Justice in the Central African Republic: a model to follow?

These past weeks, there has once again been considerable movement on the front of international justice both in Switzerland and in France. Indeed, former Algerian Minister Nezzar has been referred for trial before the Federal Criminal Court, the first criminal trial in Switzerland for alleged crimes committed in Belarus has taken place in St. Gallen, and a new indictment for crimes against humanity has been issued in France for alleged acts committed in Liberia.

These steps forward in justice, which bring hope to the victims of international crimes, are taking place in an international context where the rule of law seems to be at a standstill, particularly in six African countries. In Niger, in July 2023, a military junta overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum, while in Gabon, Ali Bongo was overthrown at the end of August 2023 by the commander-in-chief of his Republican Guard.

Military takeovers also took place in Sudan in April 2019, in Mali in August 2020, in Guinea in September 2021, and in Burkina Faso in January 2022. The putschists or transitional authorities then in place have since been overthrown in Mali in May 2021, and in Sudan in October 2021 – where currently there is a civil war – and in Burkina Faso in September 2022.

When the military or others prevent African victims of international crimes from finding justice in their own countries, some of them fortunately manage to find justice elsewhere, mainly in Europe, a long way from home. Additionally, as the International Criminal Court (ICC) only holds its trials in Europe, the question arises as to whether justice for international crimes is ever served in Africa, close to where the crimes were committed.

However, precedents do exist. In addition to the trials held in Arusha and Kigali on the Rwandan genocide, and those held in Freetown on the civil war in Sierra Leone, another very important trial held in Africa itself will have been the trial of the former president of Chad, Hissène Habré, which took place in Dakar, Senegal, between 2016 and 2017, for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including sexual violence. Nevertheless, it’s true that little has happened to bring justice for international crimes on African soil. Supported by the United Nations, an interesting example still remains relatively unknown to the general public, and since 2022, it has achieved tangible results under fantastically difficult conditions.

The Special Criminal Court (SCC), created in Bangui under UN sponsorship in 2015, is located in the Central African Republic, one of the world’s least developed countries, plunged into a deadly civil war in 2013. Despite all the challenges that the creation of this “hybrid” judicial mechanism entailed, composed of Central African and international magistrates, it has managed to function smoothly, despite being located in a country where the state does not control a large part of its own territory, currently in the hands of armed groups. The country’s President, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, is accused of handing over some of the country’s resources – gold and diamonds – in exchange for the services of some Russian mercenaries from the late Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner group.

Within this context, and with low budget, the SCC was able to start working three years after its creation. It managed to begin its first trial in Bangui in April 2022, followed by its first appeal judgment in July 2023. Hailed internationally for its legal rigor, the judgment described how three people (who belonged to one of the most powerful armed groups which terrorized the north-west of the country) were guilty of war crimes, and crimes against humanity. In early September, the same court indicted for international crimes a former rebel leader notorious in the country, Abdoulaye Hissène, who has been under UN sanction since 2017. Last week, Edmond Patrick Abrou -a self-proclaimed general of the “Anti-balakas” faction was indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Other major arrests are expected to follow. A Genevan now heads the legal unit that operates this Court within the United Nations peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA). Magali Maystre, based in Bangui since 2018, is one of Switzerland’s most experienced lawyers in international criminal law. She worked for many years at the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia, she also worked for Rwanda, then in Kasai (Democratic Republic of Congo), and on Daesh investigations in Iraq. The courageous work of the SCC demonstrates that it is still possible – despite the many obstacles and the increasing number of coups d’état on the continent – to have access to justice when it comes to international crimes within Africa. This also contributes to create an interesting alternative to the ICC’s “underground justice” model, and even to universal jurisdiction.

The article first appeared in French on Le Temps on the 25th of September, 2023.

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