(New York)- Following the arrest of Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo on May 24, the International Criminal Court should pursue other top officials in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo for atrocities committed against civilians.
Bemba, the former vice-president of Congo and leader of the country’s main opposition party, the Mouvement de Libération du Congo (MLC), was arrested by Belgian authorities near Brussels on the basis of an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant. He is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by troops under his command in the city of Bangui in the neighboring Central African Republic (CAR).
The ICC warrant alleges that Bemba, as the head of the MLC, was responsible for the widespread and systematic rape, torture, outrages upon personal dignity, and pillage that his forces committed against civilians during the 2002-2003 conflict in the CAR.
“Bemba’s arrest is a welcome development, but he was not the only senior official responsible for crimes in the CAR and the DRC,” said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program. “The prosecutor should also go after others in Kinshasa, Bangui, and elsewhere who have blood on their hands.”
This is the first arrest in the ICC’s investigation in the CAR, which the prosecutor opened in May 2007. Human Rights Watch documented serious human rights violations in the northeastern and northwestern regions of CAR and urged the court to pursue the alleged perpetrators and their backers. Human Rights Watch stressed that the ICC should carefully monitor the security of witnesses and victims living in the CAR in light of threats already faced by victims’ advocates there.
Human Rights Watch has also repeatedly urged the ICC prosecutor to go up the chain of command in its investigation in Ituri, northeastern Congo, one of the bloodiest corners of Congo where more than 60,000 people have been killed since 1999. Research by Human Rights Watch indicates that senior officials in Uganda and Rwanda, as well as Congo’s capital Kinshasa, armed and supported militias operating there. Three Iturian warlords are currently in ICC custody and another is at large, but to date none of their backers have been arrested.
“The ICC’s pursuit of a former vice-president shows its willingness to target those most responsible for crimes despite their official position,” said Dicker. “Bemba’s arrest sends a strong signal that no one is above the law. We hope that the prosecutor will now seek the arrest of other high-level perpetrators.”
Bemba’s MLC troops operated primarily in northern Congo during the country’s five-year war from 1998 to 2003, where they were implicated in numerous atrocities. The ICC has not charged him with any crimes that his troops may have committed in Ituri. In November 2002, Bemba’s soldiers launched a military operation called “effacer le tableau” (“wipe the slate”) in the Mambasa territory of the Ituri district. During that operation, MLC forces committed numerous crimes against civilians, including rape, summary executions, and looting. Human Rights Watch expressed hope that the ICC prosecutor would charge Bemba with the full range of crimes that his troops allegedly committed there as well.
Bemba’s arrest on charges including widespread and systematic rape illustrates the court’s serious attention to sexual violence. Congo has been particularly ravaged by the use of rape as a weapon of war, perpetrated with almost complete impunity. Tens of thousands of women and girls have suffered sexual violence at the hands of MLC soldiers and dozens of other armed groups, including the Congolese national army. To date, only a handful of perpetrators have been held to account in Congo’s national courts, mostly lower-ranking soldiers.
Bemba’s arrest by the Belgian authorities highlights the importance of state cooperation in apprehending ICC suspects since the court does not have its own police force. There are presently seven unsealed arrest warrants that are outstanding in three of four countries that the ICC is investigating: Darfur in Sudan, Uganda, and Congo.
“This court is not just for Congolese perpetrators of crimes,” said Dicker. “The international community must ensure that it enforces the ICC arrest warrants to bring these other fugitives to justice. Belgium has set a good example, and it is time for other countries to do the same.”
Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo is the fifth Congolese suspect sought by the ICC. Three of these defendants – Thomas Lubanga, Germain Katanga, and Mathieu Ngudjolo – are already in ICC custody. The fourth, Bosco Ntaganda, is still at large. Thomas Lubanga’s trial, the first trial in the ICC’s history, is expected to start next month.
Bemba was the runner-up in Congo’s presidential elections in 2006 and was a vice-president during Congo’s transitional government from 2003-2006. He was elected a senator in January 2007, but has been living in exile in Portugal since April 2007, when he left the country following a bloody street battle between his bodyguards and President Joseph Kabila’s forces. Bemba’s MLC, formerly a rebel militia, is now the largest opposition party in Congo.
In 2002, then-president of Central African Republic, Ange-Felix Patasse, invited Bemba and his MLC forces, as well as Chadian mercenaries, to help put down a coup attempt led by his former army chief of staff, François Bozizé. Following the successful coup, Bozizé became president and voluntarily referred the crimes committed during the rebellion to the ICC in December 2004.