Bosco Ntaganda, a Congolese general and rebel leader also known as “the Terminator,” was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court on July 8, 2019. Ntaganda was the first suspect ever to have voluntarily surrendered to the ICC in 2013, when he entered the US embassy in the Rwandan capital Kigali and asked to be sent to the court in the Netherlands.
The court found him guilty of 13 counts of war crimes and 5 counts of crimes against humanity that he had committed between 2002 and 2003 in Ituri, DR Congo. Among the many crimes he has been convicted of, rape and sexual slavery were also included. Ntaganda has 30 days to appeal, if he so chooses. While his sentence will be determined at a separate hearing, the crimes he has been convicted of can attract a punishment of up to 30 years’ imprisonment. The court may also hand down a life imprisonment sentence.
In the course of the proceedings, the prosecution presented Ntaganda’s role as a ruthless leader of ethnic Tutsi revolts in the thick of the wars that affected the DR Congo after the Rwandan genocide of 1994. While the prosecution presented narratives of victims who were treated brutally by Ntaganda, he defended himself claiming that he was a soldier and not a criminal, and that the nickname “Terminator” did not apply to him. He argued that the allegations against him were “nothing more than lies.”
Several groups suggest that this conviction would be heralded as a “moment of justice” by survivors and victims of atrocities in the DR Congo. However, a more nuanced understanding of this outcome is necessary.
First, if the verdict is upheld after appeal (assuming Ntaganda appeals), it would be the first official conviction for sexual violence by the ICC. This is a significant acknowledgment of sexual violence in conflict. Although the Rome Statute was pathbreaking in its own right, being the first statute to acknowledge sexual violence as crimes, it hasn’t convicted perpetrators as it should have.
A second point to be noted is that the ICC has largely often allowed for people in positions of power to walk free, oftentimes targeting those that rank in the “middle level” of power structures. While the prosecutors suggested that Ntaganda played a key role in planning and executing operations for the UPC rebels and the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, that he was a former Congolese army general before founding the M23 rebel group that was eventually defeated by the Congolese government forces, reportssuggest that he was only a mercenary for other powerful structures.
It has been two decades since the ICC’s establishment. Ntaganda’s trial is one among many that reaffirm some of the critiques leveled against the ICC: that it has mainly tried African suspects so far, that its approach has been to allow people in positions of power that are higher up in the hierarchy to walk free, that it has not produced a final conviction for sexual violence so far, and that it does not address structural violence. While a final conviction for sexual violence may definitely be pathbreaking, this case also holds out enough reason – as have many others – to introspect and reconsider approaches to prosecution of crimes during conflict.
Image Source: The International Criminal Court