Challenging the culture of impunity

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  – ChadDjibouti 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.

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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.

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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.

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“Many people tell me, ‘never again,’ but still, again and again”: the case of Sudan and the Central African Republic

These words were uttered by a survivor in Darfur, a region where populations are still prey to human rights abuses committed by the Janjaweed militias backed by the government of Sudan. The genocide of 2003, which claimed the lives of 400,000 people, already constitutes a textbook case of the international community’s failure to intervene but the violence also continues to be largely overlooked. The UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) fails to fulfill its mandate but this is largely ignored by the Security Council. Not only do violence and human rights violations persist in Darfur, Abyei and South Kordofan but those displaced by conflicts also still lack food, water and shelter.

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On Wednesday, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) accused the UN Security Council of prolonging the conflict in Sudan by failing to arrest Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, who is under an arrest warrant since 2009. Rightfully so, Fatou Bensouda criticized the Security Council for turning its back on Sudan, thereby allowing Al-Bashir and other alleged perpetrators of human rights violations to remain at large and commit more crimes. Since 2005, Al-Bashir has been allowed to travel to several countries without being arrested. Bensouda sees the inaction of the Security Council on Sudan as “a serious indictment on this council” and as an “insult to the plight of Darfur’s victims.”

U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud, the current Security Council president, argued that the “the council is blocked, by some countries.” Particularly under the radar is China, which continues to block any council action. China has repeatedly said that pressing war crimes charges against the Sudanese president would have disastrous effects in Sudan and invited Al-Bashir to China in 2011. China has also long been Sudan’s biggest arms supplier (25% in 2010) and has major economic investments and interests in the country. China purchases more than half of Sudanese oil output!

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Further south west on the African continent is the Central African Republic, another country where the UN’s inaction attracted biting criticism this week.

Looking at the gravity of the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR), it is clear that most of the world remains indifferent to the plight of CAR’s population. In the past week alone, sectarian violence has killed 600 people and since the beginning of the crisis, tens of thousands of people have had to flee their homes, according to Unicef. Not only has the UN Security Council failed to take preventive actions against foreseeable violence, but the UN humanitarian aid system has failed as well. On Friday, international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) addressed an open letter to the UN Under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs denouncing “the unacceptable performance of the United Nations humanitarian system” in CAR.  This scathing critique is largely justified. Since July NGOs such as MSF have repeatedly urged the UN to provide adequate humanitarian action and resources but food, water, shelter and hygiene technologies still fail to meet minimum standards.

The failure of the UN system to fulfill its responsibilities towards civilians appears even graver in the case of CAR. Although challenging, humanitarian assistance is supposed to be impartial and neutral. Thus, the general expectation is that humanitarian agencies will deliver aid solely based on the needs of populations, whatever the circumstances. With few exceptions, this has not been the case of UN agencies in CAR. If MSF and other NGOs have been able to deliver, why not UN agencies?

The UN Security Council’s inaction in Sudan and Syria already discredited and delegitimized the international community. Now humanitarian inaction of the UN is having the same result.

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