Populations in the Central African Republic are at risk of possible atrocity crimes due to ongoing violence by armed groups and government and allied forces.
During December 2020 a loose alliance of predatory armed groups, known as the Coalition des patriotes pour le changement (CPC), launched a violent offensive against the government of the Central African Republic (CAR). In response, the government sought bilateral security assistance, including from Russia and Rwanda. For two and a half years the CPC and other armed groups have launched attacks while perpetrating widespread violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), including killing and abducting civilians, the forcible recruitment of children and attacks on civilian infrastructure, humanitarian workers and the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR (MINUSCA). The Central African Armed Forces (FACA) – working closely with Russian security partners, including mercenary fighters from the Wagner Group – have responded with counteroffensives, forcing armed groups to withdraw from major cities. Consequently, the CPC and other armed groups have increased their activity in outlying villages and remote areas since late 2022.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has reported that two CPC-affiliated armed groups, including the Unité pour la paix en Centrafrique (UPC), have perpetrated systematic and widespread conflict-related sexual violence, including rape, gang rape and sexual slavery. Some armed groups are increasingly using or laying explosive ordnance, particularly in the west of the country. The UN has documented evidence of abuses and violations by FACA and mercenaries that may amount to war crimes, including summary executions, arbitrary killings, torture, rape and forced disappearances.
Ethnic and religious minorities, particularly Fulanis and Muslims, are being targeted in widespread abuses – including attacks, ill-treatment, illegal arrests and detentions – in operations by FACA troops and Russian mercenaries. OHCHR has implicated proxy forces – who were recruited, trained and armed by FACA and Russian mercenaries – in incidents targeting and punishing the Muslim and Fulani communities that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The police have also disproportionately arbitrarily arrested, illegally detained and tortured members of the Fulani community. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Security Council-mandated Panel of Experts have warned that the pattern of violations against minority communities risks triggering further violence along communal, religious and ethnic lines and may cause setbacks for peace and reconciliation efforts.
The protracted crisis in CAR has its origins in the overthrow of President François Bozizé during 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. Anti-balaka and ex-Séléka forces may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity between 2013-2015. Although a 2019 peace deal formally ended the conflict, armed groups continued to engage in sporadic violence. In September 2021 the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region adopted a roadmap for peace, which called for the revitalization of the peace deal. In 2023 the government has taken steps to decentralize the peace process by strengthening coordination between national and prefectural monitoring mechanisms, but sporadic clashes between the FACA and CPC-affiliated armed groups have limited the chances for dialogue.
Despite persistent impunity, there have been some advances toward justice for atrocities. Trials are ongoing at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for former anti-balaka leaders and a Séléka leader. From 22-24 August 2023 the ICC held a confirmation of charges hearing of an additional anti-balaka leader. On 31 October 2022 the Special Criminal Court (SCC) in CAR issued its first verdict, finding three suspected members of the “3R” armed group guilty of committing crimes against humanity and war crimes in May 2019.
In recent months, there has been a resurgence of armed group activity in the north, southeast and west. In March a predominantly ethnic Azande armed group, Azande Ani Kpi Gbe, emerged in Haut-Mbomou, forcibly recruiting Azande youth and violently clashing with the UPC, a predominantly Fulani armed group. Clashes have resulted in civilian deaths and the burning of homes, forcing civilians to flee. The UPC has perpetrated human rights abuses, including killings, kidnappings and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as rape and sexual violence against Azande women. Myriad armed groups are also fighting to regain control of former strongholds in northern Vakaga prefecture, including transhumance corridors and mining sites.
Government institutions have cracked down on civil society, journalists and opposition political parties ahead of a controversial constitutional referendum that took place on 30 July and local elections scheduled for September. MINUSCA has recorded cases of hate speech and incitement targeting ethnic and religious communities and migrant workers, particularly transhumance communities, as well as against dissenting voices.
The security situation remains precarious amid heightened inter-communal tensions and armed group activity along CAR’s borders. Increasing targeting of ethnic and religious communities, as well as proliferating hate speech and incitement, have heightened atrocity risks. The growing presence of explosive ordnance primarily harms civilians and hampers humanitarian organizations and MINUSCA’s civilian protection efforts.
CAR has a history of widespread impunity that has fueled cycles of armed conflict and atrocities. While there are several mechanisms mandated to deal with international crimes perpetrated in CAR, accountability remains limited with few alleged perpetrators having been arrested, prosecuted or tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity since 2013.
The cross-border flow of foreign fighters, arms and natural resources is contributing to a thriving conflict-economy. Competition for control of profitable minerals has resulted in armed groups committing abuses against civilians. Mercenary operatives have committed human rights abuses as they increase their control of gold-mining areas. The Wagner Group has perpetrated alleged abuses and intimidated civilians in conflict zones around the world, including CAR.
The new constitution has exacerbated political tensions and is a step toward authoritarianism. The constitution removes the presidential two-term limit, creates the post of vice-president, who would be appointed by the president, and will transform the parliament into a single chamber, which may undermine the independence of the judiciary.
All armed actors must adhere to their obligations under IHL and International Human Rights Law. It is imperative that all parties cooperate with MINUSCA, ensuring the Mission can effectively carry out its mandate. CAR authorities must guarantee the independence of institutions, respect freedom of peaceful assembly and association and counter incitement to violence.
Provincial and local authorities, in coordination with civil society, should implement community-based atrocity prevention and response strategies, including dialogue and mediation to address and mitigate the risks of inter-communal tensions.
All perpetrators of atrocity crimes in CAR should be held legally accountable, regardless of their rank, affiliation or nationality. The government should prioritize accountability by launching and operationalizing all criminal and other courts intending to address cases of human rights violations and abuses. The authorities must cooperate with the SCC to ensure that suspects subject to its arrest warrants are taken into custody, regardless of the political or military status of the individual.