There is no doubt a peace deal could be transformative for the Central African Republic. Armed groups control 80% of the territory. Tens of thousands of people languish in internal displacement camps in the centre of the country. About 1.2-million people are refugees or internally displaced.
So there was cautious optimism last month when the parties agreed on 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 organise counterattacks. But in those attacks, civilians also became the target
Both sides executed civilians, raped women and girls, pillaged homes, and destroyed villages and neighbourhoods.
I’ve travelled across the country, interviewing victims and their families, and meeting the leaders of many of the armed groups as they fractured, made alliances with former enemies, and tried to remake themselves as political parties.
There was one constant refrain in all the conversations: “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 in Khartoum. A key sticking point was the question of amnesty. During the talks, one rebel spokesman told journalists plainly: “We must have amnesty to have peace.”
The accord was signed days before the draft was made public, fuelling speculation that the government had offered broad amnesty or that prosecutions were to be frozen. In the end, the agreement was vague on the next steps to ensure justice for human rights abuses, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Representatives of some armed groups consider the establishment of a truth, justice, reconciliation and reparation commission an alternative to criminal accountability.
But they are ignoring that the accord clearly recognises 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 in 2015 that brought together more than 800 representatives of civilian and nongovernmental organisations, political parties and armed groups. 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 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. The special criminal court began operations late last year. The international criminal court (ICC) has also opened an investigation into crimes committed since 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 needed. But so are fair and credible prosecutions of crimes to ensure that rampant abuses in the Central African Republic are brought to an end.
The government and its international partners should make clear to the armed groups and to civilians that a truth commission does not equal amnesty. They can do this by providing support for the national judiciary, the special criminal court, and the ICC’s investigation and prosecution of grave crimes.
Lewis Mudge is the Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch