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Why the Katanga Trial Matters

The trial of Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui resumes at the International Criminal Court (ICC) amidst growing efforts to end impunity for atrocities committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The defendants are charged with some of the most horrific crimes imaginable—murder, rape, sexual slavery, conscripting child soldiers, pillage, and other exceptionally serious crimes, all carried out against the civilian population of Ituri region of the DRC. The trial has heard disturbing evidence of men, women, and children being hacked to death with machetes, with young girls being publicly gang raped, with young boys being abducted and forced to fight.

Yet no one seems to be paying attention.

The Katanga case is the second trial held by the ICC concerning events in Ituri. The court has been on recess since the close of the prosecution case last year, and now reconvenes to hear testimony from victims participating in the proceedings. This is a crucial milestone in the development of the ICC since the direct involvement of victims as civil parties is a relatively new process; it has not been used in the international tribunals established prior to the ICC. Submissions from representatives of the civil parties will be followed by the opening of the defense case.

The Katanga trial receives far less attention than the two other trials currently playing out before the same Court—those of Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga and the former Congolese vice president, Jean-Pierre Bemba. Yet the process in the Katanga case has been relatively smooth and efficient.

The trial began at the end of November 2009 and is expected to end in late summer. Thus, it will likely be the first trial to be completed by the ICC, and Katanga and Ngudjolo will be the first defendants to submit to judgment. Even before the judgment is rendered, it already represents a major success story for international justice and for the victimized community in the Congo, who will have at least have some measure of redress for the terrible crimes committed against them. Without the ICC, these would still be in positions of power in the DRC and likely leading attacks against innocent men, women, and children.

In the Congo, some four million people have lost their lives as a result of the conflict, making it the deadliest of the 21st century. It is widely known as the “rape capital of the world.” Soon, at least two responsible for crimes against tens of thousands in the Ituri province will be judged. Unquestionably, it’s not enough. Nothing ever could be enough for the mass slaughter and rapes of countless victims. But in my view, it is better than nothing, and the hopeful news is that more justice is coming, both internationally and nationally.

The ICC proceedings take place within the broader context of international and local efforts to end impunity for crimes that shock the conscience of humanity, in the DRC and elsewhere. Fair and efficient trials at the international level demonstrate a global commitment to put a halt to impunity and greatly facilitate the ability of domestic courts to try lower level suspects.

As the Katanga trial resumes, local DRC courts will close proceedings in a landmark case at the innovative mobile gender justice court. The court traveled to a remote location in South Kivu to try 11 soldiers accused of raping over 60 women on New Year’s Day in the nearby town of Fizi.

The government is also trying to set up a mixed chamber within the domestic court system to try old and new atrocity crimes that the ICC doesn’t have the jurisdiction or the capacity to handle. This convergence of international courts, mixed chambers, and purely domestic trials demonstrates the significant and complementary efforts being made to hold perpetrators accountable, no matter how senior or low-level they are.