(Brussels) - The arrest in France of a Rwandan rebel leader for serious crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo sends a strong signal that the International Criminal Court (ICC) is at work investigating crimes in the Kivus and will pursue abusive commanders, Human Rights Watch said today. French police arrested Callixte Mbarushimana on the morning of October 11, 2010, in Paris, where he has resided since 2003.
Mbarushimana is the executive secretary of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, FDLR), a predominately Rwandan Hutu armed group that has been operating in eastern Congo, under various names, since 1994. He is wanted by the ICC on charges of crimes against humanity (murder, torture, rape, and inhumane acts) and war crimes (attacks against the civilian population, destruction of property, murder, torture, rape, inhuman treatment, and persecution) allegedly committed in 2009 during the armed conflict in the Kivus region of the DRC.
"Civilians in eastern Congo have endured terrible suffering inflicted by various armed groups for many years," said Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocate at Human Rights Watch. "The arrest of Callixte Mbarushimana sends a powerful message that those responsible for horrific crimes will face justice no matter where they try to hide."
In 2009, FDLR troops conducted widespread and vicious attacks against civilians following the launch of military operations against them by the Congolese army with the backing of United Nations peacekeepers. Human Rights Watch documented numerous deliberate killings of civilians, including many women, children, and the elderly, by the FDLR, who killed their victims with machetes and hoes. FDLR combatants pillaged and burned homes, sometimes with their victims locked inside. The killing of civilians was invariably accompanied by rape. According to UN investigation reports, FDLR troops are suspected of having been involved in the mass rape of 300 civilians in early August 2010 in the Walikale region of North Kivu.
In addition to Mbarushimana, other FDLR leaders operating in eastern Congo have been implicated in brutal crimes against civilians. Human Rights Watch urged the ICC to also investigate General Sylvestre Mudacumura, the FDLR's military commander in eastern Congo, among others, for his direct or command responsibility in the commission of widespread abuses against civilians.
Other armed groups have also committed grave crimes under international humanitarian law in the Kivus region since July 2002, the date as of which the ICC has jurisdiction in Congo. These include the former Congolese rebel group the National Congress for the Defense of the People (Congrès national pour la défense du peuple, CNDP), the Mai Mai militias, and the Congolese army.
"Many forces in eastern Congo have committed grave crimes against civilians, making it crucial for the ICC prosecutor to promptly investigate and, as appropriate, bring charges against their leaders," said Mattioli-Zeltner. "Leaders of the Congolese army and rebel commanders need to feel they will no longer get away with murder."
Mbarushimana's arrest by the French authorities highlights the crucial importance of state cooperation to enable the ICC to fulfill its mission. The ICC does not have its own police force and relies on states to carry out its arrest warrants. ICC arrest warrants are still outstanding against leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a group that continues to attack civilians in three countries in Central Africa, and against three Sudanese nationals, including the sitting president, Omar al-Bashir, the latter three for serious crimes in Darfur.
In eastern Congo, Bosco Ntaganda, currently a general in the Congolese army and wanted by the ICC on charges of enlisting, conscripting, and using child soldiers in Ituri in 2002-2003, is also still at large. Last week, the Congolese minister of justice and human rights publicly restated that Congolese authorities would not arrest Ntaganda because he is needed to preserve peace and stability in the eastern Congo. National human rights groups have strongly objected to this policy.
"The sad history of cycles of violence and atrocities against civilians in eastern Congo shows impunity is never a guarantee of peace," said Mattioli-Zeltner. "Those involved in grave crimes, including Bosco Ntaganda and those linked to the government, should also be brought to the dock."
Mbarushimana moved into the leadership role of the FDLR armed group following the arrest of its president, Ignace Murwanashyaka, and his deputy, Straton Musoni, in Germany on November 17, 2009, on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization and bearing command responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the FDLR troops in eastern Congo. The investigation in Germany is progressing and the German federal prosecutor is expected to issue a charging document by the end of 2010.
Mbarushimana has lived in France since 2003 and assumed his functions as FDLR executive secretary from there. Unlike Germany, until July this year, French courts did not have jurisdiction over Mbarushimana for the crimes he is accused of having committed in eastern Congo.
However, France had jurisdiction over Mbarushimana's alleged involvement in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, including in the killings of Rwandan staff at the UN Development Program office in Kigali. Despite an official request by the UN in 2005 to investigate allegations against him and a complaint filed by victims in 2006, no legal action was taken in France against him.
Mbarushimana's ability to live in France without fear of arrest is a strong reminder of the importance of having good laws on "universal jurisdiction," which enable states to prosecute grave international crimes, even when committed abroad and by a foreigner, Human Rights Watch said. States that are truly committed to ending impunity should make sure they do not provide safe havens for alleged war criminals.
The eastern Congo provinces of North and South Kivu have endured deadly and destructive armed conflicts over the past two decades. As documented by the recently published UN "mapping report," which investigated crimes committed in Congo between 1993 and 2003, conflicts in the Kivus region have always involved widespread abuses against civilians.
The ongoing conflict in eastern Congo is linked in part to the after-effects of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Alliances have repeatedly shifted between the various belligerents.
Two armed rebel groups have dominated events in the Kivus region over the past few years: the Congolese Tutsi-led National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) - a Rwanda-supported rebel group, integrated into the Congolese army in early 2009 following the arrest of its leader, Laurent Nkunda, and the Rwandan Hutu militia called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
The FDLR are a predominately Rwandan Hutu armed group that uses military force to seek political change and greater representation for Hutu in Rwanda. Some of the FDLR leaders are believed to have participated in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The Congolese government has repeatedly turned to the FDLR (and its predecessor movements) for support in its fight against Congolese rebel groups backed by Rwanda or against the Rwandan army. Recently, in exchange for the Rwandan government's arrest of CNDP Laurent Nkunda, the Congolese government has engaged in joint operations (with the Rwandan army, and the UN peacekeeping force in Congo) against the FDLR.
Fighting has been characterized by attacks carried out by all parties to the conflict against civilians. Human Rights Watch has documented the deliberate killings of more than 1,400 civilians between January and September 2009 alone. Over the same nine months, over 7,500 cases of sexual violence against women and girls were registered at health centers across North and South Kivu, nearly double the reported numbers in 2008, and likely only representing a fraction of the total.
In April 2004, the transitional Congolese government referred crimes committed in the country to the ICC. On June 23, 2004, the ICC prosecutor announced the beginning of the court's investigations in the DRC.
Since then, the ICC has issued arrest warrants against four rebel leaders from the Ituri District: Thomas Lubanga and Bosco Ntaganda of the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC), Germain Katanga, former commander of the Force de Résistance Patriotique en Ituri (FRPI), and Mathieu Ngudjolo, former leader of the Front des Nationalistes et Intégrationnistes (FNI).
All but Bosco Ntaganda are currently on trial at the ICC.