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Central African Republic urged to punish rebel commanders

Rhoda Odhiambo
August 22, 2017

The government of the Central Africa Republic plans to hold further peace talks with rebel factions. But rights group, Human Rights Watch, wants rebel leaders to be held accountable for war crimes.

Members of the Christian Anti-Balaka group in the Central African Republic posing with their amunition
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Delay

Fresh deadly clashes hit several areas of the Central African Republic this week as international alarm grows over the spread of violence in the deeply troubled country. The clashes involved the majority Muslim rebel group Seleka and a predominantly Christian group Anti-balaka.

Read More:UN warns of genocide in Central African Republic

Read More:Christian militias launch deadly assault in Central African Republic

In a letter addressed to the UN secretary General, António Guterres, six human rights organizations expressed grave concerns about the rapid deterioration of the security situation the country. Since the start of the year, more than 800 civilians have been killed.

Lewis Mudge, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Central Africa Republic, spoke to DW about the security situation in the Central African Republic.

DW: How can the current situation in the Central African Republic be addressed? 

Lewis Mudge: We are looking at probably the worst levels of fighting in the CAR since early 2014. As you may remember in late 2013 to early 2014, the Central African Republic was really on the world's agenda for a short period because of the high level of violence in the country and then things did calm down for a couple of years. But now things have gotten much worse, particularly in the east and southeast of the country.

One of the reasons why the situation has become worse is because the Seleka armed group was sort of kicked out of Bangui, the capital, in 2014 by African Union and French forces. The group reconstituted bases in the central and eastern parts of the country, from where they committed serious human rights abuses. The Anti-balaka militia followed them to that area and continued to target civilians as well.

Secondly, we have seen a recent pullout on international forces out of the country. Uganda and American troops were in the southeast area as recently as April this year on a counter Lord Resistance Army operation. Due to political dynamics, those forces have actually withdrawn and that has opened up a security vacuum in the southeast, where we are seeing the violence spread. We are seeing the UN mission on the ground, MINUSCA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic), proving to be so thinly spread and also proving to have a very difficult time in stopping the violence.

The UN stabilization mission has concentrated the efforts in the capital Bangui leaving other areas in the country prone to attacks. Could this be the reason why the situation is spiraling out of control?

I think it's a very valid point. I think there is some truth in that but I think it needs to be contextualized. Don't forget that two years ago, concerns were raised that Bangui was not going to be governable. I was in the capital in September when the violence broke out and there were street battles between Seleka militiamen who had infiltrated the capital, international forces and the Anti-balaka group.

So there was a real focus after those events of September and October to prioritize the capital and at least ensure that the new government, which was elected in 2016, would have a capital from which it can operate. That has in some way come at the expense of the provinces. But I do think that it was important that the UN did stabilize the capital. Had they not, we would be looking at a complete failed state. Currently, approximately 65 to 70 per cent of the territory is either controlled by an armed group or has a significance presence of an armed group. So that is completely unacceptable.

Given the fact that they have no respect for human right norms is even more worrying. It is now up to the UN mission, which is thinly spread, to create conditions for dialogue among these two groups, make perpetrators of serious crimes accountable and begin some degree of disarmament exercise.

How can MINUSCA work together with the CAR government to avert a more deadly situation? 

This has been the fate of the Central African Republic for years now even before the current crisis. We are talking about a country, where most non-French speakers can't find it on a map even though it is geographically big. This is a country that doesn't make world headlines. It is incredibly poor and has a low population of 4.6 million for a country the size of France and Belgium put together.

Even with these horrific levels of violence, it is hard for the world to focus on the CAR given the international bandwidth consumed by other crises in South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. I think the UN certainly knows that this is an issue. [The UN] also know that it is not a problem getting itself on board [to solve the crisis in the CAR]. I think the problem is getting international partners; countries like the United States, France, and other EU and Africa countries to focus on the CAR and to acknowledge the situation despite the elections in 2016. The situation is very precarious, we are looking at levels of violence that we thought we had moved away from in 2016 to 2017. Since we are moving to 2018, things seems to be deteriorating and very worrying.

Troops from the United Nations peacekeeping mission to the Central African Republic MINUSCA sitting on a UN truck
The United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) has nearly 13 thousand strong-force in the country Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Vinograd

We have to highlight that it is also in a bad neighborhood. If you look at the neighbors of the CAR, there is South Sudan, Sudan, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is an area that we do not want to see turned into a failed state for purely for geopolitical reasons. The UN needs to highlight more clearly with international partners that there is a way forward in the CAR. The locations of these armed groups operating with compete impunity, killing civilians and raping women, are known. We know exactly where these armed groups and there commanders are. There is a court called the Special Criminal Court that has been tasked to look into war crimes committed, especially recent ones.

The UN needs to interpret its mandate more robustly, increase training support to the government, which does not have capacity to do anything. It should also address the issue of impunity to commanders that have committed the most serious war crimes. Once that starts to take effect, we can say that we have started to turn a corner in the Central African Republic. It is not a closing bid just yet even though the situation is getting worse.

Could negotiations with or without international support between the government on one side and all the other warring parties yield any results?

We have to look at what is happening and be realistic about it. The most recent peace accord was signed in Rome in June and frankly it was not really worth the paper it was printed on. This is because a core and critical element was left out, that commanders who have committed war crimes, human rights abuses must be held accountable. These armed groups continue to search for amnesty and a seat at the political table. They continue to search for forgiveness for the crimes that they have committed but continue to commit more crimes.

The government needs to be clear during negotiations with any armed group that rebel leaders who have committed crimes against humanity will be held accountable. With this element on the table, the peace talks will be more realistic. The government should also make it hard for individuals who are thinking about forming other armed groups and the only way to do that is by holding the commanders accountable.

Interview: Isaac Mugabi

Lewis Mudge is a researcher with the Human Rights Watch in the Central Africa Republic.