The conviction of Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba has received wide coverage online, with numerous media outlets highlighting the significance of the verdict for the responsibility of commanders to discipline their forces, and others stressing the significance of the court’s recognition of sexual violence as a weapon of war.
Bemba, a former rebel leader who later served as a vice president in Congo, was on March 21 found guilty of two counts of crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three counts of war crimes (murder, rape, and pillaging). International Criminal Court (ICC) judges ruled that as commander-in-chief of the rebel force known as the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), he knew that his troops were brutalizing civilians in the Central African Republic (CAR), but he failed to deter or punish the crimes.
Judges determined that Bemba “failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or repress the commission of crimes by his subordinates” in various Central African towns. Below is a sample of reactions and online media coverage of this landmark ruling.
Many articles noted that the verdict set a precedent that the ICC could punish militia leaders and military commanders even when they were not personally directly implicated in the crimes. Although Bemba was convicted for crimes committed in the CAR, his conviction would send the message to high-ranking soldiers and militiamen in Congo, where sexual violence is rife, that they are responsible for preventing it, said the BBC.
The importance of the ruling at the ICC on rape as a war crime was at the center of many other articles. According to the AFP, while many activists were critical that it took so long for sexual and gender-based violence to be the main focus of a trial in an international courtroom, they welcomed the verdict, saying it could help stop rape as a weapon of war.
According to the NGO REDRESS, the conviction was very important for the many victims who suffered wartime sexual violence not only in CAR but also around the world. This was because “it is the first case at the ICC to focus on sex crimes, exposing the devastating effects that sexual violence has on victims, their families and their communities, as well as the urgent need to provide justice and reparations to these victims.”
Meanwhile, the AP reported that the convictions for rape as a war crime and crime against humanity would be a boost for Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who had made the fight against sexual assault in conflict one of her priorities. UN Women stated that it would continue to support the pursuit of gender justice at the ICC to ensure that the Rome Statute is used to bring perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence to justice and deter future crimes. The United Nations agency called for a comprehensive reparations decision that supports the survivors of sexual violence in the CAR in their efforts to rebuild their lives and to end gender inequality in their communities.
The New York Times observed that other international courts, including the United Nations tribunals for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, had issued convictions for rape as a war crime and a crime against humanity, but this was the first time the ICC had done so. It added that, largely because of pressure from human rights advocates and women’s groups, organized or mass rape is increasingly being recognized and prosecuted as a weapon of war, not as a byproduct of it.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights welcomed the verdict, stating that through this “emblematic case,” the ICC has built on the jurisprudence, pioneered in ad hoc international tribunals such as those for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, which established criminal sanctions for people employing rape during a conflict. “I strongly believe that verdicts like the one delivered today represent an important step towards eradicating these horrendous sexual crimes which have blighted the lives of so many women – as well as men and boys – throughout the ages, and which until very recently were carried out with almost total impunity,” said Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.
A staff member at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in South Africa noted that while most of the testimonies at Bemba’s trial were from women, this was also the first time in the history of international criminal law that sexual violence against men has been defined in law as the crime of rape. She added that previously, the rape of men had been addressed internationally as a crime of torture, outrage upon personal dignity, or cruel treatment. This conviction thus “represents a critical juncture in a long and reprehensible history of regarding sexual violence as an unfortunate byproduct of war.”
The judgment “sends a clear message that impunity for sexual violence as a tool of war will not be tolerated,” noted Amnesty International, while Human Rights Watch called the verdict a “bright moment in achieving all-too-rare accountability” that would send a “stark warning” to commanders who turn a blind eye to rape and atrocities.
Newsweek quoted Ben Payton, head of Africa at U.K.-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, as stating that despite Bemba’s conviction, the ICC still has work to do to establish its credibility. The court has never prosecuted a sitting head of state and has struggled to enforce high-profile arrest warrants, like that of Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Newsweek noted. The ICC issued an arrest warrant for Bashir six years ago but he remains at large, and even travels to ICC member states without apprehension. “The ICC’s continued failure to apprehend, prosecute and convict individuals who benefit from state protection means Bemba’s conviction will not dispel the court’s image as a toothless organization,” said Payton.
The Mail and Guardian reported that the South African government had chosen to remain quiet on the conviction. This publication noted that, international condemnation for failing to arrest Bashir when he attended the African Union (AU) summit in Johannesburg in June 2015, had added impetus to South Africa’s talk of starting a process to withdraw from the Rome Statute along with other African countries that felt leaders on the continent were being unfairly targeted.
However, Descartes Mponge, secretary general of the Congolese human rights and justice group ACADHOSHA, said the judgment “strengthens the ICC’s credibility in Africa. Indeed, the Botswana government supported Bemba’s conviction, saying it was a strong indication of the ICC’s capability to punish and deter perpetrators of such crimes. “This is one of the main reasons why Botswana supports the work of the Court and will continue to do so,” a statement from the foreign ministry said. Botswana is among the few African countries that strongly advocate for AU countries to remain in the ICC.
Some articles explored the implications of the verdict on Bemba’s political career. Bemba still enjoys “significant popularity” in Congo, claimed the BBC, and members of his party had hoped he would be released in time to run in the next presidential election, scheduled for the end of this year.
Similarly, researchers at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) said Bemba “remains an iconic figure in the DRC,” and with President Joseph Kabila’s decline in popularity, many felt that Bemba was a viable presidential candidate. Bemba’s MLC won more senate seats than any other opposition party during the 2006 elections, which Bemba lost to Kabila during a run-off. According to the ISS, in Congo the sentiment not only among Bemba’s supporters, but also the public at large, is that the charges against Bemba and his arrest were a political ploy to eliminate him as Kabila’s main political opponent.
Bemba is yet to be sentenced. A sentencing hearing will likely be held where the defense, prosecution, and victims’ lawyers will make submissions related to the sentence that he should receive. Judges will subsequently announce the sentence.
The two individuals convicted so far by the ICC – Thomas Lubanga and Germain Katanga – were handed prison terms of 14 years and 12 years respectively. Lubanga was found guilty over the recruitment, enlistment, and use of child soldiers in armed conflict in the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) rebel group where he was commander-in-chief. Katanga was convicted as an accessory to murder, attacks against civilians, destruction of property, and pillaging over a 2003 attack in Congo’s Ituri’s district by Patriotic Resistance Forces in Ituri (FRPI) rebels he commanded.
Bemba is undergoing a second trial at the ICC related to the alleged bribing of witnesses to provide false testimony in his war crimes trial. On trial with him in the witness bribery case are two of his former lawyers, a former defense witness, and a member of parliament in Congo.