How can the U.N. restore the rule of law to the Central African Republic?

Women walk past a U.N. armored personnel carrier at the entrance to a sprawling camp for thousands of families displaced by civil war in Kaga Bandoro, Central African Republic, on Jan. 22. (Jack Losh)
Women walk past a U.N. armored personnel carrier at the entrance to a sprawling camp for thousands of families displaced by civil war in Kaga Bandoro, Central African Republic, on Jan. 22. (Jack Losh)

Recently, The Washington Post’s Jack Losh reported on the precarious governance of Central African Republic, where, “[i]n the absence of an effective government, more than a dozen armed groups and a multitude of local militias have usurped control of about 80 percent of the impoverished former French colony.”

Given this crisis, replete with rising social tensions and political violence, in November 2017 the United Nations Security Council extended the mandate of the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Central African Republic (MINUSCA), widely known as peacekeepers or “blue helmets.” Over the next year, the Security Council expects MINUSCA to protect civilians, facilitate peace and provide “support for the rule of law.”

But such a mission is likely to fail if we don’t understand what these concepts mean to CAR’s citizens. How do they understand justice? And what do they think about their country’s state and traditional justice systems?

Here’s how we did our research

As part of a program to improve access to justice and combat impunity in CAR, the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) worked with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative to conduct and jointly analyze a population-based survey in the capital, Bangui, and the surrounding areas of Bimbo and Bégoua. We surveyed 2,650 respondents in October 2016 in the local Sango language, using multi-staged cluster sampling methods. Responses were weighted based on the United Nations’ 2016 estimates of the adult population in each of the 12 covered neighborhoods.

Here’s the background

In 2013, an alliance of rebel groups called the Séléka took power from President François Bozizé in a coup d’état. In 2014, following cease-fire negotiations, a newly created National Transitional Council shepherded CAR through a reconciliation process that included a national dialogue, known as the Bangui Forum for National Reconciliation.

In 2015, the Forum convened transitional government officials, representatives of certain armed groups, civil society, religious and traditional leaders, and political parties to discuss the way forward. A “fragile peace” held through the national elections in late 2015 and early 2016. But sporadic violence resumed as leaders of various armed groups became disappointed with their exclusion from coveted state positions and faced weak incentives to relinquish their control over territory and resources.

We wanted to know how to strengthen CAR’s justice system by understanding what people thought about justice and dispute resolution. We focused the survey in the capital of Bangui and the surrounding areas of Bimbo and Bégoua — which are less riven by fighting than other parts of CAR where rival rebel groups contend for control.

Retributive justice is more popular than restorative justice

Bangui, Bimbo and Bégoua residents have a rather formalistic and retributive view of justice. When asked to define justice, 82 percent of our respondents talked about “applying the law.” The next most common elements included “establishing the truth,” mentioned by 49 percent of respondents, and “punishing those responsible” for wrongs, mentioned by 47 percent. Only 30 percent of our respondents mentioned holding a trial for those accused of crimes. Even fewer mentioned compensating victims or having perpetrators acknowledge or apologize for their crimes.

CAR residents are optimistic about peace and justice but disagree about amnesty

Fully 90 percent of our sample told us that peace is possible; 77 percent said justice is possible.

But public opinion is divided about amnesty as a way to achieve transitional justice. A third of respondents oppose any form of amnesty; 23 percent favor general amnesty; and 39 percent support amnesty for those who were not leaders or did not commit serious crimes during the recent conflict.

Residents of Bangui, Bimbo and Bégoua distrust others

The recent conflict destroyed many social networks. Not surprisingly, most people we surveyed trust few entities other than their families. While 83 percent of respondents said they trust their families, only 52 percent trust the army, which was the runner-up. Only 47 percent say that they trust religious leaders; 42 percent trust others from their own ethnic group; and only one-third trust their neighbors.

Trust drops even lower for local and national authorities, coming in at 29 and 30 percent, and for domestic and international NGOs, at 26 and 24 percent. Residents expressed the least trust in the United Nations, at 14 percent.

Such distrust helps explain why, of those who said they’d actually suffered crimes and disputes during the conflict between late 2015 and late 2016, only a minority, 32 percent, said they’d approached anyone for assistance.

Residents are most inclined to use courts for sexual and gender-based violent crimes

CAR has a history of porous borders and poor governance, which, among other factors, has undermined the nation’s efforts to establish an effective and legitimate justice system. So which types of crimes and disputes would citizens be willing to take to their nation’s courts?

Sexual assault and murder top the list: 69 percent said people should go to the justice system when there’s a murder, while 61 percent said the same for sexual violence. For these crimes, residents said they would be more inclined to go to the courts than to local police, traditional leaders or their families.

But the opposite was true for land disputes, financial disputes, family disputes, domestic violence and theft. For each of these types of disputes, fewer than 35 percent of respondents said they’d use CAR’s justice system for redress.

Why not use the courts? Those who said that they would not go to the justice system explained that they would be deterred because, first, it would take too much time to reach a resolution and, second, it would make their problems public. Those willing to take crimes and disputes to the justice system, by contrast, most often said they’d do so because the resolution would be enforced.

Residents are worried about basic services and humanitarian issues

Bangui residents are most concerned about meeting their basic needs. Little more than a quarter of residents say they are satisfied with their access to housing, food or water. Fewer than 10 percent are satisfied with access to jobs and employment. Successful rule of law reform will depend upon improving citizen access to these fundamental services.

Claire Duguid is a program associate at the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (@ABARuleofLaw).
Catherine Lena Kelly (@catherinelkelly) is an adviser at the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative and a Penn Kemble Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Timothy Meyer is a senior program manager at the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative.


The survey was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement. The views presented are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions with which they are affiliated.

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