Justice is the key ingredient for sustainable peace in CAR

To build a lasting peace, the CAR government needs to ensure there is justice for past crimes and human rights abuses.

CAR peace deal Reuters
CAR President Faustin Archange Touadera seen at a signing ceremony following two weeks of peace talks in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, February 5, 2019 [Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters]

On February 6, the government of the Central African Republic (CAR) and 14 armed groups signed a long-awaited peace agreement aiming to end the country’s devastating civil war. While the deal was celebrated as an important step towards peace both in CAR and abroad, now many Central Africans are asking themselves: is this the peace they have been waiting for?

This is not CAR’s first peace agreement. In fact, several deals have been signed and eventually collapsed in the last few years. While there are reasons to be optimistic that this time will be different, it is important to be clear-headed about the challenges that lie ahead. Much depends on how the agreement’s many compromises are interpreted and implemented. One compromise in particular – justice for human rights abuses – will require creative thinking as the peace process moves forward. 

Dealing with justice was a difficult component of the peace talks mediated by the African Union. A cloud of uncertainty hung over the outcome until the very last day. In fact, the text of the peace agreement only became known after it was leaked on February 8, two days after the President, Faustin-Archange Touadera, formally endorsed the document. Many worried that the government was reluctant to admit that it had agreed to a broad-based amnesty for the country’s armed groups, depriving Central African victims of the opportunity to seek justice in court. 

These concerns proved misplaced. The peace agreement makes no direct mention of amnesties, and it reaffirms that impunity is a core cause of the crisis in CAR. This is in and of itself a significant achievement given that amnesty was reportedly a non-negotiable demand of various armed groups.

And yet there remains room for concern. Beyond token invocations of the “fight against impunity”, the agreement says very little of substance about justice for serious crimes. Notably, it does not mention trials of perpetrators before the Special Criminal Court, a hybrid court that the CAR government helped bring into existence in 2015 and which finally launched investigations in October 2018. This is surprising, given that the government had, until very recently, emphasised that prosecutions of serious crimes were an essential component of the peace process. 

The new peace agreement seems to place the emphasis elsewhere. Adopting the language of pardons and reconciliation, it requires a Truth, Justice, Reparations and Reconciliation Commission (TJRRC) to be established within 90 days of the agreement’s adoption. The short timeframe will certainly ensure minds concentrate on getting the commission up and running, but it leaves very little time for public and expert consultations. There is clearly a risk that the new TJRRC will be unresponsive to the needs and expectations of ordinary Central Africans. 

More worryingly, an Inclusive Commission will operate while details of the TJRRC are hashed out. Tasked with examining “tragic aspects of the CAR conflict”, the Inclusive Commission has been empowered to recommend “action in matters of justice”. Some fear that the peace agreement’s vague language on justice foreshadows further compromises on human rights abuses. It is unclear whether the Inclusive Commission, which is composed of just eight government representatives and five armed group members, has enough legitimacy and public support to shape the public debate on justice in CAR. 

These developments may signify a broader policy shift in the Central African government’s handling of armed groups. Human rights groups worry that although the peace agreement makes no explicit mention of amnesty, pardons and reconciliation will be understood as an alternative to prosecutions. In fact, according to Human Rights Watch, some armed groups view the peace agreement as a de facto amnesty, and have warned that they will withdraw from the peace process if their members are arrested.

This is worrying. It suggests that there remain fundamental differences of opinion about the relationship between peace and justice in CAR. Much will depend on the resilience of civil society organisations, which have advocated on behalf of victims, as well as the international community. It is critical that the new truth and reconciliation commission finds creative ways of moving the discussion forward. How this will be done remains unclear at this stage, but the government and armed groups must find a way to share power and deal with past grievances without undermining Central Africans’ aspirations for justice.

One thing is certain: if there is to be a sustainable peace, various controversial topics arising from the recent peace deal will have to be decided in the next few months. As noted last month by the outgoing United Nations Special Representative, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, the peace agreement was a “necessary and decisive step” but “the most difficult part is still to come”. Justice is just one component of the peace process, but how the government and the armed groups handle this issue is likely to determine the future of peace in CAR.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.