On July 8, 2019, former Congolese rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda was convicted of 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Activists and victims from the eastern district of Ituri and Congo more broadly welcomed the news. However, the population at large in Ituri, where Ntaganda’s crimes were committed, had mixed reactions.
Ituri is in the grips of a new round of violence, which the current Congolese President, Felix Tshisekedi, has called “attempted genocide.” Thus far, an estimated 400,000 people have been displaced. Facing this ongoing conflict, the Ntaganda judgment has served to highlight what remains to be done, both in terms of delivering justice and in responding more broadly to the violence.
A Step Forward
Many activists, victims, and members of the Lendu community, which were the primary victims of Ntaganda’s crimes, welcomed the conviction. In the words of a Lendu community leader, “He [Ntaganda] deserves to be condemned because he massacred many members of my community.”
Christian Lukusha, an activist who documented the 1998-2003 violence, called the conviction “an important step in the fight against impunity for the bloody crimes that have affected thousands in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ituri in particular.”
The NGOs Club des Amis du Droit du Congo and la Ligue pour la Paix, les Droits de l’Homme et la Justice (LIPADHOJ) welcomed the decision [pdf], saying that the judgment answered the hopes of the victims who participated in the proceedings – 2,129 according to the ICC [pdf]. Xavier Macky of Justice Plus said that this is the “decision that victims have been expecting for many years. And today we are very satisfied that he has been recognized as guilty of these crimes.”
Unlike the ICC’s cases against Thomas Lubanga and Germain Katanga, which were sometimes criticized for going after “small fish,” Ntaganda was generally seen as a powerful player and his conviction was seen as having greater weight in terms of deterring other powerful perpetrators. In Lukusha’s words, “He was at once a moral and material author of numerous crimes that decimated families and set Ituri ablaze.”
In the words of LIPADHOJ, the decision “sends a strong message to other alleged perpetrators of crimes committed in Ituri and elsewhere in Congo that no one, no matter who they are, is exempt from prosecution.” The activist group Lutte pour le Changement (Lucha) welcomed the news similarly on Twitter, calling it “a notice to all criminals still at large or benefitting from immunities… sooner or later, your crimes will catch up with you!”
Not everyone in Ituri welcomed the decision. Ntaganda’s former armed movement, now transformed into a political one, criticized the decision as excessive: “Eighteen counts is after all a lot. It includes things that he did not do.” Some activists and members of the Hema community were also disappointed with the decision because they still see Ntaganda as a defender who came to their aid at a desperate moment.
Next Steps for the ICC
Although the conviction has been largely welcomed, it does not constitute the end of proceedings at the ICC. Additional hearings will be convened to discuss reparations and sentencing. Ntaganda also plans to appeal. Congolese activists will be closely watching these proceedings.
As Lukusha puts it, “We are now waiting for the sentencing. We recommend that the judges responsible for sentencing not take into account any mitigating circumstances, but give him the maximum possible penalty, in light of the major role that he personally played in the conflict in Ituri… He deserves a strong sentence, which would also send a strong signal to those who have recently reignited deadly hostilities in the territory of Djugu [in Ituri province].”
Similarly, the NGO Lucha said, “We are eager to know what penalty will be inflicted; we hope that it will be at the level of these horrors.”
The sentencing process is just beginning, and the court will schedule separate hearings on this in the coming weeks. The maximum penalty normally considered by the court is 30 years’ imprisonment, although life imprisonment can also be considered in extraordinary circumstances.
Another major issue is reparations. The verdict brings hope to victims of Ntaganda’s crimes that they may receive redress for their suffering. An activist from a women’s association said that although the judgment is a comfort to women who were victims of sexual violence, they are often permanently stigmatized and continue to feel the effects of their victimization. She added that these women are in urgent need of reparations.
Another activist expressed disillusionment and wondered how she could be asked to look forward to reparations when even victims of Lubanga, who was convicted seven years ago by the ICC, have not yet received reparations. (Reparations in that case are now in the process of being finalized).
One activist expressed concern that reparations do not go far enough: “Victims have not only a right to reparations, but also to know the truth about what really happened. That includes the identity of those who, from near or far, facilitated or tolerated the commission of crimes that they had the obligation and the means to stop.”
Next Steps for Justice
The Ntaganda case highlights the need for further action against impunity, especially in the context of ongoing violence in Ituri and elsewhere in the country. Justice efforts are focused on the ICC as well as at the national and local levels.
One issue of particular relevance to this debate is Ntaganda’s personal history. Ntaganda was at large for seven years between 2006, when the ICC issued its first arrest warrant, and 2013, when he surrendered to the US embassy in Kigali, Rwanda. During that time, he led other rebel movements, in particular in North Kivu, in which he allegedly committed additional serious crimes. Some would like to see Ntaganda called to account for these crimes as well. Lucha reiterated on Twitter its call on the ICC’s prosecutor to pursue crimes committed in North Kivu from 2003 to 2013.
Ntaganda’s conviction is only the third by the ICC in the DRC situation, and for some it has reinforced the need for others to be held accountable either at the ICC or through another mechanism. As one activist put it, “Lubanga, [Mathieu] Ngudjolo, Katanga, and Ntaganda were only some of the rebel leaders who were active in the region at the time. What has happened to the others? Are they ministers or heads of political parties? Rich men? Officers in the Congolese army or those of neighboring countries?”
Another activist said, “We will continue to call for all of those who have committed heinous crimes and who are now enjoying impunity to be prosecuted by the Congolese judicial system. This includes those who aided and abetted Ntaganda.”
A particularly sensitive aspect of the call for additional prosecutions is the role of state actors, particularly from Rwanda. Vava Tampa, founder of Save the Congo, said, “Ntaganda’s commanders, patrons and enablers still hold high office in Uganda, DRC and Rwanda – and many continue to obstruct DRC’s path to peace, democracy and development.” In the words of Lukusha, “It is not a secret that Ntaganda received assistance from Rwanda at the time that he committed the crimes for which he was prosecuted by the ICC.”
Congolese have long complained about the failure to attack the hierarchies of power that facilitated these crimes, particularly from Rwanda. Hopes that Rwanda’s role would be highlighted were raised particularly in the Ntaganda case because of his strong association with Rwanda. Ntaganda was born in Rwanda and relied for much of his career on political support from Kigali.
One activist expressed his disappointment: “Symbolically this case has the weakness of being unable to illuminate the central role that Rwanda played in DRC. This is, indeed, a weakness of the ICC in Ituri as a whole – it really failed to shine a light on the causes of the conflict in the DRC and on the role of foreign powers.”
Members of the NGO Parliamentarians for Global Action made specific suggestions about steps to promote additional prosecutions, encouraging the ICC Office of the Prosecutor to signal interest in additional prosecutions, particularly of ongoing crimes, and to support training of Congolese authorities. They also called on domestic authorities to carry out further prosecutions, particularly suggesting that the Bunia Appeals Court would be an appropriate venue.
The ongoing violence particularly highlights the need for stronger action. As Dismas Kitenge, President of Groupe Lotus, said in response to the verdict: “The verdict is all the more significant considering the continued acts of violence against civilians in Ituri.” Some saw the incomplete justice delivered in response to previous rounds of violence as fuel for the current violence. Although it is the ICC’s role to focus on those most responsible, and the court has limited resources, Congolese activists expressed frustration that an opportunity to do more to address violence had been missed.
Pascal Kakoraki, a lawyer and legislator from Ituri interviewed for this blog, said, “The field commanders were convicted, but all the others were left behind, and it is not so surprising if they are involved in the violence now. Certain actors who were involved in the 2003 violence are involved in the violence now.”
Another activist said, “If the investigations of the ICC had been broad enough and had convicted all those responsible for armed groups… they would have decapitated and neutralized the armed groups. If there are today still 43 armed groups continuing to kill with impunity in the DRC, it constitutes a serious challenge for the deterrent effect of the ICC.”
Other activists highlighted the need for a stronger response to the ongoing violence. Although the government has conducted military operations in Djugu and Mahagi and have touted its successes, many have called for more action. In the words of Kakoraki: “We need a rapid response from the government security forces to stop these people [those committing the violence] and to bring them to justice.”
Another activist put it more simply, “Let’s open our eyes and take action for the DRC.”
Olivia Bueno is an independent consultant who has reported on the impact of the International Criminal Court in the DRC for several years. The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Open Society Justice Initiative.