War Crimes Justice Reform Urged

Activists call on government to end military’s monopoly on war crimes trials.

War Crimes Justice Reform Urged

Activists call on government to end military’s monopoly on war crimes trials.

Wednesday, 24 October, 2007
NGOs are urging the authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, to pass proposed legislation which would allow civilian trials of war crimes suspects, who at present can only be prosecuted in military courts.

Congolese lawmakers have drafted a bill called the law of implementation, which integrates several elements of the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute - that sets out the jurisdiction, structure and functions of the ICC - into DRC national legislation.

A draft of the law was sent to the national assembly for approval in September 2005. But it has lingered there ever since, despite at the time being welcomed as an important step forward by a number of parties - including the government officials who sponsored the bill, Kinshasa and Ituri-based civil society organisations and several legal experts.

Christian Hemedi Bayolo, coordinator for the National Coalition for the International Criminal Court, NC-ICC, in DRC, is calling for the urgent adoption of the implementation law.

“The laws which are currently enforced are deeply insufficient and [don’t conform] with the Rome Statute with regard to… crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity,” he said.

At present, war crimes suspects can only be tried in military courts, but these are far from satisfactory - plagued as they are by inconsistent procedure, judicial misconduct and resource shortages.

Military