Comment: Why Ntaganda Reprieve is Wrong

Congo’s refusal to surrender rebel leader to ICC is huge blow for victims expecting justice and compensation.

Comment: Why Ntaganda Reprieve is Wrong

Congo’s refusal to surrender rebel leader to ICC is huge blow for victims expecting justice and compensation.

We live in a world where those who kill face harsh sentences, or sometimes life imprisonment. In Congo, however, someone accused of involvement in massacres that claimed hundreds of lives is treated with care and invited to the negotiating table to make peace. Additionally, a share of power is offered to him.

That is what has happened with Bosco Ntaganda, the new leader of the National Congress for People's Defense, CNDP, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court, ICC, for allegedly conscripting child soldiers in Ituri in 2002-2003. He is also accused by human rights groups of more recent war crimes in North Kivu province.

After his internal putsch against former CNDP chief Laurent Nkunda, Ntaganda declared on January 16 that the war was over and that in future he and his commanders would work with the Congolese army.

As a reward, President Joseph Kabila indicated that Kinshasa wouldn’t surrender Ntaganda to the ICC, because he was choosing “peace and security” in North Kivu. Congo’s minister of justice also defended Kinshasa’s refusal to hand over Ntaganda, saying that the “requirements of peace sometimes prevail over justice”, though he admitted that justice is an intrinsic element of peace.

The relationship between peace and justice has long been a problematic one for the ICC, not only in Congo but also in Uganda and Sudan. Even the ICC prosecutor has said of Uganda that he could suspend the prosecutions there if they were “not serving the interests of justice or the victims”. His decision to pursue war crimes charges against Sudan’s president has also been controversial, with calls from inside and outside Africa to drop the case in the interest of peace

However, this view goes against the general obligation to prosecute perpetrators of massive human rights violations. Absolving them of atrocities to preserve the peace is a sign of disdain towards victims and would destroy any policy of prevention of future crimes.

What impression do victims get when those who have killed their families end up being their political or military authorities – the people who are now supposed to protect them? Who can a victim turn to when his former torturer has become the authority, the person they must go to if their rights are violated? Is that in the interest of victims?

No matter the reasons or the justifications, the Congolese government’s refusal to surrender Ntaganda to the ICC is a huge blow for victims who are expecting justice and compensation.

Peace and justice should not be seen as two incompatible goals. Peace requires on justice and impunity is a threat to a lasting peace. Impunity for crimes committed today is a reason for tomorrow’s conflicts. Impunity promotes collective guilt, while a court judgement encourages personal accountability.

It was only November 2008 when a Congolese official attending the annual Assembly of States Parties meeting urged the court to open investigations in North and South Kivu in order to put an end to the killing spree of Nkunda, Ntaganda and their allies and to bring before justice all those who bring bloodshed to the region

So what changed with a government which in the past has been exemplary in its cooperation? It’s no secret that Kinshasa was unhappy that its candidate to be an ICC judge – Angélique Sita-Akele – was defeated in the January elections. Congo expected the other states parties to the court to reward its previous cooperation and was disappointed when she missed out on a seat on the bench.

But Ntaganda may not escape justice forever. The justice minister has said he would not be granted a pardon, implying that he could one day be held accountable for his deeds.

There is certainly precedent. The court’s first indictee, Thomas Lubanga, was arrested in Kinshasa after being invited by the Congolese authorities to participate in the national reconciliation process. The same thing happened with accused militia leaders Germain Katanga and Matthieu Ngudjolo, who were arrested after their integration into the national army.

Ntaganda’s arrest and transfer to The Hague is vital. The Congolese people deserve justice and victims need it in order to restore their dignity. At the moment, rebels like Ntaganda are walking over the blood of Congolese people to achieve power.

Eugène Bakama Bope is an IWPR contributor and the president of the organisation Friends of the Law in Congo.
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