Central African Republic: humanitarianism and international law under threat

As violence and attacks on humanitarian agencies continue in Central African Republic, the International Criminal Court must prioritise investigations and prosecutions against those responsible to prevent the situation spinning further out of control.


Central African Republic (CAR) is in turmoil. Over the past 18 months internecine violence has left countless thousands dead and an estimated 1.1 million people, about a quarter of the population, displaced from their homes.

The conflict has its roots in religious rivalry between minority Muslims, who make up about 15 per cent of the population and are mainly in the north-east of the country, and majority Christians (making up about 80 per cent of the population). But the situation cannot be simply characterised: regional economic rivalries and criminal opportunism are also at work. Séléka, a loose coalition of Muslim-dominated rebel gangs, briefly held the ascendance and seized control of the capital Bangui and, consequently, the government, in March last year.

Séléka’s control was brutal, scarred by extra-judicial executions and other rights abuses, and prompted the creation of the mainly Christian anti-balaka, meaning ‘anti-machete’ – self-defence militia comprising mainly rural youths armed with a motley arsenal of shotguns, machetes and spears. 

Under intense international pressure, Séléka surrendered power and a new interim government was announced in January, with the former mayor of the capital Bangui, Catherine Samba-Panza, as interim president in name, but lacking a governing infrastructure.

The violence has taken place despite the presence in CAR, a former French colony, of some 7,000 African Union, French and the European Union peacekeepers.

Wanted for war crimes

To complicate matters, Uganda also has more than 4,000 troops in CAR, pursuing the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose leader Joseph Kony and four other top commanders are wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity. And Chadian troops serving with the African Union forces were, according to a Human Rights Watch report earlier this year, complicit in assisting Séléka leaders implicated in the torture and killing of civilians.

In April this year the United Nations Security Council, deeply concerned about both the deteriorating security situation and the escalation of ongoing human rights abuses into full-blown genocide, approved the establishment of the 12,000-strong Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSCA) in CAR, with a mandate until 30 April 2015.

Despite its mineral wealth and natural resources, CAR has long been in a state of dysfunction, plundered in turn by colonial France and successive home-grown despots, and landlocked by neighbours who themselves are institutionally fragile: Chad, Cameroon, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Sudan. 

Although it became independent in 1960, CAR’s first multiparty democratic elections were held in 1993, since when election has alternated with coup d’état with metronomic regularity

Séléka forces have been responsible for serious human rights abuses, including massacres, rapes, executions, torture, and the burning of hundreds of villages.

Following the successes of the anti-balaka, retribution was swift, with mosques burned down, at least 100 Imams executed and, since January 2014, several massacres of Muslims resulting in more than 1,000 deaths – what Amnesty International has described as genocide and ‘an exodus of historic proportions’ with most Muslim families fleeing CAR.

Amnesty describes the fighting in the western part of the CAR as ‘the ethnic cleansing of Muslim civilians’ and has been harshly critical of the international community’s response to the crisis. It notes that peacekeeping troops have been reluctant to challenge the anti-balaka, and slow to protect the threatened Muslim minority.

Nigeria-based Razak Atunwa, Africa Regional Officer for the IBA Human Rights Law Working Group, highlighted a Human Rights Watch  (HRW) report of 3 April 2014 that exposed the lawlessness of both anti-balakaand Séléka in perpetrating gross violations of human rights. ‘The report states that the peacekeeping force has been largely ineffective,’ he tells Global Insight. Further, Amnesty International found peacekeeping forces had ‘acquiesced to violence in some cases by allowing abusive
anti-balakamilitias to fill the power vacuum created by the Séléka’s departure’.

‘The tradition, enshrined in international law, of allowing neutral humanitarian interventions to assist both the military and civilian casualties of armed conflict, is under pressure’


In the past few months there has been a resurgence of Séléka activity in CAR with a chilling new emphasis. In the most recent violence it appears that humanitarian agencies, such as Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders (MSF), have been deliberately targeted. These organisations work to ensure that the fragile web of health and nutrition services remains operating in a country where formal government infrastructure is virtually non-existent and about half of the population is in need of aid to survive.

In April, 22 civilians, including three MSF workers, were killed in an attack on Boguila Hospital. MSF has managed the 115-bed hospital in Boguila since 2006, and administered primary and secondary healthcare to an estimated population of 45,000 living in the region.

International law under pressure

In protest against this culmination of a series of attacks against its workers and a lack of condemnation from CAR’s transitional government, MSF briefly suspended its normal operations – it has 300 international staff and 2,000 CAR staff in the country – confining its work to emergency care.

Such attacks on health workers are not only a phenomenon in CAR, notes HRW and the Safeguarding Health In Conflict Coalition. The tradition, enshrined in international law, of allowing neutral humanitarian interventions to assist both the military and civilian casualties of armed conflict, is under pressure.

A joint report released in May records that hundreds of health workers have been attacked in dozens of countries undergoing conflict or civil unrest. The attacks include the killing of 70 polio vaccination workers in Pakistan and Nigeria

‘Clearly the attacks on humanitarian agencies are in breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949,’ Atunwa tells Global Insight. ‘However, it has increasingly become the trend in such internal armed conflict for humanitarian laws to be disregarded. This is because the participants are largely ignorant of the Geneva Convention or its applicability to them.’

The Enough Project, set up to end genocide and crimes against humanity, authored a report in May this year that identifies a number of relatively modest interventions – scaled against the backdrop of vastly expensive and so far most ineffectual large-scale international peace-keeping efforts – that might make a difference. 

The Enough Project suggests a ‘bottom-up’ peace process, where experienced mediators work with each individual armed group through local negotiations, to counter the decentralised nature of the conflict in CAR. The UN, World Bank and international donors such as the EU should assist in rebuilding the justice system and ‘prosecute those most responsible for the violence’. This should include the illicit wildlife and natural resource trade that has funded both the Séléka and the anti-balaka.

Further, the ICC should ‘prioritise investigations and prosecutions’ against those most responsible for the violence, ‘including those involved in sexual violence and economic criminal activity’. The UN Commission of Inquiry on CAR should coordinate investigations into violations of human rights and humanitarian law, while the UN panel of experts on CAR should recommend targeted sanctions for those involved in the illicit trade of natural resources.

Enough Project’s report also calls on the UN, EU and other donors to send advisors to help the government ‘deliver basic state services such as functional hospitals, schools, police judges, tax collection, and general state administration’.

Atunwa believes the Enough Project’s approach offers a way out of a seemingly intractable conflict. ‘A coordinated investigation of human rights abuses by both sides is pivotal. Firstly, it will send a signal to perpetrators that the international community will under no circumstances condone such atrocities. Secondly, it will serve as deterrence to all sides to desist from any further acts of such kind. Finally, it will aid in the reconciliation process if victims are rest assured that justice will be done on their behalf.’

As so often is the case in civil conflict, proposals for resolutions are far more easily formulated than implemented. It is only when the protagonists of violence see themselves under threat – through ‘prickly’ peacekeeping, a shift in fortunes or a prospect for a future role – that a road to peace may be negotiated.  


Karen MacGregor is a freelance journalist. She can be contacted at editors@iafrica.com