Destroyed homes in the Paris-Congo neighborhood of Alindao, Central African Republic. UPC fighters and armed Muslim civilians attacked the area on May 9, 2017. 

© 2017 Lewis Mudge/Human Rights Watch

It is too seldom that justice for grave crimes is pursued locally in a country that desperately needs it. But in the Central African Republic, there is cause for cautious optimism over the Special Criminal Court, the country’s first meaningful effort within its domestic justice system at criminal accountability for war crimes and similar atrocities. After nearly five years of the country’s most recent bloody conflict, rife with atrocities, the new court offers a glimmer of hope.

During a week in Bangui, the country’s capital, in early October, victims and lawyers who work on their behalf described the vital need for the recently created Special Criminal Court, a novel hybrid accountability mechanism consisting of both international and Central African judges, prosecutors, and registry staff. It forms part of the domestic national judicial system, but will operate with extensive international support.

“We hope that judgment of these matters in the Special Criminal Court will address impunity,” said one lawyer, who has helped form a collective of attorneys to represent victims of abuse. “The crimes were too much… Pregnant women had their stomachs cut open. We hope this has an educational character. People will learn that actions have consequences.” The leader of an association of war crimes victims, made a similar point. “For many decades, the executioners have never been judged,” he said. “We have no confidence in the national justice system. And the victims continue to multiply.”

But the most striking comment came from a man who works with victims of the recent conflict who was looking toward the future: “We want justice so the youth of today do not become the executioners of tomorrow.”

The Central African Republic’s national judiciary has mostly failed to address the extensive killings, torture, sexual violence, looting and destruction of villages that have spanned conflicts in the country over the past 15 years.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has two active investigations in the country, including a conviction for atrocities committed during an earlier conflict, in 2002-2003. But virtually no one has been held to account in national courts despite extensive documentation of war crimes and crimes against humanity by Human Rights Watch and many others. The Special Criminal Court, which will complement the ICC investigations, has the potential to fundamentally shift the narrative of total impunity that defines the country.

Setting up a new war crimes court is a complicated task in the best of circumstances. In the Central African Republic, the country’s infrastructure, technological capacity, and human resources are woefully ill-equipped to try complex cases, especially with fighting continuing and large parts of the country remaining outside the government’s control.

Security arrangements for local judges appointed to the court remain inadequate, their internet has failed to function, and they work from a makeshift office in an apartment building that doubles as the residence for international court staff. But these setbacks have not diminished the judges’ desire to build a functioning court that delivers justice for those affected by horrible crimes.

On the contrary, the energy and commitment for the Special Criminal Court is palpable around Bangui. At what could easily have been a dry, technical exchange at a workshop on the court’s draft rules on October 2 and 3, participants from the legal community had a robust debate among local lawyers and recently appointed court staff on specific phrases buried deep in the text. There was a passionate expression of ideas about how to deal with the issue of reparations and how the rules should align with local procedure.

There are no easy answers, but the discussions revealed an active engagement with and local investment in the court. Justice Ministry officials for their part expressed an emphatic commitment to help get the court rules promptly adopted by parliament so that the court can formally begin its work. Colonel Toussaint Muntazini Mukimapa, the Congolese magistrate serving as the court’s chief prosecutor, noted the significance of the court, calling it “a unique opportunity to write a much more beautiful page of Central African history.”

The question most prominent in the minds of activists was not whether the Special Criminal Court was needed, but rather why it is still not fully operational, particularly as armed groups continue to commit serious crimes in parts of the country. Some cited the need for greater efforts to inform Central Africans about the court and what it intends to accomplish. There is also understandable concern over how the court will protect witnesses and others who participate in proceedings given the security risks.

Even the local registrars—who will need to play a far more robust role in this hybrid court than registry staff tend to have in domestic justice systems— appear eager to work and benefit from international guidance.

To capitalize on this energy and enthusiasm, the country’s international partners will need to step up their support for this fledging institution. The UN peacekeeping mission in the country, MINUSCA, and the UN Development Program are in close partnership with the court, hammering out the complex legal, technical, and administrative tasks required to construct this new institution. Several of the staff seem to be working around the clock to make the court operational.

Still, more than half of the five-year budget for the court remains unfunded and will be dependent on voluntary contributions. Donor governments should commit sufficient funds for this enterprise so that the court’s officials can turn their full attention to the core work of investigating and prosecuting the crimes.

Indeed, the Special Criminal Court should be given the support it needs to move ahead, and to give Central Africans the chance to chart a new course after so many years of abuses without victims having access to redress.