30-year sentence for Congolese warlord marks turning point for ICC

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia Journalist

The 30-year sentence handed down to former Congolese general Bosco Ntaganda in November marked a significant triumph for the International Criminal Court (ICC) following a period of increasingly strong criticism.

The ICC judges found the warlord guilty on 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is the longest sentence in the Court’s history and follows the sentencing of Thomas Lubanga in 2012 and Germain Katanga in 2014, who were also charged with carrying out war crimes in Ituri Province in the northeast of the country.

Ntaganda’s sentence is a long time coming. He was first indicted by the ICC in 2006 for his alleged role in recruiting child soldiers in Ituri between 2002 and 2003. A second arrest warrant was issued in July 2012. After years of evading the Court, Ntaganda surrendered himself to the US embassy in Rwanda in 2013. The time he spent in ICC detention – from 22 March 2013 to 7 November 2019 – will be deducted from his final sentence.

Anneke Van Woudenberg, Executive Director of Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID), has interviewed Ntaganda and testified against him at the ICC. She says the ‘hefty sentence’ was in keeping with the gravity of the crimes, which included murder, rape and sexual slavery. ‘It’s hugely significant in terms of showing to such individuals – and there are many in Africa and elsewhere – that think that impunity reigns. The message here is that the Court has a long range: it will wait and it will come for you.’

More than 2,000 victims participated in the proceedings and Ntaganda testified in his own defence. Throughout the trial the defence’s legal team put forward a number of mitigating factors, but as Van Woudenberg stresses, the judges ‘utterly debunked’ each and every one. ‘The fact that those were all rejected and with good reasoning was an important factor in this decision,’ she says. The verdict is subject to appeal.

The message here is that the Court has a long range: it will wait and it will come for you

Anneke Van Woudenberg
Executive Director, Rights and Accountability in Development

Commenting on the ruling, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, said in a statement: ‘My thoughts are with the victims and all those affected by the heinous crimes committed. I seriously hope that the conviction and the sentence imposed on Bosco Ntaganda will bring them the justice they so rightly deserve and send a clear signal to would-be perpetrators that justice ultimately prevails’.

The Court’s conviction rate has come in for criticism in recent years. Since its inception in 1998, the ICC has issued nine convictions and four acquittals. However, Ntaganda’s sentence highlights its commitment to delivering justice, says Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the IBA. ‘The ICC has suffered a number of setbacks over the last several years, bringing to doubt its own standing in the international community,’ he says. ‘The Ntaganda sentencing is a welcome counter to these criticisms. For the first time the Court convicted an accused for sexual slavery as a war crime and a crime against humanity. Not only does Ntaganda’s conviction and sentencing bring a sense of justice and accountability for Congolese victims, but it sets an important legal precedence for future atrocity crimes.’

One of the most recent high-profile acquittals came in June 2018 when the Court’s Appeals Chamber reversed the original 18-year sentence issued against Jean-Pierre Bemba, a Congolese warlord who had been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Central African Republic between 2002 and 2003. ‘It's important for the international community, even under these frustrating moments, to maintain full support for this court,’ Ellis told Global Insight shortly after Bemba’s acquittal in 2016.

The case was reviewed and in September 2019 the Court fined Bemba €300,000 and issued him with a 12-month sentence for witness tampering. Despite an appeal, the sentence was upheld on 27 November. Following the re-sentencing, Bensouda said the decision was an important reminder that her Office would ‘continue to play its part to protect ICC proceedings from those who attempt to defeat the ends of justice.’

These rulings come as the ICC seeks to rebut accusations that it is biased towards Africa as it launches significant investigations in other jurisdictions. In November, the Court authorised the opening of an official investigation into alleged crimes committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar since the onset of the country’s military-led crackdown in August 2017. In early December, the Court also heard oral arguments for its investigation into alleged war crimes related to the armed conflict in Afghanistan.

Van Woudenberg hopes Ntaganda’s sentence will help quell concerns about the ICC’s commitment to delivering justice to victims of atrocities worldwide. ‘There has been an uphill struggle for the Court to adequately tackle the backlash that has been seen by African governments against the institution,’ concedes Van Woudenberg. ‘This marks a huge lesson learned that clearly more is required to make these arrest warrants meaningful and to enact them. Ntaganda’s ability to evade arrest for as long as he did weakened the court. This judgment is a step in the right direction to strengthening it again.’

Ntaganda’s sentence also ‘boosts the ICC’s prestige in Africa’, according to Pieter Steyn, Co-Chair of the African Regional Forum and a Director at Werksmans Attorneys in Johannesburg. He believes the verdict strongly endorses the Court’s mandate to support the rule of law across Africa and provide ‘a forum to punish war crimes and crimes against humanity where domestic mechanisms are unable to do so.’

Image: Roman Yanushevsky / Shutterstock.com