Bemba conviction – The International Criminal Court sets the standard for sexual violence trials

18 April 2016 | Natasha Pearce

Resolution:Possible’s intern Natasha Pearce has a background in Human Rights and Cultural Diversity, focussing largely on African history and the aftermath of colonialism. She has undertaken placements in Ghana, Tanzania and Kenya, as well as visiting a number of other African countries. While she conducts in depth research for Resolution:Possible, Natasha regularly contributes opinion pieces for our News and Opinion platform, such as the one below.

On Monday 21 March 2016 for the first time in history the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war was prosecuted as a crime against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The conviction came at the trial of ex Congolese vice-President and former armed group leader Jean Pierre Bemba who was found guilty of numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity.

There are a number of reasons as to why this ruling has been given its landmark status.

icc; international criminal court; the hague; Jean Pierre Bemba; Congo; DRC;  rape; crimes against humanity; sexual violence; war crime

The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has received much criticism over the years, but has recently managed to set a precedent by recognising sexual violence as a war crime in the conviction of Congolese ex-vice president Jean Pierre Bemba. Photo | icc-cpi.int

Emphasis on sexual violence

This is the first case that has placed such emphasis on sexual violence as a weapon of war and a crime against humanity. Bemba is one of seven Congolese war lords wanted by the ICC, each being prosecuted for their roles in the Congo wars in the late 1990s and early 2000s and each with a history of using rape as a weapon of war. Indeed, rape was used so widely in the Congo that for many years the DRC was named as the ‘rape capital of the world’. The fact that this case focused heavily on the aspect of sexual violence as a war crime has set a precedent for many more cases like it to come.

Sexual violence in conflict recognised as a crime against humanity and war crime

Alongside this, it is the first time sexual violence in conflict has been ruled as a crime against humanity and war crime. The International Criminal Court, created in conjunction with the Rome Statute, is a court focused on prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity. Yet since its opening, prosecutions have been a long and drawn out process and the court has faced increasing criticism.

The court has hosted many high profile war criminals, but made very few successful prosecutions. Following the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto both faced charges at the court, but eight years on, Kenyatta’s case has been withdrawn, whilst Ruto is still yet to come to trial. Many other cases at the court are yet to even arrest the defendant with Sudanese President Al Bashir and Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony still at large in their respective areas around east and central Africa.

With few successful prosecutions and even fewer cases with a significant focus on sexual violence (the case of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo focused primarily on the conscription of children) this case is not only a success for the Court, but for human rights advocates around the world as well as survivors of sexual violence in conflict.

Advocacy groups and NGOs alike have responded with praise with UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie issuing a statement through the UK Foreign Office that stated:

“I urge the international community to build on the important legal precedent that has been established: to bring forward more cases, gather the necessary evidence and support witnesses, in order that we can collectively shatter impunity for the use of rape as a weapon of war and terrorism.”

Many statements surrounding the verdict have stated that the ruling ‘sends a clear message that sexual violence in war will not be tolerated’ with the hope that the ruling will encourage commanders to take greater control over their troops. This is where things become more complex.

The question of responsibility

Jean Pierre Bemba was prosecuted as the commander responsible for the actions of his troops, yet he remained staunch in his claim that he ‘lost control of his troops’ and could not stop them from committing these crimes. Whilst this ruling may cause lower soldiers to reconsider their actions, what about those who are ordered to perform such acts by their commanders?

For example, many child soldiers who have escaped the armed group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a group originally from Uganda, were forced to commit brutal crimes, including rape, on the orders of their commanders. When the situation is live or die, often people will commit crimes they never thought themselves capable of committing. In many of these instances, the ruling of a far off court is not enough to scare the commanders living in the depths of the central African forests or anywhere else in the world.

Justice and a precedent?

Rather, this case is important because for the first time the victims have access to justice. The hundreds of victims that suffered at the hands of Bemba and his troops in the Central African Republic have received the justice that so many others still await. Those in Darfur, in Kenya and Uganda still await justice. This ruling offers justice, and hopefully some kind of closure and a way to move forward, for the survivors of Bemba’s rampage of sexual violence. It has set a legal standard for others to be tried by, and for other victims to gain justice from. This ruling may not change the actions of these armed groups but it can change the way we respond to those actions; and that is why this case is so important.

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