DR Congo

International Criminal Court Upholds Landmark Conviction of Warlord for Atrocities Committed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) welcomes the International Criminal Court (ICC) Appeals Chamber decision to uphold the conviction of Bosco Ntaganda for 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) between 2002 and 2003. Significantly, the Appeals Chamber also confirmed Ntaganda’s 30-year sentence, rejecting every one of his grounds of appeal.

The ICC’s confirmation of the landmark conviction of Ntaganda is an important milestone for international justice and provides a measure of accountability for communities in and around Ituri, DRC, which have waited nearly two decades to see Ntaganda finally brought to justice. The decision also marks a significant step forward for the prosecution of rape in war.

Ntaganda was convicted and later sentenced in 2019 for his crimes during a reign of terror in the DRC, including 13 counts of war crimes (murder and attempted murder; attacking civilians; rape; sexual slavery of civilians; pillaging; displacement of civilians; attacking protected objects; destroying the enemy’s property; rape and sexual slavery of child soldiers; and enlisting and conscripting child soldiers under the age of 15 years and using them to participate actively in hostilities) and five counts of crimes against humanity (murder and attempted murder; rape; sexual slavery; persecution; and forcible transfer of population) committed in the Ituri district of the DRC between 2002 and 2003.

In 2019, Ntaganda was sentenced to 30 years in prison, the longest sentence issued by the ICC in its history. He was the first person to be convicted of sexual slavery by the ICC and the fourth to be convicted by the court since it was established in 2002.

“Today’s decision is a milestone for international justice and a long-sought victory for survivors in Ituri, DRC, who have waited nearly two decades for Ntaganda to be held to account for terrorizing the country,” said Karen Naimer, director of programs at PHR. “The ICC is a complex but nevertheless crucial international institution for meting out justice for the most serious crimes, especially where states have referred a matter to the court because they are unwilling or unable to pursue a justice process nationally, as the DRC did in this case.”

“The conviction is also an important step for the prosecution of rape and systematic sexual violence as a crime against humanity, which for far too long has been overlooked by courts around the world.”

“For years, PHR and our medical, legal, and civil society partners in the DRC have witnessed the profound damage caused by Ntaganda and his militias. Today, victims and survivors of his atrocities are finally receiving a measure of justice almost two decades after the crimes occurred,” said Naimer.

“We also recognize the courage and commitment of survivors and witnesses of Ntaganda’s atrocities, who provided crucial evidence and testimonies to support this historic conviction. Without their bravery, justice could not have been reached,” said Naimer.

“Moving forward, PHR urges the Court to continue to pursue reparations for those harmed by Ntaganda. Meaningful reparations remain the only pathway to secure full justice for the survivors of these crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated by Ntaganda and his militias.”

PHR launched its Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones, a multi-year training and advocacy initiative, in 2011, with the aim of forging coalitions among regional medical, law enforcement, and legal experts in Central and East Africa to increase local capacity for the collection of court-admissible evidence of sexual violence to support prosecutions for these crimes.

“Physicians for Human Rights has worked tirelessly with the survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in the DRC to build strong cases against those who are responsible. But too often there has been an absence of political will to bring powerful perpetrators of such mass atrocities to justice,” said Stephen J. Rapp, a PHR board member and former U.S. ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice who coordinated U.S. efforts that led to Ntaganda’s surrender and transfer to the ICC. “The necessary will was demonstrated in 2013, when the United States acted to diminish Ntaganda’s political support, to put out a reward for his capture, and then, after his surrender at the U.S. embassy in Kigali, to transfer him immediately to the ICC to face trial.”

“Today’s historic victory for survivors of sexual violence is an example of what can be achieved when the United States works cooperatively with the ICC, and should cause the Biden administration to act now to withdraw the Trump administration’s anti-ICC sanctions that obstruct the pathway to justice for survivors of mass atrocities,” said Rapp.

Bosco Ntaganda, known as “The Terminator,” is a Rwandan-born militia leader who wreaked havoc in Ituri in 2002-2003. In 2009, he integrated into the Congolese military to become a general, before defecting in 2013 to found and lead M23, another militia that terrorized eastern DRC and took control of the city of Goma. In 2013, Ntaganda surrendered to the U.S. embassy in Kigali, which transferred him to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. The DRC government had previously referred the situation in the country to the ICC in 2004. Ntaganda’s trial at the ICC lasted from 2015 until 2018. The ICC awarded Ntaganda’s victims $30 million in reparations in March, if he was convicted on appeal.

In December 2019, Ntaganda appealed his conviction, claiming that the Trial Chamber failed to consider his degree of participation in certain crimes, relevant mitigating circumstances (such as his cooperation with the court), and “double-counting” certain factors. Today, the ICC Appeals Chamber confirmed, by majority, the decision of the Trial Chamber and upheld Ntaganda’s conviction and sentencing.