In the Central African Republic, sexual violence is being used on a large scale by different parties to the conflict. So far, few perpetrators have been held accountable. Therefore, a new Special Criminal Court which is due to start investigations this week, is an important step.
By Elisabeth Elander*
Angèle, a 27 year old women living in the Central African Republic, became pregnant as a result of being held captured by Seleka fighters. The militia men killed her husband and her parents, before holding Angèle as a sexual slave for nine months. “During the day they did it [rape] one time. At night it was another [fighter] who would call us. We would think it was to prepare the tea, but it was to rape us,” Angèle told Human Rights Watch (HRW).
For several years, the Central African Republic has endured widespread abuse and violence at the hands of armed groups. The main parties to the conflict, the Seleka and anti-Balaka have used acts of sexual violence and sexual slavery as tactics of war, targeting civilians.
New Special Court in the Central African Republic to start investigations
This week, a new Special Criminal Court is due to start working. “For us to stop this horrible cycle (of revenge), the only way is to create a judiciary system that is credible that is legitimate and that works, hence the special criminal court,” said Najat Rochi, UN humanitarian coordinator, according to Reuters.
The body is expected to start its investigations this week. The realization of the court is an important step to provide justice for victims, including survivors of sexual violence.
Central African Republic: strategic nature of sexual violence
The harrowing encounters told by survivors highlights a desperate need to stop impunity and to ensure justice for victims. The witness accounts are more than incidents. The shocking frequency of events demonstrates a strategic nature, with civilians caught in the middle of fighting.
Hundreds of interviews with witnesses and victims gave their testimonies for the HRW report, which provides detailed accounts of the widespread abuses against civilians. The report acknowledges that despite the presence of UN peacekeepers in the affected areas, the international forces have not been able to protect civilians against the crimes.
Impunity for war crimes in the Central African Republic
The impunity in itself fosters exacerbation of conflict and insecurity, as one armed group accuse civilians of sympathising with the other armed group, as another victim, Monique Nali, told the investigators. Her home in the Boy-Rabe neighbourhood of the capital of Bangui was targeted in 2013 by Seleka fighters under the pretences of the neighbourhood being allied with the Anti-Balaka.
Widespread rape, killings and looting were committed in public: “The whole neighbourhood knows which women were raped,” Nali told HRW. According to the report, there have been no attempts to hold the perpetrators accountable. On the contrary, commanders and fighters of both armed groups continue to operate freely without being arrested or detained.
New Special Court for the Central African Republic
However, there is hope to end the impunity. The new Special Criminal Court (SCC) has been established in the Central African Republic with a mandate to investigate and prosecute serious human rights violations occurring in the country since 2003.
The Tribunal is a hybrid court, with national and international staff, including support from the International Criminal Court (ICC). Thus, there is optimism that the SCC may gain justice for victims and become a tool to end atrocities which have been ongoing for years.
Of course, the functioning of the tribunal will not come without its challenges. The HRW report has acknowledged several areas of concern. One of them is the lack of funding. In order to enable the tribunal to fulfil its mandate, funding, including logistical and technical support, provided by the international community is essential.
Furthermore, there are concerns that support from the government in the Central African Republic is lacking. President Touadéra and his government originally supported the Tribunal, but lately, the government has repeatedly fallen short of expectations when it has come to operationalise the court. As the SCC is a hybrid court, adequate domestic support is vital to ensure fair trials to provide justice for victims.
Special Court in Central African Republic: Hope for victims of war crimes
The SCC marks a potential change which shall not be understated. It provides an avenue capable of contributing significantly in the fight against impunity in the Central African Republic. On what is sure to be a winding trail to success, the international community together with the government of the Central African Republic should make the most of this opportunity: Ending these atrocities and gaining justice for victims is far overdue.
*Elisabeth Elander is a legal and communications intern at the Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation and a Master’s student on the Public International Law programme at Leiden University.