CAR Peace Agreement

Rethinking Transitional Justice in the Central African Republic as Part of the 2030 Agenda

Representatives of the government, international partners, and representatives of armed groups in the Central African Republic that signed the Khartoum Agreement meet in Bangui, on August 23, 2019, during a review meeting of the signatories of the agreement six months after the signing. (FLORENT VERGNES/AFP/Getty Images)

Countries emerging from or dealing with violent conflict in which large-scale human rights violations were or are being committed face immense obstacles in attaining sustainable peace and development. These obstacles can include a massive number of victims, widespread grievances, lack of trust, deep social divisions, and weak or illegitimate institutions. Furthermore, victims of human rights violations are often among the most marginalized and excluded members of society. What has been called the “justice gap” is often greatest in conflict-affected countries.

In these contexts, addressing the legacies and causes of human rights violations can constitute important contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. As articulated by the Working Group on Transitional Justice and SDG16+, an initiative convened by the International Center for Transitional Justice, transitional justice can advance a range of SDG targets. It can help to make institutions more inclusive, strengthen the rule of law, increase access to justice, prevent the recurrence of violence, foster gender equality, and reduce inequality and corruption. Such contributions cannot be taken for granted, however, as they depend on transitional justice incorporating context-specific innovations, meaningful victim participation, and balancing the risks of potential short-term instability with the benefits of long-term change.

At the United Nations High-Level Political Forum in July and the recent SDG Summit in September, the Central African Republic (CAR) was among the member states to submit a Voluntary National Review, in which the government reports on progress it has made toward achieving the 2030 Agenda. As is foreseeable, the country will not be able to achieve its commitments by 2030 unless immediate and intensified measures are promptly taken.

The review is particularly alarming when it comes to SDG16 on peaceful, just, and inclusive societies, which highlights the need for extensive reform to make justice independent and impartial as well as the deep gender inequalities and extensive corruption in most sectors of the country. As shown by a 2018 Harvard Humanitarian Initiative survey, half of Central Africans do not trust the national justice system. Transitional justice can help to break this impasse.

“Zero-impunity” has been a buzzword in CAR since the very early stages of the crisis that started with the 2013 coup. Once the wave of inter-community violence seemed over in 2014, Central African leaders promised their citizens that there would be no peace without justice. Although what they had in mind was mainly bringing rebel leaders to justice and consolidating their own power, their pledge genuinely responded to the longstanding demand for justice from the majority of Central Africans. Indeed, no transitional justice initiatives were undertaken after the widespread human rights violations committed by Chadian mercenaries and Jean-Pierre Bemba’s troops in 2003, or after the abuses perpetrated by rebel groups and the national army in 2006 and 2007. The 2013–2014 sectarian violence made the need for justice even more pressing.

Justice was therefore set as a priority. The 2015 National Reconciliation Forum (the so-called “Bangui Forum”) agreed upon the creation of a Special Criminal Court (SCC) to judge human rights violations committed since 2003 and recommended the establishment of the Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission (TJRRC). Then in 2016, the National Recovery and Peacebuilding Plan (RCPCA) emphasized justice reform and the end of impunity as requirements for sustainable peace. The international community swiftly mobilized technical and financial support. The European Union and the UN system (mainly the peacekeeping mission MINUSCA and the UN Development Programme) supported the restoration of the national justice system and the creation of the SCC.

Central Africans have rarely been so hopeful as in 2016. People were making lists of the losses they suffered during the conflict; spontaneous associations of victims appeared all around the country; rumors circulated that prosecutors and judges were about to be deployed in remote areas. This was a historic opportunity. Before the current crisis, the CAR justice system was highly dysfunctional and costly, and most disputes were settled through out-of-court agreements. The population did not trust national judges, and corruption was common. The transitional justice measures planned at that time could have helped to make justice more accessible to people previously excluded from the system, creating the kind of trust between state and citizens that hardly existed before. Those measures could also have reduced inequalities and marginalization, especially regarding the Central African Muslim minority, which was brutally targeted in the 2013–2014 violence and mostly forced to flee to neighboring countries.

Since 2016, some positive results have been achieved. The criminal courts in Bangui, Bimbo, Berberati, and Bambari held hearings and convicted several members of armed groups. The SCC finalized its prosecution strategy and officially launched investigations in late 2018. However, further violence has not been prevented, impunity remains widespread, and the expectations of Central Africans on justice have fallen. Nevertheless, the window of opportunity is not entirely closed. There are still important measures that can address past abuses within the peace and development framework of the 2030 Agenda and reduce the justice gap in CAR.

First, alternative justice mechanisms should be better integrated with justice institutions. So far, the establishment of the national justice system has been prioritized entirely over the strengthening of other dispute resolution mechanisms. However, in CAR, as the World Bank put it, people “do not see tribunals dispensing justice that is viewed as just” and believe that “a dispute is not solved until the parties are reconciled.”

Although the conflict has deeply affected the country’s social fabric, the authority of local chiefs remains a reference for Central Africans on family issues and land and property rights, both inside the country and in the refugee camps across the border. Traditional justice is certainly far from ensuring respect for certain basic rights, such as those related to gender equality for example, but it could nevertheless be an excellent starting point for peacebuilders, if they are willing to undertake the necessary research and sensitization and other training, to increase access to justice among Central Africans.

Second, truth and reparations should be pursued alongside prosecution. The national discussions on transitional justice held in preparation for the Bangui Forum clearly indicated that truth and reparations are essential conditions for justice, but the proposed TJRRC has remained on paper only. Justice has been primarily sought through punitive measures, as something that takes away (years of freedom from the perpetrators of the crimes), instead of in its distributive or reparative forms, as something that gives back (goods to people who lost everything). In CAR, the fair distribution of resources and social belonging are by far the main concerns of the communities affected by conflict, and victims usually feel entitled to some form of economic compensation. Focusing on reparations and solving problems related to land and property rights and personal documentation can help Central Africans address some of the root causes of the conflict, such as issues of identity and citizenship, which are critical for both building inclusive institutions and establishing broader equality.

Third, transitional justice initiatives should be part and parcel with the reform of the security sector. To a certain extent, the redeployment of the national security forces is a precondition to any justice measure. For example, judges do not feel safe being deployed to areas controlled by armed groups without proper security guarantees. In a country where people are used to dealing with the state’s absence, however, transitional justice processes focusing on truth and reparation may actually be able to bring some degree of stability to insecure areas, thus facilitating the restoration of state authority and preventing the persistence or recurrence of violence and abuse.

As expected, the peace agreement signed last February in Khartoum is extremely ambivalent on justice issues. Rejecting both amnesty and impunity, the government and the armed groups only agreed upon the creation of the TJRRC. However, there is still a long way to go from the recently launched national consultations to the beginning of the commission’s work, which is probably nobody’s priority before the upcoming 2021  presidential elections. Given the lack of political will among the country’s leaders, it is hard to envisage the government supplanting the international community as the main promoter of justice. However, the current phase of the peace agreement’s implementation may be the last chance to push for renewed discussions on transitional justice, which could lead to a context-specific TJRRC and to a broader inclusion of victims’ and refugees’ voices. If CAR is to truly make progress toward achieving the 2030 Agenda, it should act now to respond to the demands of Central Africans before the window of opportunity for addressing the past closes, and the obstacles to peace and development in the long run become more entrenched.

Enrica Picco is an independent researcher who has worked in the CAR on and off since 2010. Roger Duthie is Director of Research at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).