Earlier last month Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former vice-President of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was acquitted of committing Human Rights violations and War Crimes. The allegations related to the period of October 2002 to 15th March 2003. The recent trial involved five judges, directed by Judge Christine Van den Wyngaert began earlier this year. The trial concluded with the overturning of the prior’s trial verdict, citing various issues with the prosecution and Bemba’s lack of responsibility for the violence. The trial outraged victims of the atrocities. Approximately five thousand accounts were documented during Bemba’s original trial, citing brutal rapes, murder and pillaging that were perpetrated by Bemba’s troops. There has been a lack of accountability regarding the violence, with key generals including Bemba being acquitted of responsibility.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) oversaw the trial, with three out of five voting to release Bemba from his eighteen-year sentence. This overthrew the original trial initiated by the International Federation for Human Rights in 2004 of which accused Mr Bemba of guilty pursuant to article 28(a) of the ICC Rome Statute for the crimes against humanity of murder and rape.
Mr Bemba was the chairman for the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), which became an organised military force after the 2002 Pretoria agreement. The units under his command frequently operated within the border regions between the DRC and the Central African Republic (CAR). The two countries shared a volatile history, especially after the 1994 Rwandan genocide of which triggered further conflicts between Rwanda, the DRC and their neighbouring states. Ange-Félix Patassé, the former President of the CAR began to request MLC support in March 2001. His leadership was frequently challenged, with three coups launched within three years. The increasingly desperate situation within the CAR began to bleed into MLC territory, triggering Bemba to react. The subsequent conflict continued until March 2003 when Ange-Félix Patassé was removed from power by the Army’s leader, General François Bozizé. The precise death toll can never be confirmed because there were no studies during the crisis, but the victims accounts suggest that the violence killed or maimed thousands of civilians.
The prosecution’s main argument stipulated that Bemba, as chairman of the MLC was responsible for their actions. This included the rape, murder and pillaging of local communities. The MLC was comprised mostly of the Banyamulenge (A pastoralist community residing in South Kivu), an extremely brutal organisation that had a reputation for violence and rape. The group had been operating within the region following the removal of Joseph Mobutu in 1997. As their leader, Bemba was made responsible for the violence committed against the population. He also failed to combat the violence. The prosecution alleged that Bemba had knowledge of the atrocities being committed but failed to make any reasonable attempt at ceasing them.
The defence argument was successful because it highlighted a lack of criminal responsibility held by Bemba. Kate Gibson, Bemba’s lawyer stated “There is not a single documentary piece of evidence that shows any orders passing from Bemba and going to his troops in [the] Central African Republic” during the trial. There is a lack of documentation and the remaining pieces demonstrate a lack of leadership operated by Bemba. They noted that the overall leader for the military was in fact General Mustapha Mukiza, of whom enjoyed a close relationship with Bemba. As a commander, Bemba was previously accused of recognising the crimes being committed and neglecting any attempt to conclude the atrocities. However, during the period Bemba lacked the resources and authority to prevent the violence committed by the MLC troops. The MLC were directed by local CAR commanders, not Bemba’s commission. Bemba could not control his troops whilst they were operating within the DRC and therefore waived his responsibility.
War crimes were committed by both belligerents during the conflict, with local villages participating in attacks on fellow local communities. The ICC was engrossed in the issue of accountability. Currently Bemba is the only defendant attending trials for the atrocities committed during the period. This suggests that the trials of perpetrators have been inconsistent, with the ICC and other international rights groups seeking to acquire justice from weaker actors instead of those ordering the violence. Criminal prosecution of the individual will not prevent further violence and will also reflect critically on the international commissions, as they had failed to prosecute those responsible.
The lack of evidence and organisation within both the CAR and the ICC has therefore allowed Bemba to be acquitted from his eighteen-year sentence. He was certainly aware of the atrocities and violence committed during the period, but the lack of effective leadership and resources allows Bemba’s defence to conclude that he was unable to prevent it. This has aggravated rights groups that seek to prosecute and obtain justice for the atrocities committed. However, Prosecuting the individual figure for the actions of various groups and militias will not be efficient or an effective form of justice, nor will it discourage any further atrocities committed within the Central African Republic.