Responding to Mass Atrocities
The Central African Republic (CAR) is a large and sparsely populated state that had limited government presence even before the current crisis. The absence of effective state security institutions and the continued targeting of civilians by former Séléka factions and anti-balaka militias put the people of CAR at high risk for further mass atrocities.
In September 2014, the United Nations (UN) authorized a peacekeeping operation known as MINUSCA to address insecurity in CAR. The mission’s activities have included supporting the democratic transition, providing humanitarian assistance, protecting human rights and rule of law, and facilitating demobilization and reintegration activities. As of April 2021, MINUSCA has deployed over 17,000 personnel, including military, police, and civilians. The UN General Assembly finances the mission, with the approved 2020–21 budget exceeding $1 billion.
The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) called on all actors to “stop attacking civilians and committing crimes” or run the risk of ICC prosecution. Subsequently, the chief prosecutor’s office opened a preliminary investigation into these crimes in February 2014 and that September it concluded there was justification for proceeding with an investigation, which remains ongoing.
Throughout the conflict, former Séléka and anti-balaka fighters and the coalition of rebel groups known as the Patriots for Change (CPC) have used violence against civilians as a tactic of war, emboldened by lack of accountability for such crimes. The ICC only has the capacity to try a small number of high-level commanders, leaving the national judicial system to investigate and prosecute the majority of perpetrators.
In May 2015 political actors, civil society representatives, some armed actors, and stakeholders from other sectors of society convened at the Bangui Forum. Participants agreed on the need for justice and national reconciliation. In June 2015, the transitional government approved the creation of a Special Criminal Court (SCC), a hybrid body within the Central African judicial system composed of both national and international staff.
In February 2020 the Bangui criminal court convicted five anti-balaka leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection to the 2017 Bangassou attacks, in which over 600 anti-balaka fighters attacked MINUSCA base and the city’s Muslim residents. This marked the first conviction for crimes under international law since the beginning of the conflict.
The SCC confirmed in September of 2020 that ten cases were under investigation, while at least 21 individuals were arrested between 2019 and 2020 and in pre-trial detention.
Peace talks advanced in February 2019 when the Central African government signed an agreement with 14 armed groups in control of much of the country. The Khartoum Agreement aims to integrate rebel fighters into the national army and rebel leaders into government.
Success of the agreement has so far been limited. The UN Secretary General released a report in mid-2019 noting that 50 to 60 peace agreement violations are recorded each week. These violations are committed primarily by armed groups against civilians in the form of violence, illegal taxation, and obstruction of deployment of state authority. Armed groups maintain control over much of the country, with some having even increased their regional influence. Violations of the agreement have gone largely unpunished. President Touadéra has also failed to meet his commitments under the agreement, including reforming national security forces and ending impunity.
In addition to authorizing MISCA and MINUSCA, the UNSC took the following actions between 2013 and 2021 to respond to the atrocities being committed in CAR:
- Established an arms embargo, a panel of experts, and a sanctions committee
- Inaugurated a commission of inquiry to investigate violations of international humanitarian and human rights law and abuses of human rights, as well as to monitor “hate propaganda” in an effort to limit its impact and deter would-be perpetrators
- Issued travel bans and asset freezes for leaders and perpetrators of the violence
- Repeatedly called for increased human rights monitoring capacity
- Issued multiple statements from the Secretary General, the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and other high-level UN officials on the severity of the situation
During the same period, the United States has attempted to mitigate violence by:
- Confirming a new Ambassador and resuming operations at the US embassy in Bangui to assist in coordinating international responses to the crisis; the embassy had been shuttered due to security concerns at the start of the conflict
- Sending senior US officials on multiple visits to CAR to meet with local political and religious leaders as well as with officials from the UN
- Working with UN partners to impose targeted sanctions on individuals and entities contributing to the violence
- Encouraging media to disseminate messages from religious leaders urging peace and reconciliation
- Recording, translating, and playing on local radio a statement by former President Obama urging an end to the violence
- Developing Voice of America radio programs featuring religious leaders from the US and the Central African Republic who support ending the atrocities
- Supporting the creation of a network of local community and interfaith religious leaders for promoting peace and reconciliation efforts
- Providing logistical and technical support for countries committing troops to MISCA
- Allocating $177 million in 2020 and $60 million thus far in 2021 making the US the top country donor of humanitarian aid
- Allocating $281 million in 2020 to MINUSCA’s budget, making the US its largest contributor