IN a country that has been beset by violence over the last few years, the recent establishment of the Special Criminal Court (SCC) in the Central African Republic has been welcomed by human rights groups and international criminal justice activists. But they now want to see more international support for the SCC so that it can offer justice to victims of the violent crimes committed during conflicts in the country.
In a new report, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) is leading the call for backing for the court from the UN and donor countries to help to prosecute grave crimes, including widespread killings, rape and sexual violence, and destruction of homes.
‘There has been almost no justice for the most serious crimes committed in the Central African Republic in recent years, and this impunity fuels more abuses,’ said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. ‘The Special Criminal Court is an unprecedented effort to help deliver justice for the gravest crimes, but international partners need to provide greater political and financial backing for it to succeed.’
Dozens of people have been killed in Bangui in recent weeks, many of them civilians, as the violence threatens to ruin hard-fought gains toward stabilising the city.
Legislation in 2015 established the SCC, integrating it into the CAR’s domestic judicial system, but staffed by both international and Central African judges, prosecutors, and administrators. The court has jurisdiction over serious crimes committed since 2003 and will operate alongside the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has two investigations into crimes committed in the country. The ICC is expected to prosecute only a small number of cases given its limited resources and mandate.
Since 2017, the court has gained momentum with appointments of the special prosecutor, judges, investigators, and administrators. Rules to govern its operations have been drafted and the court has begun conducting outreach with the local population. But major challenges lie ahead, according to HRW. The court relies on voluntary contributions to operate, and the majority of funding for its five-year renewable mandate has yet to be secured.
Assuring security for court staff, and protection for victims and witnesses, will be difficult as violence persists across the country, said the HRW report. There is no operational programme of legal aid in the country for indigent defendants, and detention facilities are wholly inadequate. Central African investigators and administrators working at the SCC lack experience with cases involving atrocity crimes, and the parliament still needs to adopt the rules for the court, the HRW said.
‘The Special Criminal Court has made important progress since 2017, and demand for this court is high in the Central African Republic,’ Keppler said. ‘Justice for the gravest crimes is not a panacea, but credible trials can build respect for the rule of law and signal that those responsible for grave crimes can be held to account, marking a new chapter for the country.’
The SCC will also operate alongside the ICC, which has two investigations in the country that were referred by the government and is likely to prosecute just a handful perpetrators of crime with the highest responsibility.
‘Too often, countries that suffer widespread atrocities lack the capacity or the will to try such crimes,” said Keppler. ‘The SCC is an example of how governments can demonstrate commitment to victims by teaming up with international partners to work to overcome the challenges. Also, trials at – or close to – home can have more impact and resonance than trials in distant courthouses.’
She added: ‘Trying war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Central African Republic will not be easy. The court will need to manage security challenges – armed groups still control large parts of the country and violence has recently resurfaced in the capital, Bangui.’
Keppler said the SCC would not be ‘a cure for all that ails the Central African Republic, but it could help put the country on the right track.’ She went on: ‘Lack of justice is fuelling further crimes there, as it has in many different countries. To achieve lasting peace, accountability for the many grave international crimes that civilians suffered is crucial.
‘Governments across the globe who need to grapple with grave crimes committed in their countries should see the SCC as a model they can explore to hold their perpetrators to account,’ Keppler added.