Jean-Pierre Bemba stands accused of committing crimes in the Central African Republic (CAR), but because he is a prominent figure in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), many people there, too, have strong opinions about his trial at the ICC. It is difficult to summarize opinions about anything in the DRC in a way that takes full account of the country’s great size and diversity. But as the trial of Mr. Bemba gets underway, we will attempt a first look at some of the commonly expressed Congolese views on the ICC and this particular trial.
Opinions on international justice and the ICC
The people of the DRC have had more experience with the ICC than those of any other country. All four accused persons in ICC custody, including Mr. Bemba, are Congolese citizens. The other three are on trial for crimes allegedly committed in Ituri: Thomas Lubanga, whose trial is nearing completion, and Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, who are being tried together. With this track record, what do people in the DRC think about international justice and the ICC?
Perhaps the most comprehensive examination of Congolese views of these issues was conducted by the Berkeley-Tulane Initiative on Vulnerable Populations in late 2007, and published in August 2008 [http://hrc.berkeley.edu/pdfs/LivingWithFear-DRC.pdf]. The survey included eastern areas most heavily hit by violence: Ituri District in Oriental province, and North and South Kivu, but also the populations of Kinshasa and Kisangani. Among the findings, 85% of those surveyed in the east believed that accountability for war crimes was important. But 25% thought that justice should be done through a court. These numbers were higher in Kinshasa (41%) and Kisangani (39%). Of everyone asked, only 27% had heard of the ICC. While most who had heard of the ICC had positive views, nearly a third thought it was not a neutral court. Almost a quarter of those who had heard of the ICC said that it wasn’t neutral because they believed it was working with the government.
This research took place before the start of the first two trials and before Mr. Bemba’s arrest in May 2008. Views in the DRC may have changed in response to those events and other factors.
Reactions to Mr. Bemba’s arrest
When Belgian police arrested Mr. Bemba in May 2008, reaction from his political party, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) was immediate. Thousands of MLC supporters rallied in support of Mr. Bemba in Kinshasa and in the capital of his native Equateur Province, Mbandaka. His spokesman in Kinshasa told reporters [http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L2550628.htm] “We received this news with shock and consternation… We must now tighten ranks. Mr. Bemba is innocent until proven otherwise.”
Pro-Bemba critics expressed concern that Mr. Bemba is the only one accused by the Prosecutor of committing crimes in CAR, especially noting that former CAR President Ange-Félix Patassé has not been charged. Liliane Bemba, wife of the accused, told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting [http://www.iwpr.net/report-news/bemba-defence-points-finger-patasse], “it would have been important for Mr. Patassé to be here.”
At the time of Mr. Bemba’s arrest, the MLC also issued a statement criticizing ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo’s timing. Mr. Bemba was about to be named the formal spokesman for the political opposition in the DRC. The statement accused the Prosecutor of politicizing the judicial process. At its core, this criticism accuses the Prosecutor of seeking charges against Mr. Bemba as a political favor to his rival, DRC President Joseph Kabila. Some Bemba supporters claim that the Prosecutor needed President Kabila to refer the DRC situation to the ICC in the first place, which led him to bring charges against Mr. Bemba while turning a blind eye to atrocities linked to the President. Indeed, Mr. Bemba’s defense raised this line of argument in court when it (unsuccessfully) requested that the Trial Chamber suspend or dismiss the case for abuse of the judicial process.
Bemba supporters were not the only ones to react to his arrest. Some other Congolese voiced satisfaction with the development. The human rights organization Club des amis du droit du Congo, which had previously criticized the ICC for failing to charge senior officials, signaled approval http://www.refugee-rights.org/Publications/Papers/2008/Bemba.IJworkshop.pdf of the arrest: “The court, through the cooperation of member states, has shown us that it is able to strike hard and fast.”
But others in the DRC expressed concern that Mr. Bemba was only charged for crimes in CAR, and not in connection with events in the DRC itself. For example, La Ligue pour la Paix et les Droits de l’Homme had very specific suggestions. It called on http://www.refugee-rights.org/Publications/Papers/2008/Bemba.IJworkshop.pdf the Prosecutor to investigate and prosecute, “the international crimes committed by the MLC…in Ituri, and more precisely in the territory of Mambasa in December 2002, and in Beni, more precisely in the localities of Kokola and Maimoya.”
And finally, there are those who welcomed Mr. Bemba’s arrest, but share the concern of some of his supporters that the Prosecutor has not sought to bring charges against pro-government commanders, or President Kabila himself. Domestic and international human rights organizations have documented what they say are atrocities committed by the DRC military that amount to violations of the Rome Statute.
Apart from the views summarized here, it is worth noting that many Congolese still have little or no knowledge of the ICC or of this case. Congolese opinion of the Bemba trial could significantly depend on what happens in the courtroom and how effectively the court and others communicate this to people in the DRC.