Developments in international justice have filled the papers in recent weeks, with the capture of Serbia’s Radovan Karadžić and the charges leveled against Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir. Far from this spotlight, former DR Congolese rebel leader and vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo has moved from arrest to Belgian jail to the custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC), his case proceeding uncharacteristically quickly. Because it serves a number of political motives without ruffling too many feathers, his trial will likely come to set some of the precedents the fledgling Court needs to establish. The effects for the two countries on whose behalf the Court is acting – DRC and the Central African Republic (CAR) – are a bit more ambiguous.
Bemba finds himself in the dock for the crimes allegedly committed by members of his Mouvement pour la libération du Congo (MLC) in the CAR in November 2002 – March 2003. Former CAR President Ange-Félix Patassé had called in these strong-armed neighbors in a last-ditch, and ultimately failed, attempt to stave off the insurgent (now President) Jean-François Bozizé. The formal charges comprise three counts of crimes against humanity and five counts of war crimes, with emphasis on the legion rapes his men relentlessly perpetrated. Locals refer to Bemba’s men as the “Banyamulenge,” an inaccurate appropriation of the moniker that describes Congolese Tutsis. The name is rarely uttered without an accompanying shudder of fear, or head-shake of disgust.
Like the northern Uganda case, this one was referred by a head of state. In December 2004, President Bozizé asked the ICC to investigate the crimes committed in CAR during the period of upheaval that led to his “rebels’” transformation into “liberators.” Many armed groups beset the country at the time, all committing abuses. The utter disregard for CAR citizens evinced by the MLC stands out as particularly brutal, though, as organizations like the Fédération Internationale des Droits de l’Homme (FIDH), working with a couple of local organizations it was training, has documented.
ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo announced the Court’s decision to open investigations in the CAR on May 22, 2007. During this period, Bemba’s uneasy European exile from the DRC was being negotiated. He had lost the presidential elections of the previous year, officially taking some 42% of the vote to Joseph Kabila’s 58%. Tension between the two opponents mounted, and when Kabila’s presidential guard attacked Bemba he got a ride out of the country courtesy of a UN MONUC peacekeeping force helicopter. From Europe, Bemba expressed an eagerness to return and participate peacefully in the political process. But he stayed abroad, saying he feared for his safety.
The ICC opened an office in Bangui, capital of the CAR, in October 2007 (it had been conducting some research for a few months prior to that). Just seven months later – breathtaking speed compared with, for instance, the operations of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda – the Court had Bemba arrested. It appears Bemba and his family had planned a United States vacation, and the Court feared losing him to exile in a country that is not party to the Rome Treaty.
We will likely never know whether Bemba’s conversion to peaceful politics was sincere. Heinous as his methods of rebel leadership were, the uncomfortable fact remains that for nearly half of the Congolese population he was a support-worthy head of state. His arrest foreclosed the prospect of a credible national-level opposition in the DRC in the foreseeable future. (Many of his old allies have since joined the Kabila camp.) His trial will entrench Kabila, who hardly has an angelic past himself.
And what about the impacts of this case on the CAR, home to the victims whose experiences form the basis of the whole prosecution? One hopes they would feel relief and satisfaction that their tormentor is being held to account. The country wears the legacy of Bemba’s men’s brief stay in the CAR like a suit of nails. MLC encamped at PK12 and Bégoua, at the outskirts of Bangui and site of the last big market before the road continues into the sparsely-populated hinterlands. Murder, rape, torture, pillaging – all manner of cruelty happened here, by MLC, by Central Africans they forced to carry out this dirty work. There has been no substantive reconciliation process, whatever that might entail in this context.
The MLC also continued northward toward Bozoum. While in that town last year I met a group of women who had all been taken to live as the “wives” of these “Banyamulenge.” I was asking them about their participation in a Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program, an opportunity afforded them as a result of this servitude. “One of the good things about the [DDR program],” one vibrant merchant said, “Was that we got an AIDS test. We had been so stressed with worry about that,” and they had faced discrimination owing to fear of their infection. “It was such a relief.” A young woman beside her, as thin as a Giacometti sculpture, explained that though the news for her had been bad, she was nevertheless glad to know. She hadn’t had any treatment for the disease (in the theoretical framework of the DDR program, she should have received it). That evening, the vibrant woman came to me with a gift of peanuts and eggs and confided that she, too, had been infected.
