Jean Baptiste Nguondija, a resident of Ngbada, Central African Republic, by the grave of his 10 year-old daughter Nathana Poura. Nguondija has lost 5 children since the conflict began in 2013. 

©2015 Lewis Mudge/Human Rights Watch

Last week, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region met in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss “combating impunity and upholding human rights as key contributors to peace and security.” Representatives from the organization’s 12 member states, the United Nations, and the African Union, as well as civil society representatives, including Human Rights Watch, participated in the three-day meeting. The group took the opportunity to strengthen its commitment to securing justice for victims of atrocities across the region.

In their closing declaration on May 15, the region’s justice ministers acknowledged that greater efforts are required to “uphold human rights, promote justice, and eradicate impunity.” To achieve these goals, they approved a series of specific recommendations, such as ratifying relevant international legal instruments, increasing the budgets allocated to the justice sector, helping victims obtain reparations, and strengthening domestic efforts to investigate and prosecute grave international crimes, including through the creation of specialized units of investigators and prosecutors working solely on these types of cases.

Addressing widespread impunity for serious crimes is crucial to building respect for human rights and long-term stability in the Great Lakes region. Failure to ensure accountability for grave crimes has time and time again paved the way for outbreaks of violence, while the credible threat of prosecution can have a positive deterrent effect and send a powerful message to those contemplating carrying out or aiding serious crimes.

While the organization’s latest efforts should be commended, the declaration is not binding, and risks sounding like a broken record in the absence of political will to confront known abusers occupying senior positions.

Governments in the region should swiftly implement the Nairobi recommendations and their international partners should support them in these efforts. The countless victims of atrocities and human rights violations in the Great Lakes region need more than just words.