There is no doubt a peace deal could be transformative for the Central African Republic. Armed groups control 80 percent of the territory. Tens of thousands of people languish in internal displacement camps in the center of the country. About 1.2 million people are either refugees or internally displaced.
So there was cautious optimism last month when the parties agreed a new deal – the eighth since 2012 – in Khartoum under African Union auspices. But there are worrying signs that the peace deal is beginning to fray. Just this week reports surfaced of fighting in Basse Kotto province between Seleka from the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic on the one side, and anti-balaka on the other.
When the mostly Muslim Seleka made their way toward Bangui in late 2012, they unleashed a new and brutal wave of violence against civilians. In late 2013, the Christian and animist anti-balaka militias began to organize counterattacks. But in those attacks, civilians also became the target. Both sides executed civilians, raped women and girls or took them as sex slaves, pillaged homes, and destroyed entire villages and neighborhoods.
I’ve spent much of the past six years traveling across the country, interviewing victims and their family members, and meeting with leaders of many of the armed groups as they fractured, made alliances with former enemies, and tried to remake themselves as political parties. In all the conversations with these leaders, there was one constant refrain: “this isn’t our fault, so we should not be held accountable for what happened. If civilians suffered, then we should talk about reconciliation, not justice. Justice will only lead to more problems.”
This question of justice was crucial, if complicated, in Khartoum. A key sticking point was the question of amnesty, sought by almost all the groups. During the talks, one rebel spokesman told journalists plainly, “We must have amnesty to have peace.”
The accord itself was signed days before the draft was made public, fueling speculation that the national government had offered broad amnesty or that prosecutions were to be frozen. In the end, the agreement was vague on next steps to ensure justice for serious human rights abuses, crimes against humanity and war crimes. It does not mention specific judicial processes or recent efforts to promote justice in the country.
Representatives of some of the armed groups told me that they believe this means an amnesty has been granted, even though the word is not mentioned. They consider establishment of a Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission an alternative to criminal accountability.
But they are ignoring that the accord clearly recognizes the role impunity has played in entrenching “cycles of violence.” This important point echoes the conclusions of the Bangui Forum, national consultations held from May 4 to 11, 2015 that brought together more than 800 representatives of community and other nongovernmental organizations, political parties, and armed groups from across the country. The forum stated that “no amnesty” would be tolerated for those responsible for and acting as accomplices in international crimes.
The establishment of a Truth Commission does not in any way prevent national and international judicial systems from doing their work. And much has already been accomplished.
Among the recent efforts has been the establishment of a new tribunal in the Central African Republic’s domestic court system to try war crimes and crimes against humanity. Known as the Special Criminal Court, it formally began operations in late 2018. The International Criminal Court (ICC) also has opened an investigation into crimes committed since August 2012. Late last year, the court arrested two leaders of the anti-balaka militias that were parties to the conflict, Alfred Yékatom and Patrice Edouard Ngaissona. The national judicial system continues to prosecute Seleka and anti-balaka leaders and fighters in criminal trials.
Peace dividends that can be gained from the deal are much needed. But so are fair and, credible prosecutions of the worst crimes to help ensure that rampant abuses in the Central African Republic, fueled by the lack of accountability, are brought to an end.
The government and its international partners should make clear to the armed groups and to the civilians who have suffered since 2012 that a Truth Commission does not equal amnesty. They can do this by providing continued support for the national judiciary, the Special Criminal Court, and the ICC’s investigation and prosecution of grave crimes.