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The trial of The Prosecutor v. Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo began yesterday at the International Criminal Court. Bemba is accused of two crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three war crimes (murder, rape, and pillaging). Bemba, a former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo who is said to be considering a run for president in 2012, is the most senior politician ever held by the International Criminal Court, but his trial is significant for other characteristics as well.
Jean-Pierre Bemba commanded the rebel Movement for the Liberation of Congo, or MLC, movement between 1998 and 2003 during the second Congo war. Following the signing of a peace agreement, Bemba became one of four vice-presidents of Congo. The MLC grew into the nation’s leading opposition party, and in 2006 Bemba was the runner-up to Joseph Kabila in the nation’s presidential elections. He was elected senator in January 2007, but he fled to Portugal in exile in April 2007 after a street fight between his bodyguards and Kabila’s troops. On May 24, 2008, he was arrested near Brussels by Belgian authorities and transferred to the ICC to await trial.
The ICC’s case against Bemba centers upon alleged crimes committed by his MLC troops in the Central African Republic between 2002 and 2003. In 2002, Bemba and the MLC entered the CAR with the support of then-president Ange-Félix Patassé who wished for the MLC’s help to put down a coup attempt against him. During their time in the CAR, the MLC troops under Bemba’s command allegedly committed numerous horrific crimes including mass rapes, killings, and lootings.
The investigation by the ICC in the CAR, which led to the arrest warrant for Bemba, is significant because it marks the first time the ICC has opened an investigation in a region where allegations of sexual crimes far outnumbered alleged killings. From its investigation, the prosecutor’s office concluded it is evident that the MLC used rape as a weapon of war in the CAR.
The prosecutor argues that the crimes were carried out with superior organization, and that the MLC fighters systematically worked to paralyze the civilian population and destroy its ability to resist. Significantly, MLC selectively targeted and raped men in positions of authority, such as local leaders and those designated as protectors of their communities. The public rapes delegitimized their authority, rendered them powerless to resist, and stripped them of their social standing. In this way, the use of rape as a weapon of war by the MLC not only affected the individuals targeted but it also struck the entire community, the prosecution argues.
Under Article 28(a) of the Rome Statute, Bemba is charged for not exerting his command responsibility to prevent his troops from using rape as a weapon of war. When Bemba did act, his actions attempted to cover up the crimes and minimize their severity. His case marks the first time the ICC is trying someone under this command liability for sexual and gender-based crimes.
The lasting impact of the trial will of course depend upon the court’s verdict. However, it sends a definitive signal that sexual violence, even when committed during war, is criminal and must be punished. Appearing at the court yesterday, Margot Wallstrom, the new U.N. special representative for sexual violence in conflict, sought to amplify this message, saying "This trial represents a milestone in the history of international criminal justice and this is against the backdrop of wartime sexual violence having been one of history's greatest silences and the world's least condemned war crime."
Further, in holding Bemba personally responsible for the horrendous actions of his troops, it charges commanders worldwide to remain vigilant of the actions of their troops and to maintain control of their subordinates. The trial is an important step in ending impunity for sexual crimes and delivering justice for its victims.
A live webcast of the proceedings is available here.
Photo: Jean-Pierre Bemba (AP)