Nairobi — Prosecutors in the Central African Republic should investigate militia leaders recently awarded government positions.
On March 24, a presidential decree named the armed groups leaders Ali Darassa, leader of the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (Unité pour la paix en Centrafrique, UPC), Mahamat Al Khatim, leader of the Central African Patriotic Movement (Mouvement patriotique pour la Centrafrique, MPC), and Sidiki Abass (also known as Bi Sidi Souleymane), commander of a group called Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation, or 3R, as special military advisers to the prime minister's office. All three have led armed groups responsible for widespread atrocities in recent years, including war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. These posts were granted as a concession to the armed groups under a peace accord signed in February 2019 in Khartoum, Sudan.
"Ali Darassa's appointment as a military adviser for the area where his men may have committed war crimes should not be used to give him immunity from investigation into the UPC's abuses," said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Against this backdrop, senior United Nations and African Union officials should make clear to all the victims of UPC abuses that there can be no lasting peace without justice for those heinous crimes."
On April 15, in Bambari, Darassa participated in a ceremony presenting future members of special mixed units. The units will incorporate both national military and rebel fighters. This ceremony was attended by the UN Under-Secretary General of Peace Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix; the AU's Commissioner for Peace and Security, Smaïl Chergui; and the country's prime minister, Firmin Ngrebada. Human Rights Watch has documented serious abuses by the UPC since 2014, when the group took control of the town of Bambari, in the center of the country, including targeted killings of civilians, extrajudicial executions, attacks on displacement camps, and rape.
Percée remarquable dans la mise en oeuvre de l'accord de paix en avec cette visite conjointe - et Premier Ministre à Bambari et premieres retrouvailles des FACA,anti balaka et UPC dans cadre Unités Mixtes de Securité. pic.twitter.com/GuUwr24m7v
Fighters under Al Khatim's command have committed war crimes, including attacks on civilians, since 2015 when his group, which controls territory in the center of the country, was created. He was named military adviser for special mixed units in the center north zone.
Abass's 3R group has killed civilians, raped, and caused large-scale displacement in the northwest zone since 2015. Abass was named military adviser to special mixed units in the northwest zone.
The appointments were made in line with a peace accord, negotiated by the AU during 18 months of talks with 14 armed groups and the central government, often while the groups continued their brutal attacks on civilians. The accord seeks to "definitively eliminate" the causes of the conflict and promote national reconciliation and calls for some fighters from armed groups to be incorporated into "special mixed security units," which would also include members of the country's national security forces. Armed group leaders promised to end "all hostilities and forms of violence."
The accord is vague on steps needed to ensure post-conflict justice and does not mention specific judicial processes, or recent efforts to promote justice in the country, though it recognizes the role impunity has played in entrenching violence. The Special Criminal Court, a new court in the domestic system mandated to try war crimes and crimes against humanity, was established in recognition of the cycles of impunity that have driven conflict in the country and formally began operations in 2018. The court has significant support from the UN, including the international peacekeeping force on the ground since September 2014, known as MINUSCA.
Activists and victims have expressed deep concern that the agreement will be used to sideline justice for past crimes.
In 2014, the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened investigations into crimes committed in the Central African Republic since August 2012. The court arrested two leaders of the anti-balaka militias that were parties to the conflict, Alfred Yékatom and Patrice Edouard Ngaissona, in late 2018.
The current crisis began in late 2012, when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted President François Bozizé and seized power through a campaign of violence and terror. In response, anti-balaka groups were formed and began carrying out reprisal attacks on Muslim civilians in mid-2013.
Victims of crimes committed by the UPC, MPC, and 3R have expressed anger and frustration to Human Rights Watch since the new posts were announced.
"How could the government and the international community dare to nominate and install this man as an official?" a 30-year-old survivor of a rape by a UPC fighter told Human Rights Watch. "How could they promote and validate someone whose men killed, raped, burned villages, and tortured the population? I have lost the strength and hope to try to seek justice because Darassa is now charged by the state with my security."
A 45-year old man from Ngakobo, an area that has seen repeated UPC attacks on civilians at a displacement camp, told Human Rights Watch that UPC fighters had threatened civilians in the Boykotta area in the last two weeks. "We were always told Darassa would face justice, but now the person whose men killed us is charged with our security?" he said. "It is not logical."
In February 2017, Darassa and the UPC left Bambari in response to a MINUSCA request. UPC fighters are alleged to have shot at UN peacekeepers in 2015, which may constitute a war crime under international law. Fighting broke out between peacekeepers and UPC fighters in January 2019, when UPC fighters killed two policemen outside of Bambari ahead of a visit by the country's president. The fighting resulted in a UN attack on a large UPC base at Bokolobo, 60 kilometers south of Bambari.
On April 19, the Central African government and MINUSCA issued a news release stating that although Darassa is a special adviser, he has not been given an official security role for the town of Bambari. The news release also states that the mixed units, when operational, will be under the command of the national army.
MPC fighters participated in an egregious attack in October 2016, when they killed at least 37 civilians, wounded 57, and forced thousands to flee a camp for displaced people in Kaga-Bandoro, where some 7,000 people were living, after being displaced by fighting in the region. Fighters destroyed at least 175 homes in the neighborhoods around the displacement camp and destroyed at least 435 huts in the camp itself.
In 2016, Human Rights Watch documented the killing of scores of civilians and received reports that 3R fighters raped at least 23 women and girls in Koui sub-prefectures in Ouham Pendé province. Attacks on civilians and nongovernmental organizations continued into at least 2017.
The installation of Darassa in his official capacity in Bambari and the appointments of Al Khatim and Sidiki is difficult to reconcile with the principles of the Bangui Forum, the conclusions of national consultations held in May 2015, Human Rights Watch said. Its declaration states that "no amnesty" would be tolerated for those responsible for and acting as accomplices in international crimes. The forum brought together more than 800 representatives of community and other nongovernmental organizations, political parties, and armed groups from across the country. It recognized that the lack of justice in the Central African Republic since 2003 was one of the main causes of successive crises.
"The Bangui Forum made it clear that the way forward for peace in the Central African Republic is to say no to impunity, and that should be respected," Mudge said. "These militia leaders should be investigated with the intent to prosecute based on the evidence, and the national government, the UN, and the AU should strongly support efforts to hold key figures responsible for these crimes to account and make justice a reality for victims."