It has been a strange few weeks for justice on the African continent, more particularly in the DRC – almost paradoxical.
On February 26-27, African leaders gathered in Kinshasa to attend the 17th Summit of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa). Among the invitees: Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir who is subject to an ICC arrest warrant on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Darfur.
Shortly before his trip, almost 90 NGOs and the ICC urged Congolese authorities to arrest Al-Bashir. As a state party to the Rome Statute of ICC, the DRC had obligations to do so – yet it failed meet them. Why? According to government spokesperson Lambert Mende, the DRC had obligations vis-à-vis Comesa and the African Union. The AU has not only asked for Al-Bashir’s warrants to be suspended but its members are also against ICC criminal proceeding against sitting presidents. Is there a legal basis for this? The UN UN Security Council certainly rejected the demand. However, the AU’s position and growing resentment of the ICC is largely the result of the members’ perception of a biased application of the law against Africans.
This is not the first time Bashir is allowed to travel to a country that is party to the Rome Statute – Chad, Djibouti and Nigeria failed to arrest him as well – but the DRC has cooperated with the ICC in the past. Kinshasa’s decision not to arrest Bashir seems all the more hypocritical and appalling as Congolese people have themselves been the victims of mass atrocities for the past two decades. The decision is therefore not only an affront to Darfuri victims but to Congolese people as well. When it gets an opportunity to proof that it wants to fight impunity, Congolese authorities instead perpetuate both the conflict in Darfur and the culture of impunity.
Now to another story
Last week, the ICC convicted Congolese warlord Germain Katanga on five counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for being an accessory to the 2003 massacre of civilians in the village of Bogoro, Ituri, DRC. In 2003, the FRPI attacked Bogoro and killed at least 200 civilians – mostly ethnic Hema. The combatants also raped women and used child soldiers during the attack. As the commander of the FRPI, Katanga was convicted of being an accessory to the massacre by planning the attack and providing weapons. ICC prosecutors stated that the onslaught was designed to “wipe out” the population of Bogoro.
The ICC issued an arrest warrant against Katanga in July 2007 and Congolese authorities, who arrested him in 2005, surrendered Katanga to the ICC 3 months later (here you have a proof that Kinshasa has cooperated with the international court). Katanga was originally charged with seven counts of war crimes and three counts crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, he as acquitted of charges of rape and using child soldier.
The verdict is a crucial step for the victims, 363 of which participated in the case, and for the ICC. Justice is critical for Congolese people and for the future of the Congo. However, numerous perpetrators of human rights violations in the DRC remain free. In his inaugural address in 2013, President Joseph Kabila promised to prosecute those who support armed groups responsible for grave human rights violations. Yet his promise to fight impunity remains to be fulfilled. I do not deny the dilemma Kinshasa was facing, especially as it tries to maintain good relations with the members of the AU, but the failure to arrest Al-Bashir is another failure to address the impunity gap in the Congo and on the continent.