Between hope and skepticism: Congolese await the trial of Ntaganda

Bosco Ntaganda at the hearing in ICC Courtroom I on 2 September 2015 © ICC-CPI


Today, September 2, the trial of Bosco Ntaganda began at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. This will be an important trial for the court in many ways and will be followed with particular interest both in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and in the rest of the sub-region because of the high profile nature of the perpetrator and because of the extent to which his story highlights regional engagement in the DRC.

Born in Rwanda, Ntaganda fled to the DRC as a teenager. He served as chief of military operations for the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC), the rebel group lead by Thomas Lubanga, from 2002 to 2005. Later he went on to fight with a number of other rebel groups including the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) and the March 23 Movement (M23), before becoming a general in Congo’s national army following the peace deal signed between the Congolese government and the CNDP. Although he is only being tried for his actions in connection with the UPC in Ituri, he is also accused of committing atrocities in North Kivu, and so populations in both areas have an interest in the trial.

Congolese are awaiting the trial with both hope and skepticism. Many are disappointed by the court’s performance in the DRC so far, but yet are aware of the potential of this case to address some of the criticisms that have been leveled against the court.

A Link to the Really Big Fish?

One of the most commonly cited concerns about the ICC’s engagement in the DRC is that the court went after the “small fish” and avoided those most responsible for the crimes committed there. However, this criticism is not often heard in the case of Ntaganda, who is generally seen as an important player in the conflict. In the words of one Congolese activist, he played “an important role in persecuting, killing, raping, and hunting down anyone that did not belong to the Hema tribe or their militia.”

That said, activists do not want the court to stop with Ntaganda. A number have expressed hope that this trial will result in a deeper understanding of the dynamics in the region at that time and of the roles of others who supported him. In the words of a representative of the NGO Action Citoyenne Pour les Droits de l’Homme, “We want justice and truth. The expectation of many Congolese is that this process will end with the conviction of the true authors of the killings in the East of the country.”

Another aspect of the Ntaganda trial that is of particular interest to people on the ground is the extent to which it may highlight the role of international actors in the conflict. Another often cited criticism of the court’s engagement in the DRC is that it has failed to go after those criminals that it will be most difficult for the Congolese national system to touch, including the foreign elements from Uganda and Rwanda who were involved in the fighting. Although this trial is an individual case against Ntaganda and the responsibilities of Rwanda and Uganda are not formally up for consideration, there is hope that the trial will shed light on foreign engagement in the DRC and spur further action. In the words of a law student, “What we want to know is the truth between Kabila and Kagame who were the real commanders of Ntaganda and who sent him to commit crimes.”

Ethnic Dynamics

There is particular tension around the role of Rwandans in the conflict in the DRC—especially members of the Tutsi ethnic group now dominant in the Rwandan government. Some in the DRC say that the combination of the failure to investigate and prosecute any Rwandans for their engagement in the DRC and the failure of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) to prosecute any of the Rwandan Tutsi leadership is evidence of an international conspiracy to protect Tutsi leaders, either as a result of guilt over international inaction during the genocide or for some other reason.

Could the prosecution of Ntaganda help to unravel some of these accusations of bias on the part of the international community? Although Ntaganda is listed as being Congolese on current ICC documents, his original 2006 arrest warrant lists him as a “presumed Rwandan national.” And on the ground he is very much seen as being aligned with the Tutsi and the Banyamulenge. In the words of one activist, he was “nationalized without proper procedures and named as a general in the Congolese army.”

The trial also raises a number of fundamental questions about whether or not—and how—the trial might impact efforts to hold Rwandan government officials accountable for alleged international crimes, such as the recent Spanish attempt to secure the extradition of Emmanuel Karenzi Karake, Rwanda’s intelligence chief.

Among some of the communities seen as affiliated with Ntaganda, including the Banyarutshuru and the Banyamulenge, some emphasize the fact that the case against Ntaganda has yet to be proven and that he should benefit from the presumption of innocence, like any other defendant. One member of this community expressed concern about the lack of accountability for other crimes—such as the Gatumba massacre—stating, “We invite the ICC to recognize pure and simple that the Burundian and Congolese states lack the political will to prosecute those responsible.”

Prosecution for Other Crimes

As horrific as the crimes committed in Ituri were, many activists argue that Ntaganda should also be prosecuted for crimes committed as part of the CNDP and M23. Some argue that more expansive charges would contribute to building a stronger historical record of what has happened in DRC and allow a wider scope of victims to participate. Even if no additional charges are added, it is clear that eyes in North Kivu are on the ICC. A lawyer in Goma said, “Even if North Kivu is not directly implicated in the case, here in North Kivu the entire population is mobilized to find out what will become of this man who terrorized the entire city.”

Bringing Hope to Victims

Lastly, a distinguishing element of this trial is the relatively high level of victims’ participation, with 2,146 victims formally admitted to participate in proceedings. (By way of comparison, only 126 were recognized in the Lubanga trial.) There has been significant frustration, however, on the part of victims in the Lubanga trial, who wonder why Lubanga is being considered for release even before their applications for reparations are adjudicated. Others have complained about the relative luxury of the conditions in which detainees are held. A law student in North Kivu said that he would be “disappointed if Bosco is incarcerated in a luxury prison after […] kill[ing], raping and committing extremely grave atrocities against the peaceful population.” Serious questions are being asked about whether this groups of victims will be more satisfied with their experiences and whether or not they will be able to access reparations in a more expeditious manner as a result of the trial.

In the end, only time will tell what the full impact of this trial will be. In the meantime, in the words of an activist who has worked extensively with victims, “Let us open our eyes and follow this case closely.”

This commentary was written by Olivia Bueno of the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), in consultation with Congolese activists. The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of IRRI or of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

This post originally appeared in the International Justice Monitor.

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