Justice for the Central African Republic?

If we were to define one singularity of modern conflicts it would be this: they almost never pit an innocent party against a guilty party. Most of the time, warring factions share the burden of atrocity, making conflict resolution and reconstruction very challenging. The conflict that has been tearing apart the Central African Republic for nearly two years now is no exception – in fact, it exemplifies this trend. The UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic announced this week that they are recommending the establishment of an international tribunal  – with international judges –  who could objectively investigate and prosecute perpetrators of war crimes, on both sides of the conflict.

The Commissioners believe that there is no political incentive in the Central African Republic to go after war criminals – in fact, the Commissioners suggested that some political figures and members of government believe that their position gives them immunity. They added that they believed that “national judges [do not] have [the] type of independence” required for a fair process to take place at the national level. While the pursuit of justice in the CAR has barely begun, MINUSCA peacekeepers have arrested over 200 individuals since September 2014, as part of their mandate to help maintain the rule of law.

Among these individuals is prominent anti-Balaka figure, Rodrigue Ngaïbona, also known as General Andilo. One of the leaders of the anti-Balaka offensive on Bangui in 2013, he has allegedly been leading various offensives throughout the western part of the country – against Seleka, ex-Seleka, but also against other anti-Balaka factions, highlighting the fragmented nature of the militias and rebel groups which dot the country.  This week, the Central African Republic grabbed headlines for a few moments, as aid workers were abducted by anti-Balaka rebels. Analysts are saying that the abductions were in retaliation against Andilo’s arrest, and rumors are swirling that the hostage negotiations are revolving around his release.

Meanwhile, this week, the government is launching a series of popular consultations across the country (and even across borders, in countries with a high density of CAR refugees), inviting citizens to lay out their concerns, fears and expectations to government teams. These consultations, theoretically, will form the basis for the national reconciliation forum, which is slated to take place in Bangui in the coming weeks. While efforts to end impunity and bring war criminals to justice in the CAR are very slowly beginning to take shape, and reconciliation efforts are also set in motion, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Hervé Ladsous, recently warned that the atmosphere in the Central African Republic remains potentially explosive.

A protracted, unrelenting low-level conflict with sporadic outbursts of violence means the overall atmosphere in the CAR is tense. Even though the security situation has improved to a certain degree, particularly in the capital Bangui, nearly half a million people are displaced, and tens of thousands of Muslims trapped in insecure enclaves within the country are living in very dire conditions.

The Central African Republic has a long road ahead for a genuine peace and reconciliation process to take hold. Perpetrators of crimes against humanity need to be held to account – whether through a national or an international process, as suggested by the UN Commission. A reconciliation process also needs to address the grievances which created the conflict dynamic in the first place. This includes holding free and fair elections – scheduled for some time later this year – as well as institutional reform. The next several months of public consultations and negotiations, as well as the handling of war criminals, are critical in setting the CAR on the path to sustainable peace.