A Chance to Rebuild the Court’s Reputation: Civil Society Perspectives on the ICC in Central African Republic

As Central Africans await the International Criminal Court (ICC) trial of Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïassona, the court has an opportunity to regain the prestige it lost in the Jean-Pierre Bemba case and to address the population’s calls for accountability. On December 11, Pre-Trial Chamber II announced the unanimous decision to confirm some of the charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity against Yekatom and Ngaïassona, as leaders of the majority Christian Anti-Balaka militia during the 2013-2014 crisis that largely pitted them against Muslim Seleka militias in the Central African Republic (CAR). The confirmation of charges decision, which can be appealed, allows the case to proceed to trial but does not establish the two men’s guilt.

Local experts, civil society activists, and legal practitioners interviewed for this blog often analyzed the ICC’s relationship with CAR in light of Bemba’s acquittal. In June 2018, the Appeals Chamber acquitted Bemba of war crimes and crimes against humanity, a decision that highlighted the limitations of the court in supporting accountability efforts in CAR. ICC prosecutors had accused Bemba, the former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, of failing to deter and punish his Congolese troops who were in CAR to help former Central African president Ange-Félix Patassé fight off a coup attempt in 2002-2003. 

As explained by Nadia Carine Fornel Poutou, of the Association des Femmes Juristes de Centrafrique, “The population knows the ICC very well because of the Bemba case.” While the acquittal of Bemba has generated negative sentiments about the court, the case of Yekatom and Ngaïassona is seemingly welcomed by Central Africans and offers an opportunity to rebuild the court’s reputation.

The current case against Yekatom and Ngaïassona stems from an entirely different conflict, referred to as the CAR II situation at the ICC. In 2013, then-president François Bozizé was overthrown by the Seleka militia – a predominantly (but not exclusively) Muslim rebel coalition originating from the country’s northern region. The violence committed by the Seleka during this period fueled the creation of Anti-Balaka militias and self-defense groups claiming to defend the country’s Christian communities and fight against the Seleka’s brutality. ICC’s investigation in CAR has alleged that both Seleka and Anti-Balaka groups have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, rape, pillaging, forced displacement, persecution, the use of children under fifteen in combat, and attacking against humanitarian missions.

The Central Africans interviewed for this blog did not question why the ICC has reengaged in CAR, in its attempt to establish a degree of justice. Mathias Barthélemy Morouba, president of the Observatoire Centrafricain Droits de l’Homme, stated that “there is a thirst for justice among our people…there is not one person in this country that has not been affected by the war.” Rather, he argues, local populations are demanding that all parties be held accountable for the atrocities committed during the 2013-2014 crisis.

At the moment, however, only suspects representing the Anti-Balaka militias are in ICC custody. In this context, advocates said that few question why Yekatom and Ngaïassona are on trial, but rather, why there are not more militia leaders being held accountable, including from the Seleka. Morouba clarified: “We have victims of both Anti-Balaka and Seleka militias, and yet people perceive that the ICC is only supporting Muslims victims because they are the minority.”

While the politicized nature of interreligious violence plays a role in fueling this perspective of bias, most experts interviewed advocated for a balanced approach. So far, as Gervais Lakosso of the civil society organization E Zingo Byani noted, the ICC is seen as pursing only “partial justice.”

As in other contexts, many raise the question of whether national justice can offer a more complete approach. Those interviewed widely acknowledged that in the context of CAR’s weak national justice system, international assistance is needed. However, such support is largely pragmatic, as Alain Kizinguere, a human rights advocate from the Ligue Centrafricaine des Droits de l’Homme explained, “Central Africans do not have a preference in theory, but we believe all sides should face justice.” A hybrid court composed of both international and Central African prosecutors and judges, known as the Special Criminal Court, opened its doors in 2018, but to date has not brought any charges.

However, in actually pursuing justice, some question the CAR government’s commitment. In discussing the peace deal brokered in February 2019, lawyer and civil society activist Gbiegba Bruno Hyacinthe noted, “This is a political process. […]The government meets regularly with rebel leaders who have violated the peace deal, and yet there are no arrests. […] It is a matter of will.” He added, “Yekatom was arrested because the government had the desire” and “Ngaïssona because there was an opportunity.”

Of course, one way for the ICC to address the concerns about partial justice would be to open additional cases. If the prosecutor investigates more cases, however, it would be helpful to increase outreach to explain the court’s approach. Those interviewed acknowledged that the court’s community outreach mechanisms are efficient and that it should continue to build partnerships with victims associations, human rights organizations, and other civil society groups. There is more the court can do, however, such as focus on promoting deeper understanding on the factors that make arrests possible, for example. Ensuring understanding of its processes and expanding prosecutions would help demonstrate its impartiality and reestablish trust with Central Africans who continue to strive for justice.

This blog was produced by Tigranna Zakaryan, who is a consultant with the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI). She traveled to CAR in October where she collected the views expressed in the blog. Tigranna previously worked with IRRI in Uganda engaging host communities and local government structures to gauge their perspectives on the opportunities and challenges they faced as refugee-hosting communities. She has worked closely with refugee-led civil society organizations and diaspora networks, with particular focus on capacity building activities geared toward developing their platforms as decision-makers in the stability and democratic processes of their origin countries.

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