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(New York) – The Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda’s first appearance before the International Criminal Court (ICC) on March 26, 2013, will be a major achievement on the path to ending human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Human Rights Watch said today. Ntaganda was flown to The Hague on March 22 after he unexpectedly and for unknown reasons surrendered to the United States embassy in Kigali, Rwanda on March 18 and requested transfer to the ICC.

Ntaganda’s appearance before the ICC comes almost seven years after the court first issued an arrest warrant against him for war crimes in the Ituri district of northeastern Congo. For years Ntaganda led rebel and government forces involved in killings, rape, torture, use of child soldiers, and pillage.

“Ntaganda’s appearance at the ICC after years as a fugitive offers victims of horrific crimes a real hope of seeing justice,” said Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Ntaganda’s detention in The Hague shows that no one is above the law.”

The ICC does not have a police force to enforce its warrants and relies entirely on governments to make arrests. The United States, which is not a state party to the ICC, played a crucial role by its prompt and efficient transfer of Ntaganda to The Hague after his surrender at the embassy, Human Rights Watch said. Cooperation by Rwanda and Congo, which did not oppose the transfer, helped facilitate the proceedings.

Ntaganda’s transfer to the ICC may bring to a close a chapter of particularly horrific abuses committed by Ntaganda and his troops, which Human Rights Watch has documented in detail over the past 10 years. The ICC initially charged Ntaganda with the war crimes of recruiting, enlisting, and using children under 15 while a commander for the armed group Union of Congolese Patriots (Union des Patriotes Congolais, UPC) during the Ituri conflict in 2002 and 2003.

Ntaganda then joined another armed group, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple, CNDP), and continued to lead troops who committed grave abuses in the Kivu provinces of eastern Congo. In 2009, as part of a peace agreement, he was integrated into the Congolese armed forces as a general. Between 2009 and 2012, government troops under his command were implicated in further war crimes in the Kivus, as well as assassinations, arbitrary arrests, and disappearances of those who opposed Ntaganda or spoke out against his abuses.

In April 2012, Ntaganda and other officers mutinied from the Congolese army and created yet another rebel group, the M23. The M23 has received significant support from Rwandan military officials since its inception, Human Rights Watch research found, as did the UPC and the CNDP in previous years. Since 2012, M23 combatants have committed numerous war crimes, including killings, rape, and recruitment of children.

Ntaganda’s co-accused in the ICC’s initial case, Thomas Lubanga, the president of the UPC, was the first person whom the ICC tried and convicted, in March 2012. In July 2012 the ICC issued a second warrant against Ntaganda for additional war crimes and crimes against humanity also allegedly committed in Ituri in 2002 and 2003, including murder, rape and sexual slavery, persecution, and pillaging.

The addition of these charges expanded upon the previously narrow set of crimes pursued against Lubanga, offering many more victims the chance to see justice done, Human Rights Watch said.

“The prosecution of Ntaganda at the ICC will be a stark warning to other rights abusers and represents a great step toward accountability for some of the African continent’s worst atrocities of recent years,” Mattioli-Zeltner said. “However, in prosecuting crimes committed in Ituri, it shouldn’t be forgotten that years of abuses in the Kivus remain unpunished.”

Until now, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor has focused its investigations on warlords operating in eastern Congo, Human Rights Watch said. These included Lubanga and Ntaganda as well as their opponents in the Ituri conflict, Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo. The ICC acquitted Ngudjolo in December 2012. The court has also issued a warrant for Sylvestre Mudacumura, the military leader of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a largely Rwandan Hutu rebel group, some of whose members participated in the Rwandan genocide. Mudacumura remains at large.

Past research by Human Rights Watch and other organizations found that senior political and military officials in Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda provided support to abusive militias operating in Ituri and the Kivu provinces. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged the ICC prosecutor’s office to investigate the role of these high-level officials in crimes committed by national armed forces and armed groups active in eastern Congo.

With Ntaganda in The Hague, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor should consider opening a new phase in its investigations of war crimes in Congo, Human Rights Watch said. The prosecutor, who is investigating crimes in eight countries, will need additional support from the ICC member countries to obtain the necessary cooperation and funding to undertake this work.

“Rather than wind up operations in Congo, the ICC prosecutor should take her work to a higher level and open a new chapter for justice,” Mattioli-Zeltner said. “If the ICC is going to help break the repetitive cycle of abuses in Congo, it needs to move beyond local warlords and prosecute the senior officials standing behind them.”

Recently, in two proceedings, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor has suffered setbacks. The acquittal of Ngudjolo and the collapse of one of its cases against a former senior Kenyan official have led to questions about the prosecution’s ability to carry out its difficult mandate. Ten years after the court’s founding treaty entered into force, the ICC, even with performance problems, represents the best hope victims have in many countries when grave international crimes are committed, Human Rights Watch said. The court’s leadership team – including a new chief prosecutor and a new registrar inaugurated within the past year – should draw on experience to date and make needed reforms to deliver effective and meaningful justice.

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