Steve Shaw

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been commended for a landmark conviction that found the former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, guilty of war crimes. It marks the first time that the ICC has convicted someone for rape as a war crime and the first ICC conviction based on “command responsibility”.

The unanimous decision handed down on 21 March found Bemba guilty of rape, murder and pillage - crimes committed by members of his militia deployed in Congo’s neighboring Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002 and 2003. The conviction was made under the concept of “command responsibility,” which allows civilian and military superiors to be held responsible for crimes committed by troops under their control.

Bemba, 53, will be sentenced following a separate hearing, and his defense lawyers can appeal if they wish to do so.

The ICC chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda said that the crimes were appalling, but the significance of this decision should be celebrated. United Nations human rights commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein also welcomed the verdict, calling it a step toward eradicating sexual crimes.

Approximately 1,500 soldiers from Bemba’s Mouvement de Libération du Congo (MLC) were deployed to the CAR in 2002 at the request of then-President Ange-Félix Patassé. Their objective was to prevent a coup by forces loyal to the former chief of staff of the Central African Army, General François Bozizé.

The ICC found that during this 2002-2003 operation, MLC forces conducted widespread attacks against the civilian population. The horrific crimes were committed over a large geographical area, with MLC soldiers searching “house-to-house” for rebels, raping civilians, pillaging their belongings, and, on some occasions, killing those who resisted. One of the disturbing accounts heard in court detailed how militiamen gang-raped a man, his wife, his daughters and his granddaughter. 

Bemba pled not guilty to all charges and claimed that he did not have control of the MLC fighters in the CAR. However, his claims were disputed in court. While he remained mainly in the Congo, he is said to have been in contact with commanders in CAR through radios and satellite phones and he would also have been aware of the crimes through reports in the media.

Calling the ruling a “historic moment in the battle for justice”, Amnesty International’s West and Central Africa deputy director, Samira Daoud, said: “It sends a clear message that impunity for sexual violence as a tool of war will not be tolerated.  It also makes clear that military commanders and political superiors must take all necessary steps to prevent their subordinates from committing such heinous acts and will be held accountable if they fail to do so.”

Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, advocacy director for the Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program wrote: “Today’s International Criminal Court (ICC) conviction of a former Democratic Republic of Congo vice president was both a victory for sexual violence victims and a stark warning to senior commanders who turn a blind eye while their troops rape and commit other atrocities.”

Image via VICE

Steve Shaw is a freelance journalist living in Manchester, England. He has worked for The Tibet Post International and The Shan Herald News Agency; his work has focused primarily on human rights, injustice and conflict. He also contributes to the Bhutan News Agency and the business publication P1.