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Rwanda is hindering justice for Congo's atrocity victims

Rebel leader Thomas Lubanga may now be in jail, but Rwanda continues to support his co-accused, Bosco Ntaganda

Published in: The Guardian

The sentencing on Tuesday of Thomas Lubanga, a rebel leader from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo was a rare victory for Congolese victims of atrocities. There have been few occasions during my 13 years of documenting abuses in Congo by Lubanga and others in which justice was done. This was one of those moments.

The trial at The Hague and 14-year sentence for Lubanga's use of child soldiers sent the strong message from the international criminal court (ICC) that this is a grave crime that will be punished by the full force of the law. The verdict firmly told warlords and military commanders around the world who use children in war, that they could face justice. But it is also important for another reason: it shines a spotlight on Lubanga's co-accused, Bosco Ntaganda, who remains at large in eastern Congo and is getting help from Rwandan army officers. Ntaganda was the chief of military operations under Lubanga and is wanted by the ICC for similar crimes. Unlike Lubanga, he eluded arrest, joined another armed group and, in 2009, was made a general in the Congolese army. His promotion was a slap in the face for his victims. Not only was Ntaganda rewarded with a high rank and able to wine and dine in eastern Congo's best restaurants, but forces under his command continued to use child soldiers and commit killings and rape.

The Congolese government dismissed calls for Ntaganda's arrest and said he was necessary for the peace process in eastern Congo. But Ntaganda's victims and Congolese human rights activists did not buy this argument. For them, Ntaganda was the poster-child for the impunity that plagues Congo.

Lubanga has the dubious distinction of being the first person ever to be tried and convicted by the ICC. The court, which was established in July 2002, took six years to try the case. Numerous difficulties occurred along the way, including the prosecution's failure to disclose evidence to the defence and to comply with court orders to disclose other information. The problems were eventually overcome, and the new ICC prosecutor should make sure she learns from these mistakes.

But now Ntaganda may be feeling the net tightening around him. In March, following Lubanga's guilty verdict and new attempts by the Congolese government to dilute Ntaganda's power base, he mutinied and orchestrated a new rebellion, known as the M23. His forces continued to commit crimes. The ICC prosecutor requested a second arrest warrant against him for murder, pillage and rape which he had committed while he was with Lubanga's militia. Crucially, the Congolese government in April said it was finally prepared to arrest him.

No more than an estimated 600 men joined Ntaganda's rebellion, which seemed to suggest that his life on the run might be short-lived. Instead, this past week, Ntaganda's M23 rebels took over numerous villages and towns in Rutshuru territory, overthrowing the defences of the Congolese army and United Nations peacekeepers in the area.

Critical to the rebel's advance was military support from Rwanda. For weeks Human Rights Watch and others have uncovered evidence that Rwandan military officials have been supplying weapons, ammunition and recruits to Ntaganda and his forces. He was allowed into Rwandan territory and some Rwandan soldiers crossed the border to support him. On 29 June, a UN group of experts published a report with an addendum that exposed in detail the extent of Rwandan military support to the M23, including the involvement of senior officials. The Rwandan government vigorously denied the allegations, but in light of the evidence, their denials rang hollow.

If countries such as Rwanda can permit their military to assist an ICC war crimes suspect, and let him escape arrest without consequences, then international justice efforts will be undermined.

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is visiting the UK this week. The British government, which is the single largest bilateral aid donor to Rwanda, should use the opportunity to send a strong message that it will not tolerate any military support to Ntaganda and that Rwanda should play its part in arresting him for trial at The Hague. That will help strengthen the ICC and provide a measure of relief to the thousands of Congolese victims who long for justice.

Anneke Van Woudenberg is a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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