Central African Republic: The Truth Commission with feet of clay

A “Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission” was officially launched in July in Bangui, with the swearing in of its members and election of its executive body. Without facilities, without a budget and without peace, some are worried that it will be just another empty shell like the Special Criminal Court for the Central African Republic.

A Central African refugee in Congo
A Central African refugee woman carrying water to the Ndu refugee site in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 21 January 2021. In early January, tens of thousands of Central Africans fled attacks seeking to overthrow the recently re-elected President Faustin-Archange Touadera. © Alexis Huguet / AFP
6 min 41Approximate reading time

The heads are appointed, but the feet are of clay. “We are already working. We have to start,” says Marie-Edith Douzima. This lawyer, known for having represented victims in the Jean-Pierre Bemba case that became a fiasco at the International Criminal Court, has just been appointed to head the new Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission (TJRRC), in a country torn apart by repeated coups d’état and years of civil war.

The task of this Commission composed of seven men and four women is enormous. According to its mandate, the Commission is to establish the truth and determine responsibilities concerning serious events that took place between 29 March 1959, when the founding leader of CAR Barthélémy Boganda died, and 31 December 2019. For this 60-year period, Douzima and her team are, reads its mandate, to “shed light on the serious violations of human rights, determining their nature, causes and extent, and taking account of the factors, context and motives that led to them”.

Central Africans are waiting eagerly. According to a recent survey by Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, a majority of people in the country – questioned before the presidential elections – think that knowing the truth would be a positive contribution to peace (70%), justice (61%) and reconciliation (56%). In December 2020, 59% of respondents had heard of the TJRRC, the law for which was promulgated in April the same year.

Recommended by the 2015 Bangui Forum and backed by the 2019 Khartoum accords, the TJRRC is also supposed to set up a Special Reparation Fund for Victims, propose a national reparations programme and work for construction of a memorial to the victims. The time given to the Commission to complete its Herculean task is four years – with a possible extension of not more than 12 months.

How representative is the Commission?

Even if Central Africans are keen to see light shed on the darkest periods of their history, the official launch of the TJRRC did not arouse much enthusiasm. The Commission’s composition has caused controversy from the outset. "The appointment of its members was not transparent,” says Ghislain Joseph Bindoumi, a former member of the steering committee for the establishment of the Commission and coordination secretary at the Central African League for Human Rights. “The selection process was exceptionally opaque. Only the announcement of candidacy was made public, and the rest was a matter of camaraderie. This Commission is not representative."

Ali Ousmane, also a former member of the steering committee and coordinator of the Central African Muslim organisations (COMUC), accuses the government of having done everything possible "to ensure that people of its own persuasion, who are subject to it, were chosen”. He says the Muslim community is not duly represented, even if the Commission includes two "officially Muslim" members.

Eleven Commissioners appointed

For international observers, the composition of the Commission is not so problematic. "We’ve never had a fully representative Commission. It seems quite representative to me, even if there could have been greater representation of young people,” says law professor Jean-Pierre Massias, president of the Francophone Institute for Justice and Democracy and a specialist on transitional justice mechanisms. “For the moment, the Commission’s composition should be given the benefit of the doubt.”

Abdoulaye Diarra, researcher at Amnesty International, prefers to leave this debate to Central Africans but notes that "among the eleven commissioners who have been appointed, there are members of civil society, victims' associations, religious orders, the Bar, the press, and also youth.”

The Commission must make choices

Obervers say the time scale is a big challenge. "This four-year period, renewable by 12 months, is very fanciful and unrealistic, given the Commission’s mandate to work on events from 1959 to 2019," says Bindoumi. He thinks this is a "joke". Ousmane also thinks that the mandate should have been tightened. "With such a broad time period to work on, the Commission should last forever! It won't have time to go through everything," he says. 

Lawyer and researcher Enrica Picco, a specialist in central Africa and former member of the UN panel of experts on the Central African Republic, believes the TJRRC should focus on the most recent developments. “The Commission will be more interested in recent events," she predicts. “There have been so many traumatic events in the CAR that when we talk about victims, it is events since 2013 that come to mind.”

As for the Commission president, she is reassuring. "It is certainly a challenge. It is a particularity of the Central African Commission and it reflects our reality. We think that going back so far will allow us to better understand what happened," says Douzima. She concedes, as Picco suggests, that her team will "define priorities", while keeping in mind that "all victims are equal".

