With Chad on its northern border, Sudan’s Darfur region as its north-eastern neighbour and the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC to the south, the Central African Republic, CAR, is caught between several regional conflicts. CAR has suffered spill-over from instability in these neighbours, not least because its own population shares blood ties and tribal loyalties with combatants in these conflicts.
The remote northern forests of this former French colony are seething with armed raiders and rebel groups in one of the world’s least reported conflict situations. While some are just criminal looters, there are pro-government militias and also rebels opposed to CAR president Francois Bozize. Some may also have links to insurgents seeking to depose Chad’s president Idriss Deby, a Bozize ally.
As always, the major losers are the civilian population who have been raided, maimed and killed in attacks, with many fleeing their homes and entering southern Chad as refugees. While the global spotlight is trained on internally displaced persons, IDPs, in Darfur, the humanitarian tragedy of thousands of refugees and IDPs in southern Chad and northern CAR is largely being ignored.
Charles Dei, regional representative of the United Nations’ World Food Programme, said refugees are surviving on wild fruits and roots and many had not received a single kilogramme of food from the international community.
“In CAR we always struggle to have our voice heard amid all the other competing humanitarian needs, but these people are living in desperate conditions and for this reason we are trying to shout louder than ever on their behalf,” said Dei.
Recent events could signal the beginning of hope for victims of CAR’s continuing wars. Last January, the ICC in The Hague received a referral from the Bozize government to investigate crimes committed in CAR since 2002.
Although ICC officials held meetings with government and civil society representatives late last year, the case is still in the pre-investigative phase. But progress may be accelerated by an April 2006 ruling from CAR’s highest court of appeal, which found that the national courts were not competent to pursue a successful prosecution of Bozize’s predecessor as president, Ange-Felix Patasse and his followers.
The court therefore referred the matter to the ICC in April 2006, ruling that “recourse to international cooperation is the only means to prevent impunity in this case”. The ICC, it said, “offers a possibility to find and punish the perpetrators of the most serious crimes… in the place of states which are incapable of carrying out effective investigations and prosecutions”.
Soon after Bozize came to power in a March 2003 coup which ousted Patasse, his administration issued international arrest warrants against Patasse and four of his allies including Chadian militia leader Abdoulaye Miskine and Jean-Pierre Bemba, who at the time of the alleged crimes was a rebel leader in DRC, but has since become that country’s vice-president. Both Bemba and Miskina brought their troops to Patasse’s aid as he struggled to counter a rebellion which eventually resulted in the successful coup.
The other accused are a French policeman and a Patasse aide.
To date, the criminal prosecution system in CAR has been powerless to arrest any of the five as they are all outside the country.
“The Central African Republic finds itself unable to locate the accused and have them arrested,” said David Gamou, a spokesman for the justice ministry. Patasse is in exile in Togo while Bemba is gearing up to contest the presidential election, to be held alongside a landmark parliamentary ballot in DRC on July 30.
“Bemba cannot be judged by our national courts; only the ICC with its reputation and resources can do that,” said Gamou.
Bemba’s presidential ambitions in the Congo may form part of the reason why the ICC has been slow to act. The fragile peace in the country would be shored up if multi-party elections go ahead in July. An attempt to arrest Bemba prior to the vote could seriously compromise the hard-won and still precarious stability both in the country and in the region as a whole.
Advocates of a trial for Patasse, Miskine and Bemba include human rights groups and diplomats who accuse them of individual and collective culpability for a series of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including widespread systematic rape and murder committed in 2002 and 2003.
The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, FIDH, says it has evidence of mass graves and witness testimony to atrocities. As early as February 2003, FIDH filed an ICC complaint against Bemba and Patasse, while the latter was still head of state.
Civilians in CAR are still dogged by fear. Participants in a September 2005 seminar convened to discuss reparations for the victims of atrocities were subjected to anonymous death threats and warned not to help FIDH or other non-government groups gather evidence for the ICC.
FIDH has been critical of the Bozize regime, as well, alleging grave human rights violations in the “transition period” that led to elections in 2005, as well as mismanagement and fraud in the elections themselves.
Earlier this year, the Union of Central African Journalists asked the ICC to investigate allegations that President Bozize committed genocide against the population in northern CAR who had supported the former regime.
The CAR case before the world court, and the allegations and counter-allegations against the Patasse and Bozize camps, accentuates a harsh reality – that the ICC could be vulnerable to political machinations in pursuit of international justice. If it fails to ward off this risk, the administration of justice could well prove a haphazard process that is skewed in favour of those in power.
But the CAR case also highlights a welcome trend, where sitting and past heads of state are no longer immune from the reach of the law.
Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic and more recently Liberia’s Charles Taylor were prosecuted at country-specific, impermanent courts. If the ICC decides to follow through on the CAR investigation, history may be made as the four-year-old world judicial body puts a former head of state in the dock for the first time.