebel group, called Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation, or 3R, has killed civilians, raped, and caused large scale displacement. In the central and eastern parts of the country, human rights abuses against civilians are on the rise as fighting between various Seleka groups has increased. In October, Seleka fighters killed at least 37 civilians, wounded 57, and forced thousands to flee when they razed a camp for displaced people in Kaga-Bandoro. Thousands of students throughout Seleka controlled regions cannot study due to the presence of armed groups near their schools.

Touadéra has said repeatedly over the last year that security and justice for serious human rights abuses are priorities for his government. On both scores however, progress has been too slow.

The president took on one of the hardest jobs in the world. 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 anti-balaka militia formed to oppose the Seleka carried out large scale reprisal attacks against Muslim civilians in Bangui and western parts of the country. The violence killed thousands of people and displaced almost a million, and Seleks factions still control half the country.

As fighting increases, especially in the Ouaka province, the link between violence and justice cannot be overstated. Almost none of those responsible for the widespread human rights abuses have been held accountable. The cycles of impunity have fueled ongoing abuses and emboldened those who seek to take power by force.

The new government took over an overburdened and barely functioning judicial system, already weak before the 2013 outbreak of violence, which needs significant and sustained investment to rebuild. Trials for recent crimes were held under Touadéra’s watch, as well as in 2015, but they exposed serious flaws and weaknesses of the system, including in protecting victims and witnesses.

Since September 2014, the office of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been investigating the situation in the Central African Republic, focusing on alleged crimes in the country since August 2012, the second investigation by the ICC into crimes committed in the country. The government’s cooperation with the ICC is critical, but the ICC’s investigation, which is ongoing, will most likely only target a handful of suspects.

Another system was needed to address serious crimes and in June 2015, the Central African Republic’s then transitional president promulgated a law to establish a Special Criminal Court, consisting of national and international staff, to investigate and prosecute the gravest crimes committed in the country since 2003, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Special Criminal Court has the potential to help address more than a decade of serious crimes and help strengthen the justice system overall. More important, after years of impunity, the court offers a real chance to hold abusive commanders to account inside the country and send a warning to would-be abusive leaders that they are being watched.

At a donor conference on the Central African Republic in November, I listened as president Touadéra said, “reconciliation cannot be achieved at the cost of impunity.” The government has indicated its support for the court, but ultimately will need to do more to put this idea into practice. More than 18 months after the law was passed to create the court, investigations have yet to begin, let alone trials.

On February 15, the president appointed Toussaint Muntazini Mukimapa of the Democratic Republic of Congo as special prosecutor of the new court, an important step. However, there are still questions as to the national ownership of the court and the extent to which this tribunal is a priority.

As Touadéra’s reflects on his first year he will undoubtedly be concerned with the plight of civilians in the central and eastern parts of the country as they bear the brunt of continued fighting. But getting the Special Criminal Court up and running is the country’s best chance to break the impunity that drives this violence. The president should show international supporters, including the United Nations, that accountability is a priority in his second year. With a fully operational court by this time next year, abusive leaders may think twice about targeting civilians.  

Lewis Mudge is an Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.