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Conflict in CAR and the International Criminal Court

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The political situation in CAR has been unstable since its independence from France in 1960, marked by four coups d’état and many more failed attempts.[1] The most recent coup occurred in 2003 when Francois Bozizé seized power from Ange-Félix Patassé. Patassé had won multi-party presidential elections in 1993. His presidency, however, was marked by a series of military coup attempts prompting the involvement of a small UN force. In 1999, Patassé was reelected but failed to unite the various armed groups and political factions, opening the path for a new wave of violence.

In 2001, former President Kolingba[2] tried to seize power, prompting Patassé to seek assistance from Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the Ugandan-backed rebel group, the Mouvement de Liberation du Congo (MLC). The MLC had been active in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, occupying most of the northern part of the country bordering CAR. Ultimately, the coup failed. In the aftermath, Patassé accused his chief of staff Bozizé of disloyalty. Bozizé  then fled to Chad but returned a year later to oust Patassé. Bozizé’s troops quickly reached the capital Bangui resulting in heavy fighting. In order to contain the invading forces, Patassé again requested help from Jean-Pierre Bemba. Bemba’s Banyamulenge troops pushed the rebel back to the north, but in the process committed mass atrocities against civilians. Ultimately, however, Bozizé was successful and seized power in 2003. Bozizé held power in a transitional government and was then elected president through general elections in 2005 in a contentious political process.

Till this day, however, instability continues unabated, with various rebel groups active mainly in the northern part of the country. Soon after the 2005 elections, violence broke out again in the northwest of the country, causing the displacement of more than 100,000 civilians.[3] Among the armed groups involved, the Popular Army for the Restoration of the Republic and Democracy (APRD) was the most prominent, with members of Patassé’s former presidential guard and local self-defense groups seeking security for their communities. Aside from the political power struggle, the rebellion in the northwest is fuelled by the situation of chronic insecurity, where civilians decided to take up arms against bandits known as zaraguinas who have preyed on the villages for years.[4] APRD’s main targets have been government installations and its forces have been responsible for kidnapping, extortion, forced recruitment of children, and looting. CAR’s presidential guard responded by carrying out a dirty war against the rebels, which have resulted in attacks on the civilian population, burning thousands of civilian homes, and summary executions.[5]

In 2006, violence in the northeast of the country broke out as a second rebellion was lead by another former associate of Patassé, Damane Zakaria, now chief of The Union of Democratic Forces for Unity’s (UFDR). The UFDR seized several towns, as the government of CAR accused Sudan of being behind these attacks.[6] The violence made hundreds of civilian deaths and led to widespread house burning, looting, summary executions and the widespread use of child soldiers.[7]

After years of continuous fighting, the country saw signs of progress toward ending the conflict in June 2008 when UFDR and APRD signed a peace agreement with the government to disarm and demobilize their soldiers.[8] Parliament approved amnesty legislation later that year, which covers violence from 15 March 2003.[9] Although the Amnesty Act does not cover international crimes as defined by the ICC, it does extend amnesty for serious crimes committed by Bozizé’s army and presidential guard, the CAR rebel groups, and a more limited scope of potential crimes committed by Ange-Félix Patassé and several of his associates.[10]  In December 2008, the CAR government and rival rebel groups ratified a resolution to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission; however the mechanisms for its implementation are yet to be defined. More recently, the process culminated with the creation of a national unity government incorporating two rebel leaders in early 2009.[11]

Involvement of the ICC

During 2002-2003, widespread violence committed by all parties, including Bemba’s troops, prompted local human rights organizations affiliated with the International Federation for Human Rights to investigate serious crimes in the most affected neighbourhoods of the capital.[12] The evidence was sent to the newly established ICC to suggest investigation. A year later,  the government of CAR officially referred the situation to the Court in December 2004. The Prosecutor opened an investigation in May 2007. In May of the following year the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber issued the first arrest warrant in situation of CAR against Jean Pierre Bemba.[13] Bemba, who was travelling in Belgium at the time, was arrested the day after the arrest warrant was unsealed. He was subsequently transferred to The Hague. In 2009 the Pre-Trial Chamber confirmed charges of two crimes against humanity (rape and murder) and three war crimes (rape, murder, and pillage), as a military leader.  To date, he is the only person facing trial in the situation of CAR. The trial is set to start in 2010.

[1] Berman, EG et al.

[2] Kolingba was president of CAR between 1981 and 1993. He seized power from Dacko through a coup and lost it to Patassé in the 1993 presidential elections.

[3]  Peter Bouckaert, Olivier Bercault and Human Rights Watch, State of Anarchy : Rebellion and Abuses Against Civilians. New York, NY: Human Rights Watch, 2007. UN OCHA Central African Republic Fact Sheet, June 2007,

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  Ibid.

[6]  CAR Rebels Seize Town Near Chad, BBC NEWS, sec. 2009, 30 October 2006, 2006 (accessed 10/23/2009).

[7]  Bouckaert, Bercault and Human Rights Watch, State of Anarchy : Rebellion and Abuses Against Civilians.

[8]  International Crisis Group, Central African Republic: Untangling the Political Dialogue,2008.

[9] Thijs Bouwknegt. Central African Republic: amnesty for peace. Radio Netherlands Worldwide, 30-09-2008

[10]  International Center for Transitional Justice, Regional Dynamics in Central Africa: Confronting Past Crimes at the National Level, (accessed October/23, 2009).

[11]  Touadera Names Rebels in New Central African Republic Govt, AFP, sec. 2008, 9 December 2008, (accessed 10/23/2009).

[12] Marlies Glasius, We ourselves, we are part of the Functioning: The ICC, Victims, and Civil Society in the Central African Republic, African Affairs, 108 (430) 2008: 49-67.  International Federation for Human Rights. War Crimes in the Central African Republic: 'When the Elephants Fight, the Grass Suffers'. Paris: IFHR; 2003

[13] International Criminal Court, Prosecutor opens investigation in the Central African Republic (The Hague: ICC Press Release, 2007)