Today’s International Criminal Court (ICC) conviction of a former Democratic Republic of Congo vice president was both a victory for sexual violence victims and a stark warning to senior commanders who turn a blind eye while their troops rape and commit other atrocities.
Jean-Pierre Bemba was found guilty of rape, murder, and pillage not in Congo, but in neighboring Central African Republic, where he had temporarily deployed his rebel troops in late 2002 to help thwart a coup against then-President Ange-Félix Patassé. This was the first ICC case in which rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war was the most prominent charge.
Bemba was found guilty under the concept of “command responsibility,” in which both civilian and military superiors can be held criminally responsible for crimes committed by troops under their control. The judges ruled that measures taken by Bemba to stop the attacks by his troops and to discipline the troops were grossly inadequate given the scale and gravity of the crimes.
The court found that Bemba knew that his troops were committing crimes in the Central African Republic. During the trial, the prosecutor also presented evidence about atrocities committed by Bemba’s forces under his watch in Congo. The prosecutor’s failure to bring similar Congo-related charges against him was a critical lost opportunity for the many victims there.
While Bemba’s guilty verdict is important, it is also clear that the ICC’s job is far from over in both the Central African Republic and Congo.
Many senior commanders in Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda have yet to face justice in relation to atrocities by Congolese armed groups they supported in eastern Congo. Militias and Congolese soldiers continue to prey on Congolese civilians and to commit serious abuses. The ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, opened a new investigation into alleged international crimes in the Central African Republic during the country’s most recent conflict, which began in 2012, but has yet to announce arrest warrants.
The ICC prosecutor should develop an overall plan to tackle the remaining cases for her office in both countries. And ICC member countries, which have insisted on a stringent ICC budget, should instead make sure the court has sufficient resources to do its job.
The Bemba verdict should spur on this effort. It is a bright moment in achieving all-too-rare accountability for commanders who permit rape and sexual violence by their troops.