Over five years of conflict in the Central African Republic has been devastating for the country’s civilians. There has been widespread killing, sexual violence, and thousands of homes destroyed. A quarter of the population has fled the violence, and, according to the Global Hunger Index, it’s one of the hungriest countries in the world. More than one million Central Africans are displaced due to conflict. Many have no access to water and food. An unprecedented judicial initiative, the Special Criminal Court, now seeks to prosecute in the Central African Republic war crimes and crimes against humanity dating back to 2003. This court could be the country’s chance to deliver justice for some of the worst crimes committed while empowering victims to participate in the process. Audrey Wabwire speaks to Elise Keppler about the new report “Looking for Justice,” and what this court could mean for victims in the Central African Republic.
Until now, how has the justice system in the Central African Republic tried to deal with cases surrounding the conflict?
No one has been prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Central African Republic. Lack of justice has fueled further crimes. When no one is prosecuted for killings, rape or attacks, perpetrators believe they can commit war crimes without consequence.
Given the years of conflict, it is perhaps not surprising that the Central African Republic’s justice system is weak and extremely under-resourced. For several years it was not able to convene any criminal sessions, let alone attempt to try cases involving war crimes and crimes against humanity. Such cases tend to involve numerous underlying incidents, complicated legal issues, and are highly sensitive.
How does the Special Criminal Court (SCC) operate? Why is it novel?
This SCC is unusual because it is based within the Central African Republic’s justice system even while it has international staffing and support. It includes international and domestic judges, prosecutors, and administrators. The court has a 5-year renewable mandate.
The court came about in 2015 after local authorities asked the United Nations for assistance in trying international crimes and the then transitional government passed legislation to create it. This set-up positions the court to deliver justice for crimes in the country, leveraging international experience and maximizing domestic relevance. When possible, the delivery of justice at home has greater potential to have impact with the communities most affected by the crimes, and the SCC could be a valuable model for other countries looking to ensure accountability for grave crimes.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) is also conducting two investigations in the country, because the Central African Republic government sought the involvement of the ICC. The ICC and SCC will complement each other’s prosecutions. The ICC focuses on those at the highest levels of responsibility and generally pursues only a small number of cases due to its limited mandate and resources.
What struck you as you spoke to people in Bangui about the SCC?
When I was in Bangui last year, I spoke to several victims of crimes committed during the conflicts, activists and justice practitioners. I was struck by how strong the desire for justice was among everyone I spoke to so that the Central African Republic can break from its past. There was a strong concern among people I spoke with that today’s victims will become tomorrow’s perpetrators if action is not taken to break the cycles of violence and if people don’t pay for their crimes. Their focus was more often on why the court has not started operating more quickly, not whether the court is needed.
At the same time, some activists were concerned that not enough information had been made available about the court to the public, and more outreach was necessary to create awareness of the Special Criminal Court. Since then, the UN has conducted a series of events to increase awareness, efforts that will need to be continued.
The country is still wracked by violence. How can the court work effectively in such an environment?
There is no question that adequate security for victims, witnesses and court staff will be essential for the court to succeed. And ensuring this security is a huge challenge. Much of the country is under the control of different armed groups, and we have seen resurgence of violence even in Bangui this month. MINUSCA, the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, is in charge of ensuring security for the Special Criminal Court. It is important that they have the necessary staffing and resources so that they can achieve this task. Even so, security will be an ongoing issue that needs to be constantly evaluated.
Parliamentarians in the Central African Republic are working to bring back the country from the devastation caused by the crisis. Why should they prioritize the Special Criminal Court now?
The recent violence in Bangui – where for example, combatants attacked a church service, killing 16 -- goes to the heart of the need to start a new chapter for the Central African Republic that includes justice. We have seen in the Central African Republic, as well as in many countries around the world, that a lack of justice tends to fuel more violence. By contrast, prosecuting perpetrators sends a signal that such abuses will not be tolerated, thereby building respect for the rule of law.
The rules for the Special Criminal Court were submitted for adoption by parliament this week. We urge parliament to enact them into law without delay so that investigations and prosecutions can formally begin as soon as possible.
What is key for the court to operate effectively?
It’s still early days, but we have seen lots of progress in the appointment of judges, prosecutors, investigators, chief registrar and other staff this year. The court had a very slow start after its founding in 2015, but now it has gained momentum. The staff have begun work in a makeshift building until renovations of the permanent premises are completed, the rules are drafted and outreach events with the public are being conducted. This is a significant development.
It is also encouraging to see that the legal community and activists are tracking the court’s development and have offered detailed input on strengthening the court’s rules. This kind of engagement can strengthen the prospects for the court’s local impact.
But if this court is to succeed it will need much more from international partners. Importantly, most of the court’s budget is unfunded at this point. The court relies on voluntary contributions, meaning that donors have to step up. We are looking to governments like the US, Netherlands, and France, which have already contributed, and to other donors like the European Union, Canada, Japan, Germany, and others committed to justice for atrocities, to support this institution.
The UN is providing crucial financial, logistical, and administrative support to the court and this will need to be continued and even increased. The desire to shift the landscape in the Central African Republic towards justice and accountability is clear, and the international community should heed this call by giving the SCC all the backing it needs to succeed.
How will victims participate in the court’s system?
Victims can be “civil parties” at the court, which means they can act alongside the prosecutor and defense counsel on cases. For example, they can request steps in the investigation and examine witnesses through their legal representative, as opposed to solely acting as witnesses. The opportunity to be civil parties puts victims at the center of the judicial process.
That said, without sufficient funding for this court, victims will not be able to bring their cases forward. People in the Central African Republic have waited far too long to see trials for grave crimes in their country. The SCC offers the chance for victims to at long last have the chance to see a measure of justice done.
This interview has been edited and condensed.