The arrest this week of Congolese rebel leader and former vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba on charges of crimes against humanity could be a significant blow for the leaders of myriad armed groups that terrorise the continent.
Bemba was arrested on Sunday by Belgian authorities acting on an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
He is being charged with crimes committed by his troops in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002-2003, when he deployed his Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) rebel group to the CAR to defend his close ally, President Ange-Felix Patasse, against rebel attack.
The main charges against Bemba are of rape and looting, allegedly committed on a large scale by MLC troops, a fact which Bemba has conceded, but for which he has refused to take responsibility because, he has argued, he did not order them to commit such acts.
But the ICC charges do hold him responsible, even if there is no suggestion that he necessarily directed his troops to rape and loot: “The preliminary chamber â€¦ is of the opinion that there are reasonable motives to believe that Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, in his quality as president and commander-in-chief of the MLC, was invested with a de jure and de facto authority by the members of his movement to take all political and military decisions.”
The court adds that “there are reasonable motives to believe that the execution of this plan [to deploy troops to CAR] would lead, in the normal course of events, to the commission of crimes, and that he accepted this risk by his decision to send the MLC troops to the Central African Republic, and by maintaining them there despite the commission of the crimes, of which he was informed.”
The significance of this is huge on a continent where men with weapons, whether they belong to national armies or illegal armed groups, regularly terrorise, rape, torture and kill civilians and rarely face the consequences of their acts.
Although Bemba is charged with crimes committed in the CAR, he is Congolese and the MLC was a Congolese rebel group. All Congolese armed groups, including the Congolese army, have been accused of rape and extrajudicial killings, but, with the exception of a few showcase cases, there has not been a serious attempt to discipline these ragtag groups of armed men or to impose the rule of law.
This is so because there has not been any incentive to do so.
Civilian victims are usually poor and defenceless and their poverty and fear of retribution make it unlikely that they will ever appeal to the legal system.
Armed groups—especially the Congolese army—are poorly and irregularly paid and it is unofficial policy that soldiers will supplement their meagre incomes by preying on the civilian population.
The size of the Democratic Republic of Congo (equivalent to that of Western Europe), the lack of infrastructure and the cancer of corruption and decay have so undermined the legal system that, even if victims of violence wanted to lay charges, they would be unlikely to see any real justice.
All these factors have created rampant impunity, of which rebel and military leaders have taken advantage. But the arrest of Bemba could just be the rude wake-up call that these leaders need to jolt them out of their complacency about, and complicity in, horrible acts of violence.
The fact that Bemba is being held accountable for crimes committed by men under his command—even if he did not command them to commit such crimes—means that anyone could be next.
Whether they are the former leaders of the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) rebel movement, Tutsi rebel Laurent Nkunda, whose troops are accused of ongoing atrocities, or Congolese President Joseph Kabila, who, as commander-in-chief of the Congolese Army and head of state, bears responsibility for the actions of one of the world’s most undisciplined armies, Bemba’s arrest paves the way for them to be held accountable.
In the best of all worlds this would dawn on the rebel and military leaders and they would begin to feel less untouchable and more afraid that they, too, might face consequences. Their fear of facing the law would then translate—gradually, of course, but steadily—into more disciplined armies, properly applied military law, regularly paid salaries and a growing respect for the rights of civilians. This is the hope.
It is probably a long way off, but the first step has been taken.