FOR the first time since it started to function in 2002, the International Criminal Court at The Hague has passed a guilty verdict on a warlord for perpetrating, among other things, rape as an act of war. It is also the first time that the court has secured a conviction for “command responsibility”, meaning that a commander can be found guilty even if he did not himself take direct part in such crimes as rape, murder and pillage but allowed them to be committed.
Jean-Pierre Bemba (pictured), the head of the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo—and a former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo—was found guilty of crimes against humanity, including rape and pillage. This took place when Mr Bemba’s militia, said to be around 1,500-strong, was sent across the border to the Central African Republic (CAR) during a period of turmoil in 2002 and 2003, when hundreds of civilians were slaughtered. Sentencing has yet to be carried out.
Whereas most international human-rights campaigners, including African ones, have welcomed the verdict, the African Union and most African governments have so far been more reticent. The court has faced a growing chorus of accusations across the continent that it is biased against Africans, because so far all those it has found guilty have been African. Mr Bemba was arrested in Belgium in 2008 and sent to The Hague, where the full proceedings of a trial began in 2010.
However, it was an African government—the one that then ruled the CAR—that referred the crimes alleged to have been committed by Mr Bemba and his men to the court in 2004. Indeed, though the first nine “situations” (as the court calls its sets of cases) to be put before the court have all been African, six were brought to it by the relevant African governments themselves; two were referred to it by the UN Security Council, and one to do with post-election violence in Kenya was taken to it after mediation by Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian who previously headed the UN.
In any case, the ICC rejects the charge that it is inherently anti-African or a tool of the West. Its chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, and its senior trial lawyer, Jean-Jacques Badibanga, are from the Gambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo respectively. The judges who have found Mr Bemba guilty, all women, are from Brazil, Kenya and Japan.
The legal representative of the victims, Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson, who hails from the CAR, has vigorously explained the nature of the charges against Mr Bemba and his men. More than 5,200 victims were authorised by the court to testify in the trial that Mr Bemba and his men had sexually assaulted them or pillaged their property in a rampage of murder and mayhem. “Most rapes, as well as the looting, were perpetrated collectively in public, sometimes in the presence of the victims’ relatives. This practice was intended to terrorise the peaceful population of the CAR,” said Mrs Douzima-Lawson. “The facts have shown that rape was systematic, as was pillage, and was perpetrated in a humiliating way, anywhere, anytime, by multiple rapists.”