“The moment is not right”

But there is an even bigger obstacle. How will the TJRRC function in a country with much of its territory under the control of armed groups? Bindoumi says that in a country where abuses are continuing “it doesn’t make sense”. He says it would have been better to envisage launching the Commission at the end of the war, “not rush into it". "There are people who will never come before the Commission because they have weapons, because they are in a position of strength. The same problem arises for the Special Criminal Court. The time is not right.”

Unlike his two compatriots, Hervé Séverin Lidamon, executive president of the victims' association AVED, believes that the Commission's work can contribute to the peace process. “It is important," he said, "that the TJRRC undertakes actions in areas (controlled by the government) to restore trust between citizens. It is also a strong signal to the perpetrators and their accomplices that justice will be done for the victims.”

Picco thinks this context of insecurity “will be the main problem for the Commission”. She foresees difficulties in deploying the people responsible for “conducting consultations to find out how many victims there are, then map the abuses, victims and presumed perpetrators, to plan hearings, but also to estimate the cost of the activities”.

Of course, Massias admits, "the current context poses a great problem, but there is such expectation of transitional justice in the Central African Republic that we cannot continue to postpone the date”. "Waiting would mean condemning ourselves to a kind of impotence," he says.

The challenge of being independent

One of the major challenges for any Truth Commission is that of independence from the government. "It is very important to maintain independence even if you are financed by the State,” says Rim El Gantri, a Tunisian expert at the International Center for Transitional Justice. “This is where the personality of the Commissioners, their integrity, their ability to put aside any personal interest and work as a team will make the difference. This is also where the work of civil society, victims' groups and young people is crucial, as they will be monitoring the TJRRC.”

Massias insists on the need for the government not to interfere. “Independence will depend on the attitude of government authorities and the attitude of the Commissioners themselves," he says. “It is in the regime's interest that the Commission functions independently. We can’t say in advance if there will be a disfunction.”

Picco says that although the Commission is legally independent, it is difficult to know the intentions of the State’s leaders. “It will depend largely on the regime," she says. “If the government decides to use it as a tool, there will be pressure, in which case the Commission will be just another empty shell like the ICC and the SCC. It will be able to organize hearings, but without doing any real truth-seeking work, so as not to worry the government. It is likely that the Commission will function, but without bothering the regime in power.”

Commission President reassures

Douzima assures us that her team is "determined to remain independent of any pressure", whether it comes from the government or another partner. “People might fear pressure," she says, "but we intend to work in the general interest.”

For Bindoumi, the die is cast. "This will be a Commission under orders,” he says. “If the process of selecting members was not transparent, it was so as to get people who will obey." Ousmane shares this view. "There are a few independent people in the Commission, but they can't do anything against the others, who are more numerous. It's going to be like the SCC. The financial resources will be used to pay fees and salaries, but the real work of finding the truth will not be done.”

A budget that remains "undetermined”

As for the Commission's resources, the law stipulates that they "shall consist of a budgetary allocation from the State budget". The State itself is supported by the international community. "I know that the international community supports the TJRRC and I think that the United Nations will support it technically and logistically," through the agencies of the United Nations Development Programme and the human rights section of the UN peacekeeping mission, says El Gantri.  

At the time of writing, the Commissioners still have neither premises nor a salary. The Commission falls under the supervision of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Reconciliation, which must provide premises and a budget. According to a source close to the UN, last year 80 million CFA francs (about USD 145,000) were allocated by the government to the pilot phase of the TJRRC. This year, the amount is said to be 100 million CFA francs. But nothing has been officially announced, on the government side.

The United Nations has a fund of USD 850,000 for “operationalization” of the Commission, says the same source, to be used before the end of January 2022. This will enable the purchase of equipment and support civil society work with the TJRRC. "At a rough estimate”, we are told, the TJRRC could cost between USD 1 million and 1.5 million per year. But it is too early, and no amount has been quoted to donors yet. First, members of the Commission are due to take part in a "strategic retreat" with international experts in September to start defining priorities and drawing up a budget, which so far remains "undetermined".

Whatever the external financial support, "the Central African government must commit within its means to prove its commitment," Massias insists.