The peace accord between the government of the Central African Republic and armed groups that was signed on February 6, 2019 should not deter or displace efforts to deliver justice for the gravest crimes committed during the conflict, Human Rights Watch said today.
The accord to end a conflict that has claimed thousands of lives was negotiated by the African Union during 18 months of talks with the groups, while they continued to carry out brutal attacks on civilians. Violence in the northern and eastern parts of the country has intensified in recent months, including multiple attacks on camps for internally displaced people. About 1.2 million people are displaced by fighting across the country.
“With multiple war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during this conflict, and over a million people displaced, many across the Central African Republic are desperate to see it end,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But efforts to bring those responsible for the worst crimes to justice need to be an integral part of the resolution, and a general amnesty should be out of the question.”
The accord was finalized in Khartoum, Sudan but signed by 14 armed groups in the Central African Republic. Members of some of the groups are suspected of numerous grave abuses against civilians, including murder, rape, sexual slavery, torture, looting, persecution, and destruction of religious buildings. The people responsible for these acts can be prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The accord is vague on steps needed to ensure post-conflict justice and does not mention specific judicial processes, or recent efforts to promote justice in the country, though it recognizes the role impunity has played in entrenching violence. Among the recent efforts in the country has been the establishment of the Special Criminal Court, a new court in the domestic system mandated to try war crimes and crimes against humanity. It formally began operations in late 2018, with international participation and support.
In addition, at the request of the then-transitional government, in May 2014 the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened investigations into crimes committed since August 2012. The court arrested two leaders of the anti-balaka militias that were parties to the conflict, Alfred Yékatom and Patrice Edouard Ngaissona, in late 2018.
The government and its international partners should continue to support the national judiciary, the Special Criminal Court, and the ICC’s investigation and prosecution of grave crimes, Human Rights Watch said.
One example of the recent violence was the killing of at least 19 men and a 14-year-old boy on January 20 in Zaorossoungou, in Mambéré-Kadéï province, in the southwestern part of the country. Earlier, on January 12, unknown assailants killed at least three Peuhl herders, two of them women, outside of Zaorossoungou.
“I hid in the bushes when the attack started,” a 45-year-old woman who survived the January 20 attack told Human Rights Watch. “When it was over, I went out and there were bodies everywhere. I saw the body of my son, Jean Claude [20-years-old]. He had been shot in the back.”
Central African victims, activists, and justice practitioners continue to reaffirm an urgent and unequivocal demand for justice for the war crimes and crimes against humanity in the country since the crisis started. This sentiment was expressed on December 10, 2018, when survivors of sexual violence took the floor in parliament to mark Human Rights Day. “The slowness of justice is yet another crime for victims of sexual violence related to the conflict,” Bernadette Sayo, an activist, said at that gathering .
National consultations from May 4 to 11, 2015, known as the Bangui Forum, prioritized justice over amnesty, and stated that “no amnesty” would be tolerated for those responsible for and acting as accomplices in international crimes. The forum brought together more than 800 representatives of community and other nongovernmental organizations, political parties, and armed groups from across the country. It recognized that the lack of justice in the Central African Republic since 2003 was one of the main causes of successive crises.
However, a key sticking point at the Khartoum talks was the issue of amnesty, sought by almost all armed groups. On January 29, during the talks, Abakar Saboun, the spokesman for one of the armed groups, the Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic (Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique, FPRC), told journalists, “If we want peace, we need to give amnesty to certain persons… I ask the Central African people… to accept an apology from those who have committed crimes, a sincere apology. We must have amnesty to have peace.”
The FPRC, which controls large parts of the country’s northeast, has committed numerous serious abuses since 2014.
The Bangui Forum remains the only formal effort to ascertain the will of the Central African people and its clear stance on impunity should be respected, Human Rights Watch said. Any attempt at amnesty, as many armed group leaders now demand, would defy international commitments the Central African Republic has undertaken to ensure investigations and prosecutions of grave crimes.
“The Special Criminal Court is an unprecedented effort to help deliver justice and needs support now more than ever,” Mudge said. “The court remains one of the best chances to provide justice and to end the cycles of violence that have plagued the Central African Republic for decades.”
The Central African Republic’s current crisis began in late 2012, when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted President François Bozizé and seized power through a campaign of violence and terror. In response, anti-balaka groups were formed and began carrying out reprisal attacks on Muslim civilians in mid-2013. African Union and French forces pushed the Seleka rebels out of the capital, Bangui, in 2014.
After two years of an interim government, relatively peaceful elections were organized and Faustin-Archange Touadéra was sworn in as president in March 2016. Violence and attacks against civilians have continued under Touadéra, with Seleka factions and anti-balaka groups still controlling large swathes of the country, especially in the eastern and central regions.
