This is a guest post by Tiffany Lynch. She is a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed are her own and may or may not reflect the views of the Commission.
In early January, two years after civil war broke out in the Central African Republic (CAR) between the Séléka, a predominantly Muslim rebel faction, and the anti-balaka, a predominantly radical Christian militia, the United Nations International Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic publicly announced its conclusion that Christian militias were responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in this war torn country. Since September 2013, UN officials and independent human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have warned of ethnic cleansing or genocide in CAR.
Underlying the Commission’s conclusion is expert testimony, which revealed that at the national level, a plan was advanced to kill as many Muslims in the country as possible. The Commission reported that starting in June 2013, deposed president François Bozizé, former Central African Armed Forces (FACA) soldiers, and members of Bozizé’s inner circle met in Cameroon and France to plan his return to power. During these meetings, they spoke of avenging Séléka attacks on non-Muslims and recruited already existing self-defense militias, known as the anti-balaka, FACA soldiers, and other aggrieved non-Muslims to carry out their plans. Bozizé himself is reported to have told supporters to kill Muslims.
The anti-balaka began their ethnic cleansing campaign with the December 5, 2013 attack on Bangui, CAR’s capital. Although framed as a fight to return Bozizé to power, the anti-balaka’s lengthy campaign deliberately targeted Muslims and forcefully transferred them out of their villages. The anti-balaka also deliberately killed Muslim civilians, even those fleeing and those in evacuation convoys assisted by humanitarian organizations, and systematically destroyed mosques and Muslim homes and businesses. Muslims were told to either leave the country or die. Commission experts noted that 99 percent of Muslims have left the capital, and 80 percent of the entire country’s Muslim population has fled to Cameroon or Chad. Remaining Muslims are forced to live in peacekeeper-protected enclaves and are vulnerable to attack if they leave.
The Commission’s report also censures both sides, the Séléka and FACA, for committing crimes against humanity. Both FACA and Séléka soldiers were found responsible for the enforced disappearances, illegal detention, torture, and extrajudicial killings of political opponents, many of whom ended up in mass graves. Bozizé and the FACA are charged with inciting religious hatred prior to the March 2013 coup and compiling a list of Muslim dignitaries to be detained and executed. The Séléka are charged with widespread rape and looting of non-Muslim properties and the systematic killing of non-Muslim civilians in Bossangoa.
In light of these findings, addressing impunity in CAR is critical. The nature of crimes committed demands it. The Commission documented and faulted senior CAR leaders, including former presidents Bozizé and Michel Djotodia, the Séléka leader that ousted Bozizé in 2013, for their direct involvement in and knowledge of crimes against humanity being carried out in the country. Furthermore, the Commission reported that at village levels, neighbors were frequently responsible for carrying out or assisting in the execution of attacks and can therefore be identified by their victims.
Unfortunately, CAR has an extremely poor history of justice. Military dictators have ruled the country all but nine years since its independence in 1960. During this time, there was only one instance in which someone was held responsible for conflict, only to be released from prison later under a general amnesty program.
This climate of impunity must be tackled, and the United States and the international community can play a critical role in assisting efforts to bring justice to Central African victims. The West can help Central African authorities rebuild their rule of law sector, which was destroyed in the fighting: police and judges were forced to flee; police stations, prisons, and courts were looted and destroyed; and the judiciary is completely absent outside of the capital. These vital rule of law institutions must be rebuilt. A new Special Investigation and Instruction Unit, created by transition President Catherine Samba-Panza, to investigate and prosecute serious crimes committed since January 1, 2004, will also require assistance.
While the CAR transitional government and the international community cannot erase the crimes against humanity committed since 2013, they can help innocent civilians and the country move forward by ensuring that justice is upheld.