Ongoing violence by armed groups leaves populations in the Central African Republic at risk of atrocity crimes.
Despite the end of the 2013–2015 armed conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR), violence by predatory armed groups – including factions of the ex-Séléka rebel alliance and anti-balaka militias – continues to threaten populations throughout the country. Although the government and 14 armed groups signed a peace deal on 6 February 2019, some signatories continue to violate the agreement and have consolidated their control over territory.
Tensions in CAR rose ahead of the country’s 27 December 2020 general elections as an alliance of six anti-balaka and ex-Séléka armed groups, known as the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), launched a series of attacks across the country to disrupt the elections. During December the Human Rights Division of the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR (MINUSCA) documented numerous violations and abuses of human rights and international law, with armed groups party to the peace agreement, including members of the CPC, responsible for 90 percent of incidents.
During January the CPC seized several towns, blocked the country’s primary trade route and attacked the outskirts of the capital, Bangui. The violence prompted the government to impose a state of emergency during January. However, soldiers from the Armed Forces of CAR (FACA) have reportedly utilized disproportionate and excessive force to enforce the curfew, resulting in civilian casualties. Although FACA retook control of several strategic areas during mid-February, instability and violence persists, particularly in the west, center and south-east regions. On 5 February the government extended the state of emergency for six months.
The UN Refugee Agency has reported increased incidents of grave human rights violations in CAR during February, including the abduction and killing of civilians, unlawful detention, torture, assault, looting, conflict-related sexual violence and gang rape, and forced recruitment. According to Amnesty International, 14 people were killed at a religious site during clashes in Bambari on 16 February. Almost 3,000 children have also been recruited by armed groups across the country so far in 2021.
The UN Panel of Experts on CAR has documented evidence of FACA perpetrating abuses against civilians between September-December 2020, including sexual violence against minors, recruitment and use of children, military use of schools, summary executions and forced disappearances, as well as arbitrary arrests and detentions.
The protracted crisis in CAR has its origins in the overthrow of President François Bozizé on 24 March 2013 by the mainly Muslim Séléka rebel alliance. Abuses by the Séléka led to the formation of predominantly Christian anti-balaka militias and the collapse of state institutions. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has reported that both anti-balaka and ex-Séléka forces may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity between 2013-2015. Most perpetrators have not been held accountable.
More than 1.5 million people – almost a third of the country’s population – have fled their homes since 2013, including at least 200,000 who have fled since December 2020. At least 2.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection.
Ongoing violence and allegations of serious human rights violations by armed groups highlight the risks resulting from limited governmental capacity outside the capital. Armed groups continue to control the majority of territory in CAR and profit from illegal taxation and arms trafficking. The cross-border flow of foreign fighters, arms and natural resources are fueling the crisis in CAR.
Although the 2019 peace agreement was hailed as an opportunity to bring an end to the armed conflict, the climate of impunity enabled human rights violations and abuses to persist. Two years later, the CPC’s offensive threatens to formally end the agreement.
The government requires ongoing international assistance to stabilize the country and uphold its responsibility to protect.
The UN Security Council (UNSC) has passed 14 resolutions since October 2013 that emphasize the government’s responsibility to protect populations in CAR. A UNSC-mandated sanctions regime and arms embargo have been in place since 2013, imposing travel bans and asset freezes on 13 individuals and two entities.
During May 2014 the government referred the situation in CAR to the International Criminal Court (ICC). On 16 February 2021 the trial of two former anti-balaka leaders, Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona, for war crimes and crimes against humanity began at the ICC. Both were transferred to the Court by the CAR government. On 24 January CAR authorities surrendered the first Séléka suspect, Mahamat Said Abdel Kani, to the ICC to face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in 2013.
On 14 January 2021 UN Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect issued a statement expressing their concern over the deteriorating situation in CAR, stating that recent attacks constitute atrocity crimes.
On 16 February the Peace and Security Council of the African Union (AU) adopted a communiqué condemning attacks by the CPC, noting that they amount to “flagrant violations of human rights, war crimes and crimes against humanity” and calling on political actors and armed groups to desist from propagating hate speech.
On 12 March the UNSC adopted a resolution increasing the military and police deployment for MINUSCA to support the protection of civilians and facilitate humanitarian access.
The CPC must immediately cease hostilities and ensure unimpeded access to humanitarian aid. Signatories to the peace deal must comply with their commitments, refrain from any action limiting the restoration of state authority and fully adhere to their obligations under International Humanitarian Law.
National authorities should prioritize accountability for atrocity crimes to end the cycle of impunity.
The AU and Economic Community of Central African States should urgently assist MINUSCA and the CAR government in their attempts to end ongoing violence. The UNSC and AU should impose sanctions on any groups or individuals that endanger the peace agreement. MINUSCA must be given the necessary support to strengthen its capacity to protect civilians. The international community should continue to call for security sector reform to bolster FACA’s capacity to protect civilians while respecting human rights.