The Khartoum Peace Deal
The peace accord seeks to “definitively eliminate” the causes of the conflict and promote national reconciliation. Armed groups promise to end “all hostilities and forms of violence” against, among others, aid workers and civilians and eventually to dissolve. Some fighters from armed groups will be incorporated into “special mixed security units,” which would also include members of the country’s national security forces. All signatories commit to “renounce the use of armed force” and are subject to international sanctions if they don’t.
A key sticking point in the talks had been the question of amnesty, which was a priority for the armed groups.
Hassan Bouba, the political coordinator for Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique, UPC), told Human Rights Watch on February 16 that for the UPC the peace deal means a general amnesty, despite a change in the accord’s language, which leaves the word “amnesty” out. “If the government arrests a member of an armed group, then there is no more accord,” he said.
The self-proclaimed General Sidiki Abass, the commander of 3R, a rebel group based in the Ouham Pendé province that also signed the accord, told Human Rights Watch that the recommendations of the Bangui Forum were irrelevant and that all judicial cases should stop so that transitional justice can be put in place. “If the Special Court and the national courts continue work [on crimes committed during the conflict] it will cause problems,” he said
The accord notes that all signatories recognize “the fight against impunity” but does not mention amnesty. The accord also acknowledges that impunity has “entrenched an infernal cycle of violence, weakened the judiciary, led to massive violations of human rights, international humanitarian law, and the mistrust of the population with regard to the state.”
However, the accord does not mention specific judicial processes to bring justice for the crimes. Instead, it calls for the establishment of a Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (Commission de la verité, justice, reconciliation et reparation, CVJRR). It also calls for establishing an “Inclusive Commission,” consisting of all parties to the accord, which will “examine all aspects related to the tragic events of the conflict” and “make proposals on justice” to the Truth Commission.
A February 8 presidential decree mandates that the government to appoint eight members on the “Inclusive Commission,” whereas armed groups will have five.
Accounts from Survivors of Attacks in January 2019
Residents of Zaorossoungou said that women fled the village after the Peuhl herders were killed on January 12 when the people heard that fighters from 3R, “Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation,” were coming to seek revenge for the three Peuhl killed on January 12.
3R has killed at least several dozen civilians in the Ouham Pendé province since 2015, including in De Gaulle on September 27, 2016, when they killed at least 17 people and raped at least 23 women and girls. Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm if 3R was responsible for the January 20 attack on Zaorossoungou. Another armed group, linked with 3R and called Siriri (“peace” in Sango, the national language), maintains a presence in the area.
Human Rights Watch spoke with four residents of Zaorossoungou who saw the attack on the village. The mother of 19-year-old Michel Bekondou and 14-year-old Gideon Dobele told Human Rights Watch how her children were killed just outside the village:
We were walking back to the village from some fields when we heard the attack. We moved forward slowly and suddenly the attackers found us. They told us to sit down, and then they shot Michel in the back. Gideon got up and started to run, but they shot him down too. One pointed his gun at me, but another fighter said, “Don’t kill the woman.” Later I found some people who helped me bury their bodies. I don’t know what to say about this. All I can say is that I wish the attackers had killed me too. I have nothing to live for.
In a meeting with Human Rights Watch in Bangui on February 10, Abass, the commander of 3R, said that his men were not responsible for the killings in Zaorossoungo and that they have never participated in any human rights abuses whatsoever. This assertion directly contradicts Human Rights Watch research and United Nations findings.
Human Rights Watch also spoke with six residents of Ippy, including two survivors, who described an incident when a fighter from the UPC killed 15 civilians, including 5 children, on January 23 during a funeral ceremony. The UPC fighter arrived at the burial site, with another UPC fighter, who was unarmed, around 9:30 p.m., while people were singing and dancing. Without warning, the armed fighter, known as Ali, opened fire on the group.
“I fell down after I was shot in the stomach,” a 17-year-old survivor told Human Rights Watch. “Once the shooting started, it was total chaos.”
“I was with the other people and saw Ali approach us with his gun,” a 12-year-old survivor said. “He took a step back and just shot his gun at us. I was shot in the left ankle.” A 45-year-old survivor said: “When the shooting started, I ran. It seemed to only last a few seconds, but there were so many dead people afterwards…We buried the bodies in a mass grave the next day. There were so many children there. I don’t know why he would shoot on unarmed people like that.”
Residents of Ippy told Human Rights Watch that in the days following the killings, the UPC commanders publicly executed Ali and the companion who was with him while he killed the people at the funeral.
UPC fighters, who control large parts of central Ouaka province, have killed at least hundreds of civilians, raped dozens of women, and burned thousands of homes since 2014.