Bemba conviction a step forward for ICC and Africa

DR Congo's Jean Pierre Bemba walks surrounded by his security detail and with around 20,000 people along the main highway in Kinshasa on 27 July 2006 before reaching a campaigning rally. Image copyright AFP
Image caption Jean-Pierre Bemba got a rapturous welcome in DR Congo's capital 10 years ago

When Jean-Pierre Bemba drove through the streets of Kinshasa during historic elections in 2006 he was feted like a hero.

A man with a thundering presence, he looked confident, defiant and indestructible as the crowds thronged around his convoy in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Now Bemba is a war criminal, sentenced and convicted in a landmark case. As a former vice-president, he is the most senior figure sent to jail by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

And his nightmare is not over yet. A separate witness-tampering trial, in which he is accused alongside four accomplices, is still ongoing. He could do more time.

DR Congo warlord Bemba jailed over war crimes

What is the International Criminal Court?

So what is the significance of this case?

First of all, it matters because more than 5,000 victims testified, argues ICC Spokesman Fadi El Abdallah.

"Justice may take time but ends by being done."

He believes the Bemba judgement, for crimes committed in the Central African Republic (CAR), will give impetus to further investigations currently under way in that country.

And the case has cemented the principle of command responsibility, setting an important legal precedent.

But perhaps more significant than anything else is that it delivers on a conviction which Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda holds dear - that sexual violence as a weapon of war is unacceptable.

Bemba is paying the ultimate price - 18 years for rape in a part of the world where sexual violence is often ignored.

Let's be blunt here. We are talking about gang rapes, sexual slavery and crimes in which victims - women, men and young boys - suffered appalling internal injuries after the butt of rifles or other sharp objects were used to punish them.

I recall seeing a former UN envoy John Holmes, reduced to tears during a visit to a Congolese hospital by women, stripped of their dignity, silently leaking urine from gaping wounds sustained during violent sexual attacks.

Bemba's victims suffered the same. Perhaps today they feel some sense of justice.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Bemba had good relations with some of African leaders

Jean-Pierre Bemba

  • Son of famous businessman
  • Former assistant to Mobutu Sese Seko
  • 1998: Helped by Uganda to form MLC rebel group
  • 2003: Becomes vice-president under peace deal
  • 2006: Loses run-off election to President Joseph Kabila but gets most votes in western DR Congo, including Kinshasa
  • 2007: Flees to Belgium after clashes in Kinshasa
  • 2008: Arrested in Brussels and handed over to ICC
  • 2010: Trial begins
  • 2016: Found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity

Profile: Jean-Pierre Bemba

But experts caution against being too overwhelmed by this apparent victory for the ICC.

The court has been battling a PR war, especially among those who argue it has an anti-African bias.

"Expectations about the ICC are totally unrealistic," argues Mark Kersten, author of new book Justice in Conflict.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Kenya's deputy president William Ruto was allowed to remain free during his ICC hearing

Although he believes that the jailing of a high-profile figure like Bemba "sends some signals" to other leaders, he believes it is "hard to see a deterrent effect".

What he considers just as important is that "the ICC learns something from this case".

It has taken nearly a decade to secure Bemba's conviction.

"The ICC needs to think why it took 10 years to get to this point. It needs to become more efficient," Mr Kersten argues.

That includes ensuring it has cast iron evidence before bringing a case to trial and being clearer on the law being applied.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Former Chadian ruler Hissene Habre was sentenced to life

The ICC spent roughly $1bn (£680m) during the time it took to bring Bemba to justice, according to analysis done by Dr Carsten Stahn of Leiden University in the Netherlands.

And compared with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, it spends more money on support functions than actual investigations.

"It's costing a lot of money without much action and justice has been a long time coming," agrees Dr Rachel Kerr of King's College London's War Crimes Research Group.

The ICC is still an evolving institution. Bemba's conviction will be seen as an indication that it is on the right track but it still suffers enormous obstacles.

African bias

The first challenge is accusations of anti-African bias. Of the 10 conflicts the court is currently investigating, all of them bar one, Georgia, is in Africa.

Yet most were referred by the country themselves, two were as a result of UN Security Council resolutions and one case in Kenya was opened by former prosecutor Louis Moreno Ocampo.

Preliminary investigations include alleged crimes in Afghanistan and Colombia - but the perception is that has failed to sell itself to the world.

Secondly, the ICC is a hostage to bureaucracy, and diplomatic horse-trading.

Unlike the tribunals in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, says Dr Kerr, the world's first permanent war crimes court "is dependent on voluntary co-operation".

In the cases of Rwanda and Yugoslavia, states were obliged to co-operate under a UN mandate.

By contrast the ICC depends on co-operation - and it has at times struggled to achieve it.

Image caption Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir has been charged with war crimes by the ICC, which he denies

Countries like South Africa, which puts human rights centre stage, and by common consent has one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, seem to feel rather differently about justice where other Africans are involved.

It is currently battling against a Supreme Court ruling that found that South Africa broke its own international obligations by failing to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir when he attended an African summit in Johannesburg last year.

As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has also questioned the ICC for allowing Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto to remain free during hearings against them.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Bosco Ntaganda is known as The Terminator

Bemba's conviction comes just weeks after a Senegalese court sentenced the former Chadian ruler Hissene Habre to life.

Also this week the trial of another warlord from DR Congo, Bosco Ntaganda, resumes at the ICC.

The world's first permanent war crimes court may be under fire for its narrow focus - Syria is a case in point. Attempts to secure a referral to the ICC by the UN Security Council failed when China and Russia exercised their veto power.

Nevertheless, the Bemba case shows that the sentiment that Africa's citizens deserve the same protection against murder, pillage and rape as anyone else in the world, is one which is both worth fighting for and possible to win.

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