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(Washington, DC) – The United States government indicated it would send the Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to be tried for grave international crimes. Ntaganda turned himself in to the US embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, on March 18, 2013.

The US State Department confirmed that Ntaganda was in the embassy and that it was consulting with other governments to facilitate what it said was his request to be transferred to The Hague. For several years, the US has called for Ntaganda’s arrest and transfer to the ICC. In early 2013 it added Ntaganda to its “War Crimes Rewards Program,” which offers monetary rewards for information leading to the arrest of suspects wanted by the ICC and other international tribunals.

“Bosco Ntaganda has for more than a decade led troops that have murdered, raped, and pillaged across eastern Congo,” said Ida Sawyer, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The United States has long been a strong voice for Ntaganda’s arrest. Now it can ensure that he finally faces justice, as the victims of these abuses have waited far too long.”

It is unclear why Ntaganda suddenly turned himself in to the US embassy and asked to be transferred to the ICC. A recent outbreak of hostilities between two factions of the M23 rebel group, headed by Ntaganda and other commanders, resulted in the faction opposed to Ntaganda apparently gaining the upper hand.

The ICC issued an arrest warrant in 2006 against Ntaganda for the war crimes of recruiting and enlisting children under 15 as soldiers and using them in hostilities when he commanded military operations for the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), another rebel group, in the Ituri district of northeastern Congo in 2002-2003. His former ally Thomas Lubanga faced similar charges and was the first person convicted by the ICC. In July 2012 the ICC issued a second warrant against Ntaganda for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape and sexual slavery, pillage, and persecution allegedly committed during the same period.

In the years after the 2002-2003 hostilities, Ntaganda joined other armed groups and continued to lead troops responsible for grave abuses in the Kivu provinces of eastern Congo. In January 2009, under a peace deal ending a previous rebellion, the Congolese government named him a general in the Congolese army. He remained in that post until he and others led a mutiny and created a new rebel group, the M23, in April 2012. The armed group has received significant support from Rwandan military officials since its inception, according to Human Rights Watch research. Over the past year, M23 rebels have been responsible for numerous war crimes, including killings, rape, and recruitment of children.

The ICC does not have a police force and relies on the cooperation of governments to carry out pending arrest warrants. The United States is not a member state of the Rome Statute of the ICC and is therefore not legally obligated to cooperate in executing the court’s orders. However, it may do so.

The integration into the Congolese army of former warlords, many of whom are known human rights violators, has fostered a culture that encourages, rather than deters, serious abuses. In the context of ongoing peace talks with the M23 in Kampala, Uganda, the Congolese government should honor its commitment not to reintegrate known human rights abusers into the army.

“Ntaganda’s appearance in the dock at a fair and credible trial of the ICC would send a strong message to other abusers that they too may face justice one day,” Sawyer said. “The Congolese government needs to play its part by investigating war crimes by the army and fairly trying those responsible.”

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