War crimes round-up: can Central African Republic set an example for justice on the continent?

Geneva Solutions’s monthly “war criminal hunt” in collaboration with the Geneva-based NGO Civitas Maxima.

These past weeks, there has been considerable movement on the international justice front in countries such as France and Switzerland. When victims of international crimes are unable to find justice in their own countries, some manage to find it elsewhere. Either states, for the most part in Europe, pursue such cases through universal jurisdiction, or the International Criminal Court holds its own trials in the Hague. However, this raises the question as to whether justice for international crimes is ever served where the crimes were actually committed.

On the African continent, precedents do exist. Over two decades, there have been successful trials in Arusha and Kigali on the Rwandan genocide, in Freetown on the civil war in Sierra Leone, and in Dakar, Senegal, on the case of the former president of Chad, Hissène Habré. Since then, however, on a continental scale, little has happened to bring justice for international crimes on African soil.

One of the most interesting – and most recent – of these justice efforts remains relatively unknown to the general public, even though it has achieved tangible results since 2022 under terribly difficult conditions.

In 2015, under UN sponsorship, a Special Criminal Court (SCC) was created in Bangui, the Central African Republic, a country which has been plunged into a deadly civil war since 2013.

The SCC, faced with numerous challenges, only started working three years after its creation. It nevertheless managed to begin its first trial in April 2022, followed by its first appeal in July 2023. This judgement – hailed internationally for its legal rigour – concerned three members of one of the most powerful armed groups that terrorised the northwest of the country. Each one of them was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In early September, the court indicted a former rebel leader of national stature, who has been under UN sanction since 2017, Abdoulaye Hissène, on suspicion of international crimes. Last week, a self-proclaimed general of the anti-balakas faction, Edmond Patrick Abrou, was indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Other major arrests are expected to follow.

The courageous work of this court in the Central African Republic demonstrates that it is still possible for fair justice for international crimes to be delivered in Africa. It is also helping to create an interesting alternative justice model to the “extra-territorial justice” of the ICC and universal jurisdiction.

– Alain Werner, director of Civitas Maxima

Here’s what else happened this month

– NGOs bring two alleged criminals closer to justice in France. A man was charged in France on 13 September for his alleged involvement in crimes against humanity committed during the First Liberian Civil War. The proceedings against Saturday T. come after Geneva-based NGO Civitas Maxima informed French authorities in 2018 about his suspected role as an alleged commander for the National Patriotic Front of Liberia in atrocities committed between 1994 and 1996.

In a separate case brought to French authorities by NGOs, a former Rwandan prefect was arrested in le Havre for his alleged role in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Pierre Kayondo is suspected of having ‘actively participated’ in genocidal exterminations in Gitarama, Rwanda.

– Enforced disappearance and torture cases make history in Switzerland and Spain. In the first-ever enforced disappearance case against a Belarusian national, a Swiss court acquitted former special forces member Yuri Harauski of all charges. Despite publicly confessing to the disappearance of three leading opponents of President Lukashenko, the court held that it was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Harauski had, in fact, participated in the crimes. The daughter of one of the victims, with the support of Geneva-based NGO Trial International, local organisation Viasna and the International Federation for Human Rights, announced that she would appeal the decision.

In another landmark investigation, a Spanish court will be looking into the case of a former trade unionist who alleges that he was tortured by police in 1975. It will mark the first time that a case of torture and crimes against humanity committed under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco is being put on trial.

– Lundin Energy war crimes trial begins in Sweden. In 2010, the European Coalition on Sudan published a report alleging the involvement of the company in the forced displacement and violence committed by the Sudanese army and supporting militias against thousands of civilians in what is now South Sudan. It is asserted that these atrocities helped to ‘secure’ the area where Lundin was to exploit oil fields.

– Rights abuses relating to sexual orientation in focus. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled against Russia for the torture of a man while he was detained as part of the anti-gay purges carried out across Chechnya since 2017. In Kenya, where homosexuality is criminalised under the penal code, the country’s Supreme Court upheld the right of LGBTQIA+ associations to register as organisations.

– International Court of Justice hears Russia’s objections on genocide case.  Ukraine alleged that the Russian Federation abused international law by justifying its invasion as an attempt to prevent a genocide it claimed Ukraine was committing. Russia objects to Ukraine’s case against it, asserting that the court does not have jurisdiction and that the case itself is an abuse of procedure.

– Syrian refugee family loses EU court case against Frontex. A Syrian family deported to Turkey after attempting to claim asylum in Greece was told that it couldn’t claim damages against Frontex, the EU’s border guard agency, which acted with Greek authorities in a joint operation. The decision has been criticised as a missed opportunity to clarify Frontex’s mandate and accountability when it comes to human rights obligations.

– US military court rules Guantanamo Bay inmate unfit for trial. The ruling was made after a medical board found that the 9/11 defendant was suffering from PTSD and secondary psychosis linked to the torture and solitary confinement that he experienced during his detention at Guantanamo Bay.

– Atrocity memorials added to Unesco list. The UN cultural body added Rwandan genocide and World War I memorial sites, together with a former torture centre in Argentina, to its World Heritage List. So far, the only memorial sites inscribed on the list have been the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan.

Picture: Entrance of the city of Bangui, Central African Republic. COMMONS WIKIMEDIA