For the past ten months, the Central African Republic (CAR) has been host to one of the world's most brutal conflicts, which has left uncounted civilians dead and over a quarter of the country's population displaced.
On July 23rd, representatives from the two main rebel groups in the conflict signed a ceasefire agreement, which may be a sign that the war is drawing to a close. However, some observers have raised concerns that the peace process could actually prove to be counterproductive, if it entrenches the impunity that has empowered the rebels in the first place.
In a series of photos posted to Twitter, Human Rights Watch researcher Lewis Mudge explains why that impunity has been so dangerous. His photo timeline of the conflict shows the cycles of brutal violence and more-brutal reprisals, as armed groups grow in power, unchecked by anything but more violence from their opponents. With each new round of violence and reprisal, civilians have paid a terrible price. At each stage, Mudge points out, the combatants were enabled by impunity for their crimes.
Before the war broke out, CAR was controlled by the brutal regime of President Francois Bozize, who took power in a 2003 military coup and held on to it with the aid of torture and other crimes used to terrorize his own people. The photos in particular show a torture facility sometimes known as Bozize's Guantanamo, and the awful methods used there:
In 2013, Bozize was overthrown by a largely-Muslim rebel movement known as the Seleka, which embarked on a campaign of violence targeting non-Muslim civilians, burning entire villages and committing massacres and other horrifying crimes.
Eventually, armed groups known as the anti-Balaka formed to defend against the Seleka rebels. Unfortunately, their "defense" came to include atrocities against Muslim civilians, who were subjected to murder and mass displacement in a series of organized, targeted attacks:
An Anti-Balaka leader named Maturin Kombo, the commander of an anti-Balaka group responsible for a massacre of at least 72 men and boys, spoke openly to Human Rights Watch about the violence his men had committed.
Kombo's willingness to openly claim this violence is, for Mudge, another sign that impunity is a key driver of the conflict in CAR. He's not alone. Columbia Law School's Rebecca Hamilton warns in Foreign Policy that rebel leaders have learned that taking up arms is rewarded with political power, which can be leveraged into government positions and other benefits.
Unfortunately, there are already signs that rebel leaders see the ceasefire agreement as implicitly promising amnesty. At the signing ceremony, Seleka representative Mohammed Dhaffane proclaimed that "those who refuse to take the path of peace will end up sooner or later before the judges." If that's true, then this ceasefire may turn out to be only a prelude to further escalation of the conflict.