16 Feb The Digitial Dialogue Series – The Fight against Impunity for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in the Central African Republic
The United Nations Team of Experts on the Rule of Law and Sexual Violence in Conflict and its partners launched in July 2020 a series of webinars, the Digital Dialogue Series. It is designed to allow academics, policymakers and practitioners to have open discussions, provoke critical reflections, and hopefully inspire a community of practice for the delivery of truly accessible and effective survivor-centered justice. On 17 November 2020, the fourth Digital Dialogue focused on the justice response to sexual violence committed in the Central African Republic (CAR), and on the impact of this response on peace and security. This blog expands on the main ideas and considerations discussed by the panelists during this event. This piece has been cross-posted at https://www.blogdip.org.
Most parties to the conflicts affecting the Central African Republic (CAR) have used conflict-related sexual violence including to humiliate and stigmatize the victims, punish and terrorize communities. The use of sexual violence in CAR has been documented by many actors, including civil society organizations and the United Nations – notably through the mapping report of human rights violations perpetrated between 2003 and 2015, as well as in the annual reports of the Secretary-General on conflict-related sexual violence. In order to fight impunity for these crimes, combat their trivialization, and ensure that all perpetrators of human rights abuses are held accountable, the Central African authorities have undertaken a number of ambitious actions and achieved notable progress. These reforms are largely based on the conclusions of the Bangui Forum for National Reconciliation of May 2015, which were mostly incorporated in the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in the Central African Republic (APPR-RCA). In this regard, it is important to highlight the creation and operationalization of the first specialized investigation unit on sexual violence, the Joint Rapid Response and Prevention Unit for Sexual Violence Against Women and Children (better known by its French acronym UMIRR), which already transferred more than a thousand investigative reports to the relevant jurisdictions. The establishment of the Special Criminal Court (SCC), a hybrid jurisdiction integrated into the Central African legal system that has jurisdiction over international crimes, and the development of its internal mechanisms, such as the Witness and Victim Protection and Support Unit and its prosecutorial strategy, have also resulted in the prioritization of the investigation and prosecution of conflict-related sexual violence cases. Cases of conflict-related sexual violence would already represent about a third of the cases pending before the SCC. Another positive step has been the creation of the Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TJRRC). However, in a country still affected by high levels of insecurity and a fragile political context, what is the impact of these institutional advances?
Analyzing the population’s perception of efforts undertaken to strengthen the judicial response to conflict-related sexual violence is crucial, not only to better understand the influence of enhanced rule of law on peacebuilding and security, but also to ensure that this data informs national and international policymakers. The perception surveys conducted over the past three years with more than thirty thousand people by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, in collaboration with the Central African NGO Echelle – Appui au Développement, provide important insights. Indeed, their findings demonstrate that progress in the judicial response to conflict-related sexual violence results in a positive impact on the trust the populations place in the judicial system. This is reflected in the increase in complaints registered for such crimes, as well as the consistently relatively high levels of trust of the respondents in the formal justice system. Nevertheless, these surveys, and the testimonies of Central African practitioners, highlight the persisting challenges limiting the provision of a truly victim-centered justice response to victims and survivors. Only few cases have been tried and impunity remains the norm for perpetrators. Insecurity prevails in most of the country, affecting victims and impeding judicial actors. A number of other challenges also limit the capacity of the criminal justice system, including: the victims’ lack of understanding of their rights and of the purpose of the judicial process; the limited technical capacity of the judicial actors; the slow operationalization of the SCC; the lack of technical and material resources limiting the ordinary courts; and the frequent disregard by judicial actors of the deadlines prescribed by law for proceedings and judgments.
The experts and practitioners who participated in the fourth Digital Dialogue highlighted a number of possible actions to respond to these challenges. To be successful, all require, sustained political, technical, and material support by national and international stakeholders. In this respect, a clear national criminal policy needs to be adopted – one that prioritizes the investigation and prosecution of conflict-related sexual violence by national courts and promotes a victim-centered approach. Revisions of the national criminal code and code of criminal procedure could also help prevent harmful judicial practices such as the frequently-occurring requalification of crimes of rape into misdemeanors. It would also promote a better implementation of the national strategy for the protection of victims and witnesses. In addition, the cooperation between key judicial actors needs to improve, especially between the UMIRR, the national prosecutors, and between the ordinary courts and the SCC. The call of the Special Prosecutor of the SCC during the event to encourage the development of a cooperation framework between the ordinary courts and the SCC, aimed at facilitating substantive exchanges on cases pending before the various jurisdictions, deserves to be supported. Efforts to promote further cooperation should also include the development of close exchanges between the Central African jurisdictions and the TJRRC in order to strengthen the transitional justice process.
Furthermore, the Central African civil society, especially organizations such as Les Flamboyants or the Association of Female Lawyers of the Central African Republic, has an undeniable role to play in raising awareness among individuals of their rights, supporting victims throughout the judicial process, contributing to the availability ability and accessibility to medico-social services, and fostering a dialogue between victims and national political and judicial institutions. This dialogue is essential to ensuring that the multiple calls of the victims, and particularly those of sexual violence, to have access to the full range of victims’ assistance and reparations measures are finally considered.