On May 9, France’s National Assembly unanimously passed a resolution designating Russia’s state-linked paramilitary Wagner Group a terrorist organization.
The non-binding resolution is intended to persuade the European Union to officially designate Wagner a terrorist entity, subjecting it to sanctions.
Those sanctions would result in the freezing of Wagner’s funds and other financial assets in the European Union and prohibit EU entities from directly or indirectly making funds or resources available to the group.
Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin responded by accusing France of its own atrocities in the CAR, while claiming Wagner mercenaries had served as a liberating force.
Prigozhin accused French forces in CAR of a number of abuses, from sexual violence to organ harvesting.
“We saved a whole country called [the Central African Republic], saved tens of thousands of lives from bandits, terrorists, and, most importantly, from the French, who simply mocked them.” he said.
The claim is false.
While some of Prigozhin’s accusations against French forces are credible, that does not change the malign nature of Wagner’s activities in CAR or elsewhere. Wagner has systematically targeted civilians and engaged in other alleged war crimes rather than “saving a huge number of people” almost everywhere they have operated. Wagner forces have also been accused of engaging in sexual violence.
The Wagner Group began operating in the Central African Republic, one of the world’s poorest nations, in 2017 after CAR signed a security agreement with Russia. Its entry came roughly a year after French forces ended their three-year military operation in CAR, which supported U.N. peacekeepers in the country. That mission was marred by accusations of sexual abuse against children by French troops.
France claimed to have secured its objective of restoring “calm” to the country, although a decade-long civil war rages on.
Across Africa, Wagner has been accused of propping up authoritarian regimes in exchange for access to mineral resources that have been used to fund Russia’s war in Ukraine.
In CAR, the mercenary group buttressed the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadera, while exploiting gold and diamond resources and battling armed groups.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, Prigozhin owns or controls two companies that conduct mining operations in CAR: Russia-based M Finans and CAR-based Lobaye Invest.
Wagner also reportedly controls a diamond export company called Diamville, which exports gold and diamonds — some of them illegal — to be sold in other countries.
Wagner forces have repeatedly been accused of carrying out massacres at artisanal mines, particularly in the border zones between Sudan and CAR.
Wagner has also propped up authoritarian rulers in Sudan in exchange for access to mineral resources.
U.N. experts have called on CAR authorities to end their relationship with the Wagner Group, citing reports that it has committed “systemic and grave human rights and international humanitarian law violations,” including torture, sexual violence and summary executions.
The experts also said they had received reports that Wagner mercenaries have committed rape and sexual violence against women, men and young girls across the country.
In one case, Wagner mercenaries allegedly raped two members of CAR armed forces that they were fighting alongside.
That was not an isolated incident.
The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a U.S. nongovernmental organization, described Wagner as “one of the dominant agents of political violence in CAR.”
“Wagner forces have also regularly engaged in opportunistic attacks against civilian populations, including sexual violence and robberies,” ACLED said.
In August 2022, a United Kingdom Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry found that civilian targeting accounts for 52% of Wagner’s involvement in political violence in CAR.
The report found this "exceeds the rate of civilian targeting perpetrated by allied state forces, as well as the major insurgent groups operating in those contexts."
The report further found that Wagner mercenaries’ targeting of civilians increased when they were operating independently rather than alongside state forces.
Benjamin Haddad, a member of France’s National Assembly, accused the Wagner Group of spreading instability and violence “wherever they work.”
"They kill and torture. They massacre and pillage. They intimidate and manipulate with almost total impunity,” he said.
Human Rights Watch also reported there is “compelling evidence that Russian-identified forces supporting the Central African Republic’s government have committed grave abuses against civilians with complete impunity.”
That includes allegations that “Russian-speaking forces” killed 12 unarmed men near the town of Bossangoa in July 2021.
Still, some of Prigozhin’s grave allegations against French troops carry weight.
A 2015 study commissioned by the United Nations found that international troops, mostly French forces, had subjected children to sexual abuse.
“The information reported by the children indicates that the violations were likely not isolated incidents,” the report said.
In one particularly egregious case, French troops reportedly forced four girls to have sex with a dog.
There is no evidence to support Prigozhin’s organ harvesting claims.