Civil society has reacted to last week’s historic International Criminal Court (ICC) sentencing of Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) ex-commander Jean-Pierre Bemba to 18 years in prison. The sentence, which is the longest delivered thus far by the ICC, comes from the Court’s first command responsibility and sexual and gender-based crimes convictions.
In March the ICC found the Congolese politician and former rebel leader guilty of crimes against humanity (rape and murder) and war crimes (rape, murder and pillaging) – committed by troops under his command during an unsuccessful 2002-3 anti-coup campaign in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Warning to perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict
Bemba’s 18-year sentence reflects not only the ICC’s first sexual and gender-based crimes (sgbc) conviction, but also the growing significance of sgbc prosecutions in the fight against impunity.
“The ICC has finally spoken, loud and clear: Sexual violence in armed conflict cannot go unpunished – its effects devastate entire communities,” stated Mr. Karim Lahidji, president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). “Let this sentence be a warning to all other commanders who allow their troops to brutalise women and men, girls and boys: your acts are criminal and you will be punished.”
No Peace without Justice (NPWJ) added some global context to the impact of Bemba’s guilty verdict and sentence, in particular as they relate to sgbc.
“Two days [before the sentence], the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict was observed for the first time across the world…to remember that sexual violence as a weapon of war continues to be a widespread and devastating crime committed in total impunity in numerous conflict-affected countries, from Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bosnia to Syria and Sudan,” said Ms. Alison Smith, legal counsel at NPWJ. “Accountability and redress for these past and ongoing human rights violations must be put at centre stage if there is to be any hope for reaching lasting stability, reconciliation and peace in affected countries. Everyone should consider today’s sentence a wake-up call in that respect.”
The Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice (WIGJ) welcomed the ICC judges’ attention to the particular cruelty of the rapes committed by Bemba’s troops against defenseless victims but expressed some concern over the length of the sentence.
“We were pleased to note the amount of time in [the] decision that the Chamber spent on addressing the crime of rape and the harm caused to victims. The Chamber imposed the highest sentence of 18 years for rape, although many of those harmed and within the affected communities in the Central African Republic may consider this sentence not high enough given Mr Bemba’s responsibility as the Commander-in-Chief. However, it is the highest sentence issued to date by the ICC and this is encouraging,” said Ms. Brigid Inder, executive director of the WIGJ.
The prosecution had sought a minimum sentence of 25 years’ imprisonment. Bemba’s 18-year sentence, if upheld on appeal, would likely be reduced to reflect the time he has already spent in ICC custody. The highest sentence available at the ICC is life imprisonment.
Commanders must answer for subordinates
The outcome of the ICC’s Bemba trial sends an unequivocal message to leaders of armed groups – whether national or rebel forces – that failure to account for their troops’ crimes will not be tolerated in situations of armed conflict.
“Other commanders should take notice that they, too, can be held accountable for rapes and other serious abuses committed by troops under their control,” said Ms. Geraldine Mattioli Zeltner, director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program.
“[The outcome of Bemba’s ICC case] sends a clear message that impunity for sexual violence as a tool of war will not be tolerated and makes clear that military commanders must take all necessary steps to prevent their subordinates from committing such heinous acts. If they fail to do so they [will] be held accountable,” said Mr. Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for West and Central Africa.
Bemba’s ICC judgment: justice seen to be done
Bemba’s conviction and sentence are significant from an institutional standpoint, for example as the ICC makes headway in trying command responsibility and sgbc cases. However, the closure the outcome offers victims of the 2002-3 conflict is perhaps even more meaningful.
“Today’s sentencing marks a critical turning point for the thousands of women, children and men who were victims of Bemba’s orchestrated campaign of rape and murder,” said Ms. Karen Naimer, the director of the Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones Programme at Physicians for Human Rights. “The punishment meted out today can’t turn back the clock, but it can bring a measure of closure to those victims who’ve waited patiently more than a dozen years for this day to come.”
“As reflected by the nature of charges brought against Bemba, crimes of sexual violence against women, men, and children were significantly brutal in the Central African Republic and were used as a means to terrorise civilian population,” said Ms. Alison Smith of NPWJ. “It is significant that several of those victims have been represented at the Bemba trial: as much as trials such as this can and do contribute to the rule of law and deterrence nationally, regionally and internationally, we should never forget that they represent a chance for the people of CAR to have justice done, and to see justice being done.”
Still long road ahead for comprehensive justice
To ensure that justice continues to be seen to be done, NPWJ recommends that the ICC reach out to victims’ communities to explain the sentence decision as well as the appeals procedure.
“[We] strongly encourage the ICC to undertake adequate and sustained outreach to victims and affected communities in CAR to explain the sentence and what the next steps are, including for any appeal,” said Ms. Alison Smith.
WIGJ, which was instrumental in the drafting of the ICC Office of the Prosecutor’s (OTP’s) sgbc policy, insisted that the uniquely devastating effects of sgbc continue to be assessed, including at the reparations stage.
“We hope that the reparations order still to be issued in this case will reflect the sexual violence crimes as explicitly described by the Trial Chamber as well as the gender aspects of the other crimes committed against the civilian population in CAR,” said Ms. Brigid Inder.
FIDH partner Observatoire Congolais des Droits de l’Homme (OCDH) called on states to support the special fund created for victims’ compensation and assistance.
“The next step is to address Mr. Bemba’s liability for providing redress and reparation to the thousands of victims of his crimes,” stated Mr. Mathias Morouba, president of OCDH. “We urge the ICC to address this issue swiftly, and for States to actively contribute to the Trust Fund for Victims to assist in its reparations mandate.”
International Crisis Group (ICG), meanwhile, highlighted Congolese victims’ calls for accountability for Bemba and the MLC in relation to operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“For the Congolese, it would feel like a missed opportunity for what happened there. One shouldn’t minimise what happened in the CAR but there is a sense of a missed opportunity,” said Mr. Hans Hoebeke, a senior analyst with the ICG in Nairobi, Kenya.
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