Can The ICC Bring Peace In The Central African Republic?

Written by Andrew Friedman

On Wednesday, September 24 the International Criminal Court’s Lead Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, released a statement informing the international community that the Court would be opening a second round of investigations into alleged grave crimes committed in the Central African Republic.

Just three days later, speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, the country’s interim President, Catherine Samba-Panza, thanked the world for the United Nations intervention and peacekeepers in the country, but asked that weapons sanctions on the CAR be loosened so that local populations could play a greater role in putting the country back together.

While Samba-Panza also pledged to cooperate, and indeed, seek prosecutions at the ICC, the distinction highlights the difficult situation still present in the CAR, where the country must appease international actors whose support is crucial to ensure short-term security, peace and elections, but must also include the input of local actors to ensure local ownership and move towards a lasting peace.

As brief background, towards the end of 2012 mainly Muslim Seleka rebels began an offensive that would result in the March 2013 ouster of the country’s longtime strongman Francois Bozize.  Michel Djotodia, a leader of the Seleka, would assume the presidency, but would exert minimal control over the country as a whole.

In response to the violence and Seleka attacks, predominantly Christian anti-Balaka militias were formed and engaged the Seleka.

According to an ICC report, “as the conflict between Seleka and anti-Balaka escalated, the violence also became more sectarian. Anti-Balaka attacks allegedly targeted Muslim civilians, associating them with Seleka on the basis of their religion, while Seleka targeted non-Muslims in return.”

During this period there were allegations of horrendous atrocities, including, according to Bensouda’s statement, “murder, rape, forced displacement, persecution, pillaging, attacks against humanitarian missions and the use of children under fifteen in combat.”

New President, No New Era

In January of 2014, Catherine Samba-Panza was sworn in as the country’s interim President, tasked with bringing stability to the war-torn country and ushering in elections sometime next year.

In February the Prosecutor opted to open an independent investigation and Samba-Panza referred the situation to the Court in May, ceding jurisdiction to the Court for all crimes committed during the upheaval.

It is within this context that Bensouda opted to open a second investigation. In her words, “the list of atrocities is endless. I cannot ignore these alleged crimes.”

While the Prosecutor’s goal to provide a modicum of justice and stability to the country is laudable, Samba-Panza’s comments at the UNGA present a problematic dichotomy.

While the International Criminal Court has a duty to investigate and punish the gravest of international crimes when domestic legal systems are unwilling or unable to do so, it is often only those in-country that are truly aware what it will take to create a lasting peace.

Samba-Panza’s  took special effort to thank the international community for its efforts in attempting to stabilize the country, she also asked that the international arms embargo against the country be revisited so that local forces can bolster UN peacekeeping efforts because “of their intimate knowledge of the terrain.”

This request makes sense. UN blue helmets come from all over the globe. The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) is made up of troops from France, Indonesia, Morocco, Rwanda, Benin and Senegal.

Knowledge Of The Terrain

It is unlikely that any of the nearly 12,000 individuals has an intimate knowledge of the on-the-ground realities of the CAR. In order to understand this, they badly need the assistance of soldiers from the CAR and “their intimate knowledge of the terrain.”

The same, however, could be said for creating the conditions that breed a lasting peace. This has been a constant complaint against the entire international justice system and, in particular, the ICC.

Dr. James Okuk, a prominent South Sudanese scholar, writing with regard to the ICC’s indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir during his ongoing campaigns of tyranny in Darfur and in the country’s (now former) South may have described it best.

“Yes, it is true that ‘Justice delayed is Justice denied’ but it is even truer that ‘Peace disturbed is Peace destroyed’” In Okuk’s framing, an ICC indictment is a heavy disturbance to the peace process. In addition to Sudan, similar allegations have been made across the world, including in volatile situations in Israel/Palestine and Syria.

Samba-Panza is a much heralded leader with previous experience leading warring sides to peace within the CAR. By referring the situation to the ICC in May and reiterating at the UNGA that she welcomes the participation of the international justice system, it is likely she has made a conscious decision that the ICC’s investigation will not harm the country’s eventual road to peace.

Her request that soldiers from the CAR are able to play a greater role in stabilizing the country also shows that she understands that international actors do not always know what is best for domestic peace efforts. Hopefully the international community similarly realizes the importance of local participation and guidance, because without it there will be no lasting peace.


Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and freelance consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.