DR Congo

The Fight Against Impunity in DRC

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By Charles Ntiricya in The Hague (11-Jan-10)

Joseph Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, has made some noises about the need to end the damaging culture of impunity that pervades the country.

But, when one sees those accused of atrocities rewarded with senior positions in the military rather than standing trial, it is hard to believe that he is serious.

Impunity is one of the main driving forces behind the ongoing conflict in eastern DRC, and rewarding rather than punishing alleged war criminals sends out a very dangerous message.

It fosters resentment among the victims of atrocities, who deserve to see justice done, and reinforces the belief among rebel commanders that they can operate without accountability for their actions.

Things, however, may be starting to change.

On November 24, the International Criminal Court, ICC, began tackling its second case against former militia leaders from the DRC.

Germain Katanga, the former leader of the Patriotic Resistance Force, FRPI, and Mathieu Ngudjolo, the ex-head of the National Integrationist Front, FNI, are accused of planning the February 24, 2003 attack on the Ituri village of Bogoro, which killed about 200 people and burned much of the village to the ground.

Both men deny the charges, but, even so, the very fact that this case is now taking place at all is likely to send a strong message to rebels who are still operating in the region.

Katanga and Ngudjolo were both drafted into the national army in return for laying down their weapons, but this failed to offer the protection from prosecution that they sought. Katanga was shipped off to The Hague in October 2007 and Ngudjolo was handed over in February 2008.

But other former rebel commanders remain within the ranks of the military, reinforcing the perception that those who have been involved in the DRC's bloody conflicts will never have to answer for their crimes.

The most prominent of these is Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the ICC for allegedly conscripting child soldiers in Ituri between 2002 and 2003.

In early 2009, Ntaganda took control of the National Congress for the Defence of the People, CNDP, by displacing Laurent Nkunda as head of the militia.

He subsequently declared the war over and was admitted into the ranks of the army, along with a number of his commanders.

At the time, Kabila said this was to reward Ntaganda's efforts to make peace. But a recent United Nations report suggests that the attempt to disarm Ntaganda's forces has been a failure, and that the ex-rebel continues to sit on a large stockpile of weapons.

The Congolese authorities have persistently refused to hand Ntaganda over to the Hague-based court, arguing that to do so would jeopardise the ongoing peace process.

Ntaganda is not the only one to escape scrutiny of his actions. Human rights groups say that other senior figures in the Congolese military should also be made to answer for some of the crimes that they are alleged to have committed, but few ever find themselves in court. Those who do often manage to escape before a verdict is handed down.

The fact that the ICC is now making in-roads into this impunity, where the Kabila government has struggled, can only be a good thing for ending the suffering that has gone on for so long.

There are some signs, for example, that Ntaganda is restricting his movement in the city of Goma for fear that he might one day be arrested and sent off to The Hague, despite assurances from the government that this will not happen.

But there are some dangers here.

Katanga and Ngudjolo were both arrested and transferred to the ICC after they had received assurances by Kinshasa that they would not be given up. The same thing happened to Thomas Lubanga, a former leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots, UPC, whose trial began on January 26 last year.

In the future, rebel leaders may be less willing to cede control of their rebel groups for promises that ultimately turn out to be empty.

In the Masisi and Walikale territories, militia leaders are displaying a certain reluctance to lay down their weapons, reportedly out of fear that they, too, could one day stand trial.

But suspected war criminals must be held accountable for their alleged actions.

Peace and justice are not incompatible goals. On the contrary, justice is an essential ingredient of peace. Without an end to impunity, there will be more fighting in the DRC, as communities who have been victimised become increasingly resentful that justice is not being done.

Kabila's attempts to end impunity may have been disappointing, to say the least, but it is welcome that the ICC is now taking small but positive steps in this direction.

Charles Ntiricya is a Congolese journalist and an IWPR trainee.