‘A Drop of Water on a Hot Stone’ Justice for Victims in the Central African Republic

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The Central African Republic (CAR) has been described as a “phantom state,” a “state of prey,” and a “highjacked state.” It is a state in which, despite several peace agreements and national dialogues, violence is predominant and armed groups are among the major actors.

The country has suffered from instability since its independence in 1960. Decades of recurrent conflicts reached their peak in 2013, when the Séléka rebellion, mainly led by Muslim fighters, seized power in a coup d’état, only to be countered by mainly Christian anti-Balaka self-defense militias later the same year. The country entered one of its worst periods, as conflict became sectarian along religious lines. The crisis was characterized by serious human rights violations that international military missions struggled to contain. Crimes against humanity and war crimes left thousands of victims looking for justice and equity.

A ceasefire agreement signed in 2014 opened the door to efforts to bring the country out of the crisis. It was followed by national consultations, paving the way for the 2015 Bangui Forum on National Reconciliation, which led to peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections in late 2015 and early 2016. Nevertheless, the country remained mired in violence: In 2017 and 2018 several massacres took place in and outside of the capital, while a weak state failed to sanction itself and a range of armed groups benefiting from impunity. A peace agreement was signed between armed groups and the government in early 2019, followed by a national popular consultation on the process of setting up a truth commission.

In addition to the serious security situation, CAR represents a very fragile context in other ways.
As one of the poorest countries in the world, it ranks 188th in the UN Human Development Index, with approximately half of the population suffering from chronic malnutrition.

Gender inequality and illiteracy are additional signs of a country unable to provide basic services to citizens. Therefore, a transitional period poses challenges related not just to political will, security, and stability, but also to development, reducing poverty and hunger, and providing education and health care.

Five years after the Bangui Forum, the national justice system is competent to respond to human rights violations committed during the conflict, the Special Criminal Court (SCC) is slowly getting underway, and a law was promulgated to create the Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission (TJRRC). These institutions offer the potential for justice in a very challenging context, but they also face limitations and obstacles themselves. The national justice system, for example, has handled some emblematic cases of serious crimes, but dysfunction, lack of capacity and reach, and corruption have excluded the participation of most victims, who often resort to traditional justice to find a basic measure of relief and redress and quick solutions when slow-moving formal processes fail them.

This report examines the potential to provide justice to victims of human rights violations in a very fragile and conflict-affected context like CAR. It reviews the existing and emerging justice institutions, provides analysis from the perspectives of gender and young people, and articulates some of the key contextual and operational challenges. It shows how the absence of institutional capacity has centralized all services in the capital of Bangui. As a result, “national” justice processes concern only those who are based in the capital and neighboring areas. Some regions remain under the control of armed groups and are, hence, excluded from consultative processes.

This report also highlights polarization and exclusion as obstacles to the implementation of justice processes, as victims often perceive certain institutions to be biased toward one group or another. Yet, ethnic and religious division, a known driver of the conflict, is often ignored by authorities when designing initiatives and discussing institutional reforms.

Based on interviews with victims of the conflict, this report examines the notion of justice for victims based on their experiences, needs, and expectations. It reveals how these needs evolve over time, depending on access to the provision of justice; direct and indirect participation in the design of justice mechanisms; access to information; and, most importantly, the victim’s socioeconomic situation. Criminal accountability is a primary concern for victims in Bangui, but reparations are also important, especially for those outside of the capital. For interviewees in the directorates, dealing with hunger is the primary concern. For many victims, justice claims tend to be about social justice, linked more to equity and equality. The report, therefore, looks at victims’ needs both in and outside of Bangui, underscoring the importance of planning and designing justice processes around those needs.

Even in a context like CAR, opportunities exist to provide justice to victims, including through victim and civil society advocacy. Women face obstacles to justice in the form of restrictive social norms, inadequate legal protections, prohibitive costs of legal services, and general physical insecurity. The banalization of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in CAR today is a legacy of the huge number of such violations committed during successive conflicts and violations. Still, legal and institutional developments have aimed to improve women’s access to justice and security, while women’s associations and legal clinics are actively working to improve gender justice.
Young people, who are supposed to be the country’s future leaders and changemakers, have been harmed by recruitment and participation in armed groups, displacement, and the disappearance of family members. Yet, discussions about justice tend to neglect them, and public institutions tend to exclude them, while missed schooling and lack of access to education hamper their awareness of their rights. Child victims of the conflict who enrolled in armed groups are still considered perpetrators. Yet, young people are trying to change this situation through peaceful political expression, including participation in civil society, the media, and the arts.

Victims’ access to information about their rights and options can shape their participation in justice processes as well as their perceptions of and attitudes toward these initiatives. This report highlights how poorly designed communication strategies and information sharing by various stakeholders can raise victims’ expectations and result in frustration, leading victims to look to other means to achieve justice. In polarized contexts like CAR, communication not only serves to provide information but also helps to create public ownership and acceptance of newly established state institutions.

This report also highlights the nexus between justice and development. Indeed, the fragility of the context creates development-related challenges, such as reducing poverty and hunger, increasing gender equality, and providing education, which must be met in order to be able to truly provide justice. Issues related to social identity, inequality, education, and poverty in CAR have to be taken into account when designing justice initiatives. Conversely, the provison of justice in fragile contexts is critical to addressing these issues, as it is to the realization of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. The challenges related to access to justice, rule of law, and inclusive institutions demonstrate the connection between transitional justice and Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 (“to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development”), while those related to gender, poverty, and education demonstrate the links among delivering justice, fighting impunity, and progress in many other SDGs.

One observer compared recent justice initiatives and efforts in CAR to a “drop of water on a hot stone.” This study contends that advancing justice to a next stage requires taking into account the root causes of conflict, responding to victims’ needs, ensuring meaningful participation, and unifying institutions. It sheds light on opportunities for victims’ inclusion and participation in justice processes. It reflects people’s hope for justice, despite frustrations engendered by persistent conflict and prevailing impunity. The challenges in CAR that constrain efforts to provide justice to victims do not limit such efforts entirely. The more inclusive, participatory, and responsive such efforts are, the more access to justice they will ultimately provide.