The Central African Republic’s Special Criminal Court should intensify investigations and urgently recruit additional staff to deliver justice for war crimes and other serious offenses, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
The new court is operating in a tremendously difficult setting after years of brutal conflict and insecurity in the country and needs greater government and international support.
The Special Criminal Court (SCC) is a new court in the Central African Republic’s court system with the authority to try grave crimes committed during the country’s armed conflicts since 2005.
“Central Africans have waited so long to see justice for the many killings, rapes, and other atrocities committed in the Central African Republic,” said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “The Special Criminal Court holds promise but it’s had a slow start and needs to intensify investigations so trials can be initiated based on strong, compelling evidence.”
The Special Criminal Court is staffed by both international and national judges and prosecutors, and benefits from international assistance. The law to establish the court was adopted in 2015, but the court had to wait to start investigations until parliament adopted its rules of procedure and evidence in May 2018. The court held its first official session in October, and investigations are now pending in the prosecutor’s office and before the court’s investigative judges.
Following up on its May 2018 report on the Special Criminal Court, Human Rights Watch conducted research in the country’s capital, Bangui, from April 10 to 14, 2019 on the court’s progress and the challenges it faces.
Researchers interviewed 25 people, including court staff, United Nations staff, court consultants, human rights defenders, lawyers, and donors, and conducted two group interviews, one with human rights defenders and one with victims who are working with associations of victims of the crimes. Human Rights Watch sought to meet with government officials who work on the Special Criminal Court, but they were not available. Human Rights Watch also conducted interviews by phone and in person in New York in May, June, and July, in addition to reviewing relevant documents on the court’s activities.
“Justice must be at the forefront of a state that promotes good governance and democracy,” one human rights defender told Human Rights Watch in April. “Without justice, everything else will be wrecked.”
Human rights defenders and victims expressed strong concerns that vague provisions on justice in a peace accord signed in February could limit the government’s cooperation and support to the Special Criminal Court. They criticized the integration of people implicated in crimes into the government as a result of the recent peace deal. “We are seeing at this moment that our persecutors rule over us,” said a woman who leads a victims’ group. “They have entered the government.”
Human Rights Watch identified key elements needed to bring the court to full operations:
- Staffing: The level of court staff overseeing investigations is very limited. Existing staff should work to intensify investigative activity, but an additional panel of investigative judges and more prosecutors would help boost investigative capacity. Many of the staff needed for the court’s administration are also not in place and should be recruited without further delay.
- Services: The court needs programs that have yet to exist in the country’s domestic system, including witness and victim protection and support, legal assistance for accused and victims, and outreach to affected communities. International experts are assisting in developing these areas, but further progress is needed and the experience gained should be leveraged to benefit the country’s national justice system over time. The government should also move ahead with providing secure accommodation for the Special Criminal Court’s domestic judges.
- Coordination: The court remains highly dependent on the UN, which can limit the court’s capacity to make decisions and move its work forward. Efforts to regularly bring together court principals, UN partners, and donors to resolve outstanding questions more efficiently are underway and should be continued. A unified comprehensive budget that identifies all court costs and funding sources should also be prepared to better clarify the court’s needs.
- Funding: As of July 10, the court had a funding gap of approximately US$1 million for 2019 operations, and no funds pledged for future years of operations, which are anticipated to annually cost approximately $12.4 million. Existing donors – the United States, France, the Netherlands, and the European Union – should increase their support. Other justice-supporting states that have yet to make a financial contribution, such as Canada, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden should consider stepping forward. UN oversight in the handling of funds remains advisable to insulate the court from actual or perceived concerns of financial impropriety.
“The Special Criminal Court emerged out of the strong, unequivocal desire on the part of Central Africans to break cycles of violence and impunity in the country,” Keppler said. “The government and international partners should protect their investment by being vigilant on the need for justice and giving the court essential resources to get its difficult job done.”