Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Congolese Activists Call for International Tribunal in DRC

They say local courts cannot be relied upon to bring war crimes prosecutions.
By Héritier Maila

A group of Congolese rights activists are calling for the establishment of an international criminal tribunal in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, which they say would help bring perpetrators of atrocities in the country to justice.

The group, New Civil Society of the Congo, known by the French abbreviation NSCC, claims to have a petition with 28,000 signatures demanding greater international involvement in the country’s judicial system.

“We launched this petition in order to give impulse to our government and drive the international community to take action in the DRC so that, at last, those who kill do not remain unpunished,” said Jonas Tshiombela, NSCC coordinator. “Human lives are taken indiscriminately by internal and foreign armed groups, and yet the international community remains silent about it.

“When 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda, the international community was mobilised. Why does this not happen in the DRC, where five million have died in gruesome conditions?”

The NNSC says that their ideal outcome would be a court based in DRC resembling the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, ICTR.

The ICTR, established in 1994 to try the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, and located in Arusha, Tanzania, has so far completed 50 trials. Its judges are all international.

Tshiombela said having the latter deals with the risk of local judges acting corruptly, by taking bribes or allowing themselves to be influenced by people in power, which the NNSC says has happened in the past.

Since 1998, bitter fighting has raged throughout the east of the country, leaving millions dead and devastating whole communities.

Yet, despite abuses allegedly committed by rebel militias and government forces, victims’ calls for justice have largely gone unnoticed.

The International Criminal Court, ICC, has issued four arrest warrants for militia leaders in the DRC, three of whom are currently being detained in The Hague while the fourth, Bosco Ntaganda, remains at large in DRC.

However, since the ICC cannot arrest all perpetrators of violence, most victims will have to rely on the national Congolese courts for justice.

Joseph Kabila, president of the DRC, has pledged to stamp out corruption in the judiciary. Last year, in a bid to clean it up, he sacked 165 judges, ten per cent of the profession.

But critics say that the government’s anti-corruption drive has had only limited success, and the culture of impunity remains endemic.

The refusal of Kinshasa to hand over Ntaganda to the ICC has helped reinforce the belief that justice in the DRC is not applied equitably.

Calls for an international tribunal based in DRC have been broadly welcomed, but there remain fears that powerful war crimes suspect will still be able to influence the process and therefore escape justice.

“Many war criminals are not troubled [by justice] and some are even in charge of the affairs of the country,” said Lubumbashi resident Ars Nkulu, reflecting a widely-held view.

“An international tribunal is a good idea, but the NSCC will not be able to realise its objective. Banana skins will be put in the way by those who have some power and fear that justice could catch up with them because of their past deeds.”

Kinshasa says that it supports the establishment of an international tribunal in the country and claims to have already taken steps to get things started.

“The NSCC’s initiative is rather obsolete now, given that an inter-Congolese dialogue has already recommended the establishment of an international criminal tribunal as a way of examining all those macabre incidents,” said Luzolo Bambi, the minister of justice.

The NNSC in response argued that although the government claims to want the same kind of tribunal that they have been campaigning for, officials are in reality doing very little to set up such a court in the country.

A new law that paves the way for the creation of an international tribunal in DRC has been drafted, but is currently stalled in parliament.

Nonetheless, the minister stressed that, even without the introduction of this law, those accused of war crimes could still be brought to trial within the country.

“While we wait for the national assembly and the senate to approve legislation that will allow Congolese courts to try war crimes, we will give designated courts temporary jurisdiction to [do this], ”he said.

Presently, those that are alleged to have committed mass atrocities in DRC can be tried by military tribunals.

Last year, militia leader Gédéon Kyungu Mutanga was convicted by a Katanga military court of crimes against humanity, insurgency and terrorism. At the time, human rights groups applauded the ruling, which drew on definitions from the ICC’s founding document, the Rome Statute.

But Rodrigue Katulu, a human rights activist in the country, is sceptical about the government’s commitment to international justice. “The government simply wants to delay things. It is all a question of will,” he said.

Caitlin Reiger, the deputy director of prosecutions at the International Centre for Transitional Justice, explains that political will is usually the determining factor of the success or failure of a hybrid court that contains an international component.

“If you look at the hybrid courts in Sierra Leone and Cambodia, the experiences have been very different,” she said. “In Sierra Leone, the request was unambiguous. The [United Nations] came in and assisted and there has been a fairly high level of cooperation throughout. The independence of the special court has been clear. In Cambodia, it's been far more politically fraught, partly because of the political ambivalence of the national side about whether they really want this court to operate independently or not.”

For Raoul Gao, a lawyer at the Lubumbashi Bar Association, greater international involvement in the Congolese legal system would be a very good thing and would improve the way that justice is rendered in DRC.

“It is difficult to trust our judges,” he said. “Since their living conditions are not very good, they often resort to corruption. Moreover, judges are appointed by the government, which immediately raises questions about their judicial independence. If there are international judges, this would help fight corruption. High-ranking Congolese would not intimidate them. We want criminals to be punished whatever their social rank might be.”

Gao expresses hope for an end to impunity. “I believe that the presence of international judges will help us catch the big fish who think that justice is in their pocket and that they are untouchable,” he said.

Héritier Maila is an IWPR-trained journalist.

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