The Central African Republic has struggled with a painful history, but the country has been on a journey to reconciliation in recent years. My mission to the country was to support the Central African Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission in this crucial undertaking.
Building a Path to Reconciliation in the Central African Republic
August 29, 2022
Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and São Tomé & Principe make up Central Africa, known for its abundant mineral deposits and some of the most breathtaking landscapes.
It is also home to the Congo Basin rainforest, which is second in size only to the Amazon. According to the UN Environment Programme, it contains approximately 70% of the continent’s forests and houses one in every five species on earth. It provides a much-needed lifeline to over 80 million people and stores more than 60 billion metric tons of carbon, making it an essential part of the global climate response.
Yet, conflicts, displacements, gender-based violence, collapsing economic activity, deteriorating institutions, heated elections, and recurring violence plague most of Central Africa. This is more so the case in the Central African Republic, where, among its more than 4.9 million people, 610,000 are internally displaced, 2.2 million are food insecure, and a further 3.1 million need urgent humanitarian assistance, according to United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA).
Authoritarian leaders have been a defining feature of Central African Republic politics since achieving independence in 1960. This has helped institutionalize corruption and human rights abuses. Many people have been left on the margins, and impunity has reigned because of the failure of successive governments to provide for their needs or choosing to line up their own pockets.
Ending impunity and 60 years of violence
In order for reconciliation to occur, people must be willing to talk about what happened and accept responsibility for their actions. This means perpetrators must be held accountable for their crimes to help the country move forward. Those who have been victims need to be allowed to tell their stories for their voices to be heard and respected by those who committed these acts against them.
In recent years, the Central African Republic authorities have taken steps to combat impunity, including establishing a Special Criminal Court and referring cases to the International Criminal Court.
Another critical structure is the Central African Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission (CVJRR), established in July 2021 based on recommendations from the 2015 Bangui Forum for National Reconciliation.
The Commission works to investigate and assess accountability concerning serious events between 29 March 1959, when the country’s founding leader Barthélémy Boganda died in a plane crash, and 31 December 2019. Within four years, it must also establish a Special Reparation Fund for Victims, propose a national reparations scheme, and propose memorials for the victims.
The attention these ambitions demand places significant pressure on the Commission and calls for a rigorous selection procedure and an investigating strategy that ensures victims get the justice they were promised at the Bangui Forum in 2015.
“We know the whole country is watching, and this process can help our people move past conflict. That is why we want to bring answers to our citizens,” shared Marie-Edith Douzima, President of the Central African Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission, in a meeting with UNDP’s team in Bangui, which has been supporting the CVJRR from the outset. She is one of five women Commission members that have helped set a significant precedent for including women at all levels in state institutions.
A week of reflection on the meaning of truth and justice in conflict settings
Five years ago, I led the UNDP-MINUSMA joint project to compile data on serious human rights violations from 2003 to 2015, culminating in a Mapping Report now widely used by the Special Criminal Court and the Central African Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission. Since then, criminal courts have held hearings and convicted armed group members. At the same time, the Special Criminal Court finalized its prosecution strategy, launched investigations, and started its first trial. International partners, including the United Nations, have supported many of these efforts.
However, my mission this time around was different. After flying into Bangui in April, I met with the 11 Central African Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Reconciliation Commission members to discuss and strategize on preparing for the impending hearing of victims of the atrocities that rocked the nation for 60 years.
Taking a holistic and people-focused approach, we must examine and remedy decades of human rights violations. But for any of this to work, the meaningful participation of victims is needed. According to a 2021 perception survey by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, 70% of Central Africans believe that learning the truth will help bring peace, 61% think it will bring about justice, and 56% believe it will lead to reconciliation.
It is clear from surveys of this nature that young people in the Central African Republic are actively working for a more fair, peaceful, and democratic future.
“As young people, we are familiar with the heavy toll of conflicts in our lives. Many of us have had our education disrupted, some in forced and early marriages and several others have had to deal with losing family and friends. This process is important to us not just for the past but for the future, and that is why we are here,” said Huguet Francis Mongombe, Youth Representative and Member of the Central African Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission during one of the role-playing sessions I had organized.
I supported the Commission in setting up a timeline and method on how to investigate and hear victims of some of the most severe crimes and historical events that date as far back as 1959 up until 2019, including survivors of sexual violence and child soldiers.
While every crime is remembered differently depending on the ethnicity, religion, gender, and age of the victims and perpetrators, the Commission acknowledges that no incident is insignificant and must make difficult choices about which incidents to focus on while ensuring all Central Africans feel represented.
Though my mission has comes to an end, I regard it as a tremendous honour to have collaborated with the Central African Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Reconciliation Commission to craft concrete proposals that might aid in the healing process for millions. And with our UNDP colleagues in Bangui, the Central African Republic, we will keep assisting the Commission in fostering much-needed reconciliation at the heart of Africa.