Bemba’s Conviction Illustrates Innovation in the ICC

On Monday 21st March 2016, the International Criminal Court announced its third conviction since the court’s founding in 2002. Former rebel leader turned vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, has been found guilty of multiple charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The trial, which heard from 77 witnesses and granted the right to 5,000 victims to participate in the hearings, has been remarkable not merely because of the rarity of its successful convictions, but also because of whom it has convicted and what he has been convicted of.

Bemba is the most senior figure to have been successfully convicted at the court. His career in the political spotlight began when Uganda helped him to form the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) rebel group in 1998. Five years later, peace negotiations resulted in his being named vice-president of the interim government – a position which he held for three years, and during which time the alleged war crimes were committed. What is particularly significant about this case is that his war crimes were not perpetrated directly by his own hands; rather, he is the first suspect brought before the ICC to have been convicted for crimes committed by others for whom he was responsible.

Bemba deployed around 1,500 fighters to neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR) with the intention of putting down an attempted coup in 2002 and 2003. Therefore, despite the lack of his direct individual guilt in the ensuing murder and rape of countless innocent civilian victims, his seeming ambivalence towards stopping these crimes has led to his own conviction. Despite Bemba’s lawyers claiming that once the troops had crossed the border, they were no longer under Bemba’s command, prosecutors have asserted that Bemba “knew that the troops were committing crimes and did not take all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress their commission”. The presiding judge, Sylvia Steiner, attributed even greater accountability to him, saying that not only had the ex-vice president failed to control his men, but rather that “the civilian population was the primary rather than the incidental target of the attack”. ICC chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, commented that “while the reality of the crimes is appalling, the significance of this decision is to be celebrated… What this decision affirms is that commanders are responsible for the acts of the forces under their control”.

Another first for the ICC, and one which has attracted international congratulation, is the emphasis placed in this case on sexual violence as a weapon of war. The court heard horrific accounts of what took place in CAR during the period, including how in one family, a man, his wife, his daughters and his granddaughter were all gang-raped by militiamen. This new approach for the international court, which stresses the horror of such forms of violence during war, has been praised by international rights groups, including the Amnesty International West and Central Africa director, Samira Daoud. She commented that it sent “a clear message that impunity for sexual violence as a tool of war will not be tolerated”.

For many local and international observers alike, the conclusion of this trial that began in November 2010 has exhibited the strength and efficacy of the International Criminal Court in delivering justice for the victims of heinous crimes. For others, however, it is yet another case of Africa alone being targeted, giving credence to the descriptions of the court as being the ‘International Criminal Court for Africa’. Professor Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University has been particularly critical, suggesting that the ICC has targeted “not only perpetrators, but African sovereignty, and that is not acceptable”. The two prior convicted war criminals targeted by the court were Germain Katanga and Thomas Lubanga, both Congolese former warlords. Former president of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbago, is on trial accused of war crimes as we speak, as are Dominic Ongwen and Joseph Kony, ex-commanders of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.

The reality of the situation is that these men are seemingly entirely worthy of their convictions considering their histories; certainly, many of the most horrific war crimes that occur under the ICC’s jurisdiction are in Africa. The case of Jean-Pierre Bemba has demonstrated innovation and adaptation from the court in terms of who it will target and what it constitutes as war crimes, which should be celebrated. Perhaps as the ICC gets more successfully convicted cases under its belt however, it should begin to more truly cast its scrutiny to the ‘international’ sphere, and not just to one single continent.