The International Criminal Court has garnered attention lately for its high profile preliminary examinations into crimes in Palestine and Afghanistan, as well as recent public attacks on the court by U.S. officials.
But the ICC made major strides last week in a lower-profile investigation into atrocity crimes in the Central African Republic, demonstrating its considerable power to intervene in some of the world’s worst ongoing atrocities.
Over the weekend, a commander in one of CAR’s brutal armed groups, affiliated with the anti-Balaka militias, was arrested and transferred to ICC custody in The Hague, just days after his arrest warrant came out. Alfred Yékatom, a.k.a. “Rambo”, is accused of commanding anti-Balaka forces suspected of committing widespread and systematic attacks against civilians and ordering the destruction of Muslim homes and mosques, among other crimes. (For a summary of the anti-Balaka and other armed groups in CAR, see Enough’s “Splintered Warfare” and “Splintered Warfare II” reports; public version of the arrest warrant for Yekatom)
Reports by the United Nations have said militias under Yékatom’s command have committed particularly brutal violence, including torture, murder, and forced disappearance. These reports were at the heart of the case developed by the Security Council when it imposed Yékatom an asset freeze and travel ban in 2015. But, unfortunately, given poor implementation by CAR and the region, as well as the weakness of sanctions when placed on individuals without their broader networks, these sanctions have not yet had the intended impact. Instead, Yekatom was elected member of parliament in 2016 after threatening voters to vote for him.
Prosecutions can, however, be successful and impactful in such an environment. For a region enduring some of the most deadly and long-standing armed conflicts and refugee crises, Yékatom’s arrest and broader ICC efforts to build cases addressing atrocities in CAR are worth celebrating. Yékatom’s case is part of the court’s second major investigation into crimes in CAR, following the trial and acquittal of Jean-Pierre Bemba for crimes occurring in CAR in 2002 and 2003.
According to Yékatom’s arrest warrant, ICC judges have found reason to believe he committed the alleged crimes “to target the Muslim population and others perceived to support the Séleka or to be ‘foreigners’ in Bangui and in western CAR,” in some cases using “violent and inflammatory rhetoric,” like, “‘destroy the Muslims houses so they will go back to their country.’” Judges did not find reasonable grounds to believe that Yékatom is responsible for the war crime of pillage, despite evidence presented that he ordered troops to set up checkpoints for extracting illegal taxes from civilians. Extortion in the form of illegal taxation has been a common feature of the armed conflict in CAR, particularly tied to CAR’s lucrative minerals. In eastern CAR, “armed groups continue to gain revenues mainly through illegal taxation and racketing of artisanal miners and collectors,” according to the most recent final report from the United Nations Group of Experts on CAR.
The court’s latest investigative efforts in CAR, known as the CAR II situation, represent a more comprehensive effort to address atrocities in CAR than the first, with additional arrest warrants and trials expected. The CAR II investigations, focused on crimes occurring from 2012 to date, highlight the court’s recognition that justice should not wait for conflict to abate, and marks progress in the areas of complementarity and collaboration: the ICC has cooperated closely with a new hybrid court established in CAR carrying out complementary war crimes investigations, known as the Special Criminal Court (SCC).
More broadly, violence in CAR is inextricably linked to business interests and greed. Those dynamics play an important role in the delivery of justice by the ICC and SCC. The Sentry’s most recent report reveals the rise of Abdoulaye Hissène, a violent armed group leader and war profiteer who has built an empire as one of the key players in CAR’s armed conflicts. As the ICC picks up even more speed on its investigations and trials addressing violence in CAR on the heels of Yékatom’s arrest, close attention to financial crimes like pillage, transnational business networks, and greed motives will be crucial to establishing accountability.