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What the Bemba Trial Means to Victims

As the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba gets underway, political analysts will go into overdrive about what the case means for the fragile peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition, many will see this as a crucial test of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC’s) ability to deliver justice in a region whose politics is inextricably linked to bloodshed and instability. 

For those of us who support the notion — as articulated in the founding principles of the Court — that there can be no peace without justice and even for those with an ideological commitment to the Court, it is difficult to deny that there are a number of problematic elements in the case against Bemba. The primary problem is that he is standing trial alone: the former President of the Central African Republic, Ange-Félix Patassé, who invited Bemba’s rebels into the country in 2002, remains uncharged despite that fact that no less than the deputy prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, has indicated that “he is a co-perpetrator of Bemba.” In the CAR, the victims of the 2002-2003 battle between the current president Francois Bozizé, and then president Patassé, wonder why a foreigner is standing trial while their own countryman has escaped the long arm of the ICC. 

On the other side of the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo, victims in Ituri province, where the Banyamulenge terrorized the population between 2002 and 2006, wonder why Bemba is only being charged for the crimes that took place in the CAR. For those in Ituri who want to know what happened to their loved ones and why, justice will remain elusive – even if Bemba is successfully prosecuted in this case.

And of course at the political level, DRC’s President, Joseph Kabila, continues to be dogged by claims that Bemba’s referral had more to do with politics than justice, that his popularity ensured that he would find his way to The Hague when others who have perpetrated serious crimes remain at large, and that the Prosecutor is either haplessly incompetent, or willingly playing into the hands of African politicians. 

Yet beneath all the commentary and the legal acrobatics that will continue to surround this case, there are a number of important facts that must be kept in mind by people committed to peace and democratic progress in the Great Lakes region. Jean-Pierre Bemba does not deny that he and his troops were in the CAR at the time that the atrocities were committed. He does not deny having controlled a rebel army. He does not even deny that his troops committed atrocities, which could be defined as war crimes and crimes against humanity. Instead, his defense rests on the idea that he was not the commander in charge, and therefore did not know and/or was powerless to stop the atrocities.

It is a defense that will certainly ring hollow, not only for the victims of the crimes he is alleged to have committed, but for all survivors who have been caught in the crossfire between dangerous and powerful men. 

In May this year, I travelled to South Kivu to meet with people in the Congo whose lives over the last decade have come to be defined by rape and murder. Among all my memories of that visit, one is particularly vivid. I sit in an unlit room with two colleagues, talking to staff of a project that we fund – a legal clinic at the famous Panzi Hospital. They tell us about the new Sexual Violence Act that has just been passed and about how they use it as a tool not only for justice, but to educate their far-flung communities about rape and the abuse of women. We have heard these words before, in dozens of projects around southern Africa. We nod appreciatively. We are aware of the context, of the war that has raged across the Kivus since 1998. But this does not feel all that different from any poor community, anywhere else in Southern Africa. They tell us about the tapes they have made, which play on loud speakers on certain days advertising their services, and they begin to tell us about the many women who have come forward. They cite the progress they have made in Uvira, and a particularly articulate young man, who has led the group discussions until now, suddenly begins to cry. His mouth is stretched open, and he is heaving. He cannot help himself. He is surprised and embarrassed but he doesn’t know what else to do. He begins, through his sobs, to describe what he has seen and then stops himself – for his own sake as well as ours. It is an utterly unrehearsed moment of grief; wide and gaping. My colleagues and I are Africans, just like him. Ostensibly, this should help us to understand better. But as he calms himself, I am ashamed: I will never understand what he has seen.

The project lawyer breaks the silence and begins to talk about the workshops they run. She has experienced enough of these meetings to know that we are expected to go back to Johannesburg with facts and figures. And so, in a practical manner, she begins to rattle off numbers, taking us back into terrain that we can navigate: over a thousand women reached with workshops, seven hundred have come forward for counseling, one percent have pursued cases. I want to cry but I feel silly. “Why such a low figure?” we ask, stupidly.

She is patient with us: “Because the perpetrators are not known. And those who are will simply come back.” “So what do you do with all these women who cannot take their cases forward?” we ask. “We train them about justice.” Her responds lacks irony. I look at her, and she continues. “And always, we tell them about the ICC. That is the best part of the training we give them.” Now it is impossible not to cry. “Why? What has the ICC got to do with their lives?” we ask. “It is our hope,” she says. She is not an idealistic Westerner. She is a Congolese woman, a legal assistant, who speaks four languages, and works in one of the most difficult jobs in the world. “One day, the ICC will come and hear their stories. One day then, the rape will stop.”

Whether or not this is true, it matters that some survivors believe it. It matters immensely that as the Bemba trial begins this week, it is the victims and survivors of the CAR, and those in the Congo, in Sri Lanka, in Colombia, whose perpetrators will one day stand trial, who take center stage; politicians be damned.

Sisonke Msimang is the Executive Director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. She is a specialist in civil society movements and women’s rights.


  1. My heart cries with the Victims. Tying Bemba alone is not unlike trying Charles Taylor ALONE. Where were those that sent Charles Taylor? Justice cannot choose a few and leave the guilty known majority! This is why the plotters against the victims would COME BACK.Oh Women of Africa. RAPE RAPEand Wars is what we gain. It is good you commented about those who had been led by uganda, rwanda and burundi in the DRC and had over 6 million dead in the Congo. Why are they not facing the Music of jJstice NOW?
    “Justice delayed is Justice Denied” is a welknown English saying. WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THOSE INVESTIGATIONS IN UGANDA, RWANDA AND BURUNDI. ICC STOP THIS DELAY!! We have read that these three State armies BANK ROLLED the invasion of CONGO (DRC). What does it take to have evidence to indict these Criminals connected? Africa cannot rest when we see The ICC officials teaming up and Wining with would be criminals. As an International Lawyer and having been the best at the ICC .Criminal Prosecution Interview through THE HAGUE letter written to me? Many times I wonder whether our HOPES SHOULD STILL BE FIXED ON THIS COURT (ICC) OR We as African Lawyers WE should create our OWN!!! HOPE IS BETTER than NOTHING!! Christine J.N. Kaluma, Pioneer and Founder of Free Women Services in Uganda ( FIDA UGANDA) also Spokesperson, ‘African Optism USA and the Diaspora’

  2. I do not mind you moderating it . As a High Profile Prosecutor/ Senior State Attorney for over 10 years , and defender of women Rights in Africa, Iam ashamed of the delay of JUSTICE. I am also mindful of the WORKLOAD.of (ICC.) However,.I still have a lot of HOPE IN (ICC) .ALL WE NEED is Justice in our times and the victims’ time. Thank you for giving me this chance to air my views. Istill have a feeling that ihad alot to bring to the Prosecution of (ICC) may be THIS SPEED I AM STRESSING . TOO SLOW IF THE WHEEL OF JUSTICE! AND TOO FAST LIKE LIGHTENING THE DEATH AND CRIMES IN AFRICA!!!
    Uganda., Rwanda and Burundi and orthers must face the Music of Justice to stop day light ROBBERY of Minerals from other States by CUNNING ARMIES IN AFRICA. No leader or ARMY must be left or allowed to slowly kill off would be Witnesses, in order to destroy evidence. Delay is Allowing the criminal leaderst to escape the long harm of the Law. I am a believer and I am waiting for Justice to the Victims.
    Christine J.N. Kaluma, Pioneer and Founder of Free Legal Services for Women and Children in Uganda
    (FIDA UGANDA) also Spokesperson ‘African Optimism in USA and the Diaspora’

  3. I a m leaving it to you to moderate since YOU had made extremely good points in the article!! Thank you.All I am trying to say is that ( ICC ) should put in more speed to apprehend Criminals in Africa. Any delay creates more Crimes. These African armies are like lightening when it comes to rape and theft!of minerals.
    cheers ,
    Christine Kaluma.
    International Lawyer and a former decade prosecutor as Senior State Attorney-Uganda.
    Also Pioneer and Founder of Free Legal Services for Women and Children ( FIDA UGANDA)

    This is about J.P Bemba’s case, I am writing this to bring you back to your common senses as lawyers and judges.
    In fact the all world knows now that J.P Bemba is innocent about your so called war crime, the only raison you keeping him in jail is to take him away from the political stages so that he will not be able to disturb Kabila’s plan with the U.S.A as you know .
    During the central Africa republic war , the president of the republic that time was Felix Patasse had asked a military aid from J.P Bemba to protect the country from rebellion’s attacks as you know better than everyone else, then now accusing him of war crime that he’s never committed because he did not set his feet in the republic of central Africa, he has just sent some troupes for help and the terms and conditions of that agreement has never been disclosed, and if you want the reel truth about the case why not call Felix Patasse who made that agreement with J.P Bemba while he was the president in the republic of central Africa to testify the innocence of J.P Bemba instead of calling your unknown witness organized by yourselves.
    The truth is that all of you are corrupted, because if your witnesses were really in republic of central Africa, how they did identify J.P Bemba’s troops among central Africa’s troops? Because all of them were fighting in the government military uniform. How could you prosecute someone with not enough evidence? But the answer is that you know who is behind this organized case against J.P Bemba, and you know that.
    Compare to those who yesterday were the most waned and today they walking as free men around the world, like L. Nkunda who attacked the moth-eaten province (Bukavu) of the D.R.C killing millions of lives and more than fifteen thousands of women and children have been raped with a lot of evidences of HIV and aids, babies left behind during the attack on Congolese citizen, but you let him get away with all that and prosecuting an innocent man fighting for his country and the right of his people.
    If L. Nkunda who is a Rwandan citizen attacked another country with enough evidence, you let him get away with that and you said what you doing is justice? Shame on you all because you are doing the will of your master. Power and money have enough influence in this case but if you don’t have evidence as judges, use your conscience and let the man go, don’t let yourselves be manipulated, the all world knows the truth that you want to keep J.P Bemba in jail so that the will not be able to postulate as president to next presidential election in the D.R.C, but he is the man that people wants, stop your orchestration with J. Kabila because there is always light at the end of a tunnel.

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