Justice bows to politics

As the trial of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga starts in The Hague, Stephanie Wolters wonders why his former deputy, Bosco Ntaganda, is still a free man

This week the trial of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga finally began at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague after a two-year wait. Lubanga, who was transferred into ICC custody in 2006, is charged with forcibly recruiting child soldiers during his tenure as leader of the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC), a Congolese militia group which fought for control of the north-eastern region of Ituri between 2000 and 2005. Lubanga’s trial is being hailed as a watershed, primarily as it is intended to send a strong message to warlords that the time of impunity has come to an end.

Unfortunately, events in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) remind us that, in fact, the demands of international justice don’t hold a candle to political expediency and ambition. For while Lubanga settles into the ICC courtroom for a trial that could last at least a year, several thousand kilometres to the south, Bosco Ntaganda, Lubanga’s former deputy military commander, is in the unlikely position of being hailed as the new peacemaker in the volatile eastern Congo.

Like Lubanga, Ntaganda is accused by the ICC of forcibly recruiting child soldiers during his tenure as Lubanga’s right-hand man. In May 2008 the ICC revealed that an arrest warrant had been pending against him since 2006. But by this time Ntaganda was long gone; he had left Ituri by the time the conflict there petered out in 2005, fleeing to North Kivu, where he soon became number two to the renegade General Laurent Nkunda, who has been fighting the Congolese army since 2004.

Nkunda’s military campaign has since displaced hundreds of thousands of people and kept the eastern DRC in a constant state of war. Nkunda, too, faces an international arrest warrant, but this one was issued by the Congolese government in 2004, not the ICC, and there were never moves to enforce it.

This changed dramatically several weeks ago, with Ntaganda’s sudden declaration that he had ousted Nkunda as the leader of the Congres Nationale pour la Defense du Peuple (CNDP). The declaration came just as peace talks between the Congolese government and the CNDP were resuming in Nairobi under the auspices of former Nigerian president and special UN envoy Olusegun Obasanjo.

In the past 10 days Ntaganda has declared an end to the hostilities in eastern DRC, been officially acknowledged by the Congolese government as the leader of the CNDP rebel movement and, most importantly, has rallied the support of the CNDP’s troops and convinced them to lay down their weapons against the Congolese army. Nkunda, on the other hand, has seen better days; last Friday he was arrested by police in Rwanda on charges of resisting the moves towards peace. This is nothing less than a betrayal as Nkunda has long been close to the Rwandan political and security establishment and his ties to the Tutsi-led Rwandan government go back to pre-genocide days when President Paul Kagame was still in Uganda fighting his own bush war against the Hutu-led regime of Juvenal Habyarimana.

But a recent UN report contained evidence that senior members of the Rwandan government and Kagame’s inner circle were actively supporting Nkunda’s rebellion in eastern DRC. As a result, for the first time in 15 years, the Rwandan government has come under considerable pressure from the international community over its involvement in the eastern DRC.

The Congolese government has now asked that Nkunda be extradited to the DRC, where it says it plans to charge him with war crimes. In the meantime, it remains unclear what the DRC government will do about Ntaganda’s ICC arrest warrant.

Protecting Ntaganda would be a costly exercise for the Congolese government, which has won favour as a result of its close relationship with the ICC. On the other hand Ntaganda has become a key figure in the rapidly shifting alliances and strategic relationships between DRC and Rwanda, and this is likely to be the more important issue for the Congolese government; politics: 1, international justice: 0.

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