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Bemba on trial: unfairly singled out or a challenge to impunity?

12 January 2011

Danielle BeswickDanielle Beswick is a lecturer in IDD. Her research interests include management of political space and debate in a post-genocide society, Rwanda’s relationship with the UK, and Rwandan foreign and security policy in Africa, including contributions to peacekeeping. She teaches Conflict in Developing Countries and Post Conflict Reconstruction and Development and co-convenes a module on War Torn States and Post Conflict Reconstruction in the South.

The vice-president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Jean Pierre Bemba, is currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed while trying to put down a coup in the neighbouring Central African Republic in 2002.  Bemba’s trial is a key step in the search for justice for crimes committed following the coup, but also highlights an enduring challenge for international justice, and has potential implications for the stability of the fragile peace in DR Congo.

In 2002, the President of the Central African Republic was replaced in a coup by his chief of staff, and asked Bemba to have his militia, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), cross the border, intervene, and restore him to power. Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court allege that MLC forces committed crimes of murder, rape and pillaging, and accuse Bemba, as their leader, of command responsibility.  No-one suggests Bemba was in CAR committing these crimes himself, but it is argued that given the past behaviour of his forces in DR Congo’s bloody civil war he should have known that such acts would occur and prevented them.

Jean-Pierre BembaPhoto credit: UN Photo

Jean-Pierre Bemba at the International Criminal Court

The dilemma for international justice lies in his role in the war and politics of DR Congo.  Bemba is a key figure in political opposition: an elected senator, leader of the largest opposition party and, until these charges, perhaps the most serious challenger to incumbent President Kabila in this year’s elections. Bemba’s supporters claim the process is political, and that Bemba was singled out for prosecution because he could unseat Kabila, in whom the international community have invested considerable faith and resources. Supporters of the prosecution, on the other hand, argue that the ICC needs to prosecute Bemba, and others, to end the impunity which has been a feature of conflicts in central Africa. The trial is also significant in its strong focus on sexual violence and rape committed in CAR; such crimes have also been a devastating feature of Congo’s wars and continue to this day. Few would disagree that leaders need to be held to account for such crimes, and those of their followers, to deter those who may use or sanction such tactics in the future.

So is Bemba being unfairly singled out, or is his prosecution a necessary step to challenge impunity and deliver justice to victims in the region?  Both arguments have merit. Bemba’s MLC is certainly not the only group accused of committing brutal acts. Reports abound of the systematic use of sexual violence, mutilation, torture and execution by an alphabet soup of rebel groups which have operated in the region since 1994. Furthermore, a leaked UN Report in October 2010 described in detail the systematic human rights abuses and even possible acts of genocide committed by Kabila’s rebel group, supported by neighbouring Rwanda. It is clear not all perpetrators who could be indicted are facing international justice. But it is important to note that this case was referred to the ICC by the government of the CAR, and Bemba is being tried for crimes committed not in DR Congo, but in CAR. This reflects the trade-off often made in bringing stability to troubled regions such as central Africa: whilst justice is necessary to build lasting peace, compromise and official or unofficial amnesty are key tools in bringing rebels into the peace process to increase stability and security.

The same individuals who lead rebel groups which may commit unspeakable atrocities during war also bring a constituency with them to the negotiating table. Where key individual leaders are singled out, as has happened in Bemba’s case, any commitment their supporters had to the existing political settlement is endangered.

Bemba was indicted not as part of a biased ‘Western’ political agenda, but because his operations crossed into CAR, a country whose leaders have no reason to fear domestic instability by seeking his trial. The trial of this high profile figure will unfold over 2011, and could set a broader precedent signalling an end to impunity for such crimes. However, the real test for international justice continues to be whether it appears impartial. As long as supporters of Bemba, and of others who have been associated with such crimes in African conflicts, believe that international justice is aimed at only African leaders, and even then selectively, they and those who support them will continue to view it as a neo-colonial, politicised, and unfair, process. Justice may be necessary, even essential, for post conflict reconstruction and reconciliation, but where its application fuels grievance it can be as much a driver of conflict as a tool for peace.

Danielle Beswick is among the experts interviewed on the Al-Jazeera television programme Inside Story

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