Residents of Bossangoa, Central African Republic, lie on the ground of the compound of FOMAC, the regional peacekeeping Multinational Force of Central Africa, on December 5, 2013. The residents had fled from gunfire from anti-balaka forces. FOMAC troops tried to protect people from anti-balaka attacks in the town, which lies 300 kilometers (190 miles) north of the capital, Bangui.

“Our brothers, who have attacked us, must be brought to justice,” a victim of the violence in the Central African Republic told me last week in the country’s capital Bangui.

“Justice counteracts this culture of violence… It can change the behavior, not only of criminals, but also of the state,” a human rights defender also told us.

Other victims, activists, and lawyers echoed these sentiments during my week in Bangui, along with deeply held concerns that vague provisions on accountability in the recent peace agreement could be used to sideline the delivery of justice for atrocities committed in the country.

Victims’ calls for accountability have been constant since national consultations, called the Bangui Forum, were held in 2015. These calls have been bolstered by the creation of a new Special Criminal Court that is, at last, gaining long-sought momentum.

The Special Criminal Court is unique in the Central African Republic as it has, in the words of one local activist, “a national jurisdiction, with an international dimension.” It has a combination of international and domestic judges, prosecutors, and other staff, and operates with significant United Nations logistical and other kinds of support.

The law creating the court passed in 2015, but legal, administrative, and bureaucratic obstacles delayed its official launch of operations until October 2018.

But investigations have opened at last. And outreach about the court to the country’s largely non-literate population, including through radio, theater, and cartoons, is underway. “We can finally see the beginning of the work of the Special Criminal Court,” one human rights defender told us.

Conducting investigations and protecting witnesses where armed groups control some 80 percent of the country will be an uphill battle. The court also lacks secure funding and is operating with a weak and limited infrastructure.  

But the court is the country’s best chance to render accountability for the horrific crimes that have been committed, especially since 2013. The Central African Republic government and its international partners should firmly back the Special Criminal Court.

The victims and activists I spoke to told me the future of the country depends on justice. As one human rights defender explained: “Without justice, everything else is wrecked.”