Justice needed as crisis looms in central and east Africa

With 3.7M people on the move, 52% of whom are women, the Democratic Republic of Congo currently  is the most affected country by internal displacements in the world. © FAO
A humanitarian crisis is emerging in central and east Africa with several countries facing rising armed violence, displacement and food insecurity. To help curb the escalating situation, the United Nations and civil society have reiterated the urgent need to bring perpetrators of human rights abuses to justice.

In its latest report the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs states that "conflict is pervasive and spreading in South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), while Kenya faces the risk of election-related violence in 2017." Meanwhile, a fragile peace is under threat in the Central African Republic, and authorities in Cameroon are alleged to have tortured hundreds of detainees in the fight against Boko Haram.

According to the UN report, nearly 640,000 refugees and asylum seekers have sought protection in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa region since the start of 2017, making for a total of 4.4 million displaced persons. The majority of the newly displaced are reportedly from South Sudan and Burundi. South Sudan has become the origin of the fastest growing refugee crisis globally while the DRC this year topped the charts for the world’s highest number of people fleeing conflict internally.

In an open debate on enhancing African capacities in peace and security at the UN Security Council last week,  Secretary-General António Guterres said the UN and the African Union share an interest in strengthening mechanisms to defuse conflicts before they escalate and to manage them effectively when they occur.

While some of the situations in the troubled region have already begun to show hopeful signs following international action or pressure, including by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in some cases, others are making it clear that a wide spectrum of responses within the Rome Statute system of international justice will need to come into play in the region for lasting peace to be possible.

 

Democratic Republic of Congo

Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) this week reported that a looming food crisis threatens to tip the DRC into a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe. Nearly half of the country's 26 provinces are affected by inter-communal conflict, armed violence, natural disasters and disease.

NRC indicates that the December 2016 power-sharing agreement in the DRC has effectively collapsed and that the elections planned for 2017 will likely be postponed. Since August 2016, more than 3,000 people have been killed — 491 of whom were in the troubled Kasai Province alone — with 1.4 million more displaced due to fighting involving government forces and militia groups vying for control.

Earlier this month, 38 potential mass graves were identified in the western part of Kasai, bringing the total number to 80. For the UN's part, human rights chief  Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has appointed experts to investigate reports of the “recruitment and use of child soldiers, sexual and gender-based violence, destruction of houses, schools, places of worship, and State infrastructure by local militias, as well as of mass graves" in Kasai. This followed a UN report suggesting that government forces dug the graves. Government officials have denied the allegations.

Meanwhile, possibilites of justice for international crimes committed in the DRC have already begun to surface.

Reports emerged this week that Congolese rebel leader Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, wanted by DRC authorities for crimes against humanity including mass rape, surrendered to UN peacekeepers.

In a more hopeful development still, the ICC Trust Fund for Victims submitted its draft implementation plan  for reparations in the case of convicted militia leader Germain Katanga, as ordered by Trial Chamber II in March 2017. Once approved, the plan will aim to help those affected by war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Katanga during an attack on Bogoro village in eastern DRC in 2003.

 

Central African Republic

A recent report from Human Rights Watch indicated that hundreds have been killed and thousands displaced in the Central African Republic, with civilians — and children in particular —increasingly targeted in murders, abductions, rapes and recruitment into armed groups.

According to Human Rights Watch, the alleged crimes fall under both the jurisdiction of the ICC and of the domestic Special Criminal Court (SCC) once the newly established judicial body becomes operational. The SCC will mark an important opportunity for the CAR to take international justice into its own hands under the Rome Statute's complementarity principle.

Meanwhile a new bout of violence in the CAR, involving the killings of two Moroccan peacekeepers this week, risks derailing years of efforts to restore a fragile stability, the United Nations warned. The UN chief called on all parties to stop the violence and "take action to avoid a further deterioration of the fragile security situation in the country.''

The CAR, where two separate ICC investigations are underway, is struggling to emerge from a civil war that erupted in 2013 following the overthrow of former President Francois Bozizé, a Christian, by Muslim rebels from the Seleka coalition. The ICC Prosecutor's second investigation in the CAR involves sectarian conflict beginning in 2012.

Bozizé rose to power in 2003 after deposing predecessor Ange-Félix Patassé. Patassé had enlisted the DRC's Mouvement de Libération du Congo rebel militia under the command of Jean-Pierre Bemba in an unsuccessful attempt to thwart the coup. Bemba was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2016 as part of the first ICC investigation in the CAR.

 

Burundi

Unlawful attacks and killings remain rampant in Burundi, two years after the announcement of President Nkurunziza’s candidacy for a third term in office first triggered an outbreak of violence. Nine human rights organizations have urged the ICC Prosecutor to advance the Court's preliminary examination in the country to the full investigation stage as soon as possible.

The ICC prosecutor should “promptly start full investigation and issue arrest warrants against those who are responsible for the crimes”, says Lambert Nigarura, an exiled human rights activist.

"In the streets, violence from the hands of the police or the Imbonerakure is an almost daily occurrence," one civilian said of her daily ordeal in an interview with Trial International. "Every day that God created, at least two people are assassinated – and that’s on top of enforced disappearances."

In light of the government’s refusal to cooperate with the AU and UN, the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect this week called on the UN Security Council to impose asset freezes and travel bans against those who threaten Burundi’s peace and security.

 

Cameroon

Apparent abuses at the hands of authorities in Cameroon have jolted civil society into action.

A new Amnesty International report alleges crimes committed by the government of Cameroon in the fight against Boko Haram, identifying 20 sites used by Cameroonian, US and French personnel for the alleged torture of hundreds of detainees, including underage boys and people with mental and physical disabilities suspected of supporting the armed group.

“These horrific violations amount to war crimes," said Alioune Tine, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa. "Given the weight of the evidence we have uncovered, the authorities must initiate independent investigations into these practices of incommunicado detention and torture, including potential individual and command responsibility."

For some, the starting point for members of the international community to curb the violence is simple. "By turning a blind eye to abuses in Cameroon, the US is only likely to worsen the terrorism problem in the region," writes Simon Allison of the Institute for Security Studies.

 

South Sudan

Amnesty International has reported thousands of acts of sexual violence against women and girls in South Sudan in a continuing conflict that has led to the largest concentration of child soldiers on the continent, and potentially in the world.

According to the UN, almost 2 million people are internally displaced within South Sudan, and more than 1.9 million South Sudanese have fled the country as refugees and asylum-seekers since December 2013. 

Numerous serious human rights abuses against civilians in South Sudan have been reported, including killing, torture, rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence, recruitment of child soldiers, and destruction of property and livelihoods.

Absent South Sudan's ICC membership or a UN Security Council referral of jurisdiction over the situation in the country to the ICC, both the UN human rights chief and members of civil society have called on the African Union Commission and the government of South Sudan to urgently establish a hybrid court to try perpetrators of grave crimes.