I describe what these women have endured at such length in the vain hope of sketching the contours of what remains unspeakable violence and cruelty. The victims’ right to justice is clear. However, they are more likely to express their need for material assistance – money, food, medicines – than any desire to see a courtroom procedure play out. Even the leaders of the victims’ organization trained by FIDH with whom I spoke used my questions about the trial primarily as an entrée to graphic descriptions of victims’ experiences and their resultant right to assistance, diatribes so impassioned as to be nearly impossible to interrupt.
The Court has carried out little “outreach” (public education and dialogue; in the French used in CAR, sensibilisation, an awful term evoking more a forced-inoculation campaign than the kind of stakeholder discussion it is meant to connote) about the case. Some of the mimeographed Bangui newspapers reproduced the ICC’s press releases; there were a few radio discussions, especially on the NDI-funded Radio Ndéké Luka.
But in general, the ICC has kept a low profile in Bangui. The office is unmarked, tucked beside the river, in a beautifully renovated compound across from the notorious Ngaragba prison. Only a logistical support office, its investigators and other staff commute from the Hague, and its halls and swimming pool are usually empty. A fleet of unmarked, sparkling white, be-snorkeled Land Cruisers stand at the ready. Hardly anyone knows where the office is. The ICC’s presence here thus exemplifies its real function, which is less about incarnating justice and fairness for victims than installing public order from afar.
In calling in the ICC, Bozizé had hoped to restrict the inquiry into the crimes of his opponents. He had reason to wish to avoid judicial spotlight. Particularly in the two years after his 2005 election, his Presidential Guard soldiers ran roughshod over their fellow citizens. When Bemba was arrested, some wondered whether Bozizé could be next. But though the Court’s official position upon taking the case states that it will investigate all crimes under its jurisdiction, regardless of who has committed them, the international community’s decision to back Bozizé and related logistical/political issues mean that Bozizé’s gamble was likely a safe one.
Some observers have speculated about whether former President Patassé will come under the Court’s scrutiny. This seems unlikely. Doing so would return attention to the fact that he was violently shoved from power by Bozizé in a feat of regional coordination that involved the support of several governments. And it would disrupt the fitful peace process between Bozizé and the several armed groups that emerged after the 2005 presidential election, partly as a result of Patassé’s exclusion from the ballot.
This current peace process has derailed because leaders of the three armed groups felt the terms of the proposed amnesty weren’t generous enough, compared to the all-encompassing carte blanche accorded to government forces, arguably the worst abusers of civilians during the conflicts under discussion. The pedagogical motives of the Court (the idea that fear of prosecution will lead to fewer breaches of the international law it presides over) have thus already been compromised. On the surface, at least, impunity reigns unopposed.
Nevertheless, when discussing the Court with CAR leaders, whether government or rebel, it is clear that the actions of the ICC have injected a degree of uncertainty about the future. However unlikely additional prosecutions may appear to outside observers, the chance that there might be has become an additional factor in CAR leaders’ calculations, whether in terms of reassessing their violent pasts or maneuvering based on speculation about who might be arrested next. Here, the ICC still represents a credible threat. This must count as a success toward the underlying premise of the Court, namely, to shape a public order out of judicial proceedings – a necessarily selective task, rhetoric of omniscient fairness notwithstanding.
As has happened throughout its history, the CAR is serving as a staging ground for far-flung motives. The anonymously-named country is a kind of mirror in which outsiders tend to look only long enough to find what they need, a tendency people in the country use to draw in resources, artists of what Jean-François Bayart has called “extraversion.” (For instance, over a period in 2006 – 2007 the international community saw in CAR violence the “spillover of the Darfur conflict.” Though analytically inaccurate, this proved a useful line for reeling in global resources.) The Court needs a trial, conviction and precedents to justify its continued existence. And the victims deserve justice. But even many of them seem to suspect they are the actors for a play that has less to do with their rights than the politics of an often clumsy Court.
Louisa Lombard is a PhD student who has been studying CAR.