Yesterday, Human Rights Watch reported that anti-balaka fighters in the CAR have taken at least 42 Muslim Peuhl herders captive. Most of the captives are women and young girls, whom HRW urges may suffer from sexual violence if the UN peacekeepers and CAR government do not act immediately to get them out.
In early 2013, Muslim Seleka rebels took over power in the CAR in a campaign of mass civilian killings and destruction of homes. By mid-2013, groups self-proclaimed as the anti-balaka came together to fight the Seleka in a huge reprisal campaign in which they attacked Muslim civilians, among those Peuhl herders. The conflict has killed thousands of civilians while also displacing hundreds of others. This conflict is ongoing between anti-balaka, Seleka, and international forces via UN peacekeepers and French troops.
In December of last year, HRW reported that a group of Peuhl had been held captive in Pondo by the anti-balaka. Though some survivors have been released thanks to intervention by local authorities and UN peacekeepers, these survivors and other witnesses insist that other Peuhl are being held captive in other towns and villages in the country. Allegedly, 30 are currently held captive in Lambi, 11 are in Ngbaina, and 1 is in Betefio. Others have been reported to be held in Gadzi and Gaga. Many have been held for more than a year.
HRW insists that holding civilians in captivity, murdering children, and sexually enslaving women and young girls constitute serious war crimes. And while something certainly needs to be done to deal with these atrocities, it is unlikely that the bulk of this action will come from CAR itself. This ongoing conflict, compounded by a lack of resources and legal expertise, has essentially left CAR’s national justice system unable to handle such serious international crimes.
An international solution, however, may be in the works. In September, the CAR referred the conflict to the ICC, prompting the chief prosecutor to open a second investigation in the CAR for crimes committed since January 2002. Yet, this does not mean that resolving the conflict will be totally left up to the international sphere.
In what I believe to be important steps for CAR’s own national legal capacity-building, the National Transition Council, which is CAR’s interim parliament, has been discussing the possibility of creating a Special Criminal Court. This court would be within the national judicial system and would include both national and international judges and staff. Essentially, the court would act as a complement to the ICC and would try those responsible for serious crimes, with a specific focus on sexual violence and crimes against children.
The potential for this Special Criminal Court to deliver justice to perpetrators in the CAR in a way that is more connected to the locale is large in my opinion. Undoubtedly, it would have been very easy to admit that the national judiciary was in no condition to handle such grave international crimes, instead simply handing over the responsibility to the ICC to prosecute. Yet, in doing so there would have been a lost opportunity for national capacity building. What would CAR have gained from outsourcing justice to the ICC without making its own attempts at strengthening its judicial system? Undoubtedly, it is encouraging to see the CAR making strides to take responsibility and shoulder at least part of the responsibility for prosecutions. Not only does this have positive implications for the nation’s future capacity to handle prosecution of serious international crimes, but it also has the potential to more intimately involve the locals in the process. For having suffered so much in this conflict, the victims are owed at least more involvement in the process of bringing justice to their perpetrators. Additionally, the Special Criminal Court’s specific focus on sexual violence and violence against children is a strong step toward elevating the serious status of such crimes and ensuring the prosecution of their perpetrators.
This is not to say, however, that intervening will be without its challenges. Perhaps the greatest challenge is the fact that both international and national intervention is coming mid-conflict, which as we have seen may pose challenges for the enforcement of indictments and arrest warrants, gathering evidence, and general national stability. Yet, if intervention doesn’t happen and justice is forced to wait until peace comes around, many more lives may be lost and the conflict could go on for much much longer. Ultimately, we will have to wait to see how this trade off, if there is one, will play out.