At the end of July 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the Central African Republic (CAR) had reached 600,000. The number of refugees, most of whom are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Cameroon, had reached 480,000. This recent upsurge in IDPs and refugees is due to a recurrence of violence, resulting from changing conflict dynamics in the CAR.

The splintering and subsequent remobilization of the former Seleka rebel coalition into three main armed factions–the FPRC (Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic); the UPC (Union for Peace in the Central African Republic); and the Central African Patriotic Movement (MPC)–has altered the configurations and strategies of the combatants who are currently competing for territorial control, cross border trade routes and leverage during future peace talks.

The incorporation of fragmented Anti-balaka forces into different ex-Seleka factions has also re-shaped the strategic and tactical calculations of war: contributing to the proliferation of axes of conflict across the CAR’s territory, and increasingly localized battlegrounds. This is in spite of the ongoing multi-track mediation, and the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) processes supported by the international community, under the auspices of the United Nations. While the current mandate of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) will end in November 2017, the increasing complexity of the CAR crisis must be taken into account when renewing its mandate.

After several years of conflict and failed peace agreements the most recent war in the CAR broke out in December 2012 when the Seleka, a mainly Muslim coalition led by Michel Djotodia, launched an armed insurgency against President François Bozizé’s government, successfully overthrowing him in March 2013. This led to the emergence of the mainly Christian Anti-balaka counter-militias. Djotodia disbanded the Seleka in September 2013, but was forced to resign in January 2014 by regional leaders who were concerned about escalating sectarian violence in the CAR. Catherine Samba-Panza, a non-partisan who had been shown to have no links to either the Seleka or the Anti-balaka militias, was then voted in by the National Transitional Council (NTC) as interim president.

The international community’s support of CAR’s political transition, culminated in the election of Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s to the presidency in March 2016. Although he promised peace and reform, the government has so far failed to provide a strong foundation for sustainable peace, reconciliation and justice, even with the support of a full scale multidimensional UN peace operation.

The question of whether and how to hold perpetrators of grave crimes accountable has been a major part of political dialogue throughout. It was initially raised at the Bangui Forum in May 2015–which was held to set the roadmap for a peace plan–and it has re-emerged at subsequent regional and national mediation meetings. There are still however, serious disagreements about how this is to be achieved, which will need to be addressed politically.

Attempts to Address Impunity
Aside from the UN-led operation to restore security and end violent conflict, four major instruments have been initiated to promote accountability. First, the UN has implemented an arms embargo and targeted sanctions against individuals and groups that are seen to undermine peace and promote violence. Eleven individuals: four ex-Seleka, four Anti-balaka and three Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leaders, and one diamond company were placed on the sanctions list.

According to the UN Panel of Experts on the CAR, the threat of sanctions remains a deterrent to potential spoilers. Preoccupation with sanctions has even compelled affected groups to participate in peace talks, where they have requested that sanctions on their leaders be lifted. This is particularly important in a context where other instruments of accountability are not yet in place.

The second important instrument to end impunity is the International Criminal Court (ICC). In 2014, the CAR transitional government requested the ICC to investigate alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed within the country since August 2012. But the ICC’s road to trial and conviction is typically long, and with tepid cooperation from the CAR authorities, it is bound to be a drawn-out process.

The third tool, a Special Criminal Court (SCC) was established in 2015 to investigate and prosecute gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Special prosecutor Toussaint Muntazini Mukimapa of the DRC was appointed in February this year, along with national and international staff and judges. It should be noted that the SCC’s full functionality depends on the availability of funds and completion of logistical arrangements, which might coincide with the first indictments at the ICC.

Lastly, the international community, through MINUSCA and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in particular, has supported the rehabilitation of the national justice system in the CAR. As a result, over 1,500 civil cases have been tried in mobile courts in the town of Bouar. In Bangui, since 2015, 52 files involving 95 cases were adjudicated during the second criminal session. These included cases involving sexual violence.

In addition to building and rehabilitating much-needed infrastructure such as courts and prisons, major investments should also be directed towards training personnel in the requirements of a credible, functioning justice system. Resources should also be directed towards ensuring the protection of witnesses who testify.

According to sources familiar with the transitional justice agenda in the CAR, whereas MINUSCA insists on retributive justice as the only way out of the crisis; other actors, particularly within the AU, believe reconciliation should precede justice. Some ex-Seleka and Anti-balaka factions are already pushing for the inclusion of amnesty in the transitional justice agenda. On the one hand, formal justice will take a long time and may actually frustrate the peace process. On the other hand, reconciliation can often be incorporated into everyday social processes between and within communities.

However, the debate between restorative and retributive justice is further exacerbated by the government’s hesitation and apparent lack of a clear vision for post-conflict reconciliation. It is important to note however, that progress in this regard has been hampered by the fact that armed groups still control large parts of the CAR, which puts the government in a weak bargaining position.

Given the current dynamics of the conflict in the CAR, the parties involved should consider
a hybrid approach to ending impunity, which incorporates transitional justice. From a strategic perspective, such an approach would reshape the incentives and calculations of combatants, making them more likely to comply with ceasefire agreements.

The unnecessary and unproductive disagreements between proponents of retributive and restorative justice ignores the wide range of local mechanisms and institutions available to pursue justice and reconciliation. Traditional chiefs and religious leaders may be able to supplement, or in some cases, stand in the place of a formal justice process. The Interfaith Peace Platform for example, a forum established by three of the most senior religious leaders in the Central African Republic, has been called a model which illustrates that “prevention and dialogue are the key for solving refugee and displacement crises.” Using institutions that already enjoy significant legitimacy among the people has already enhanced inter-religious dialogue and could also help address aspects of past and present crises that seem intractable. Once the conflict abates, this approach is more likely to lead to a sustainable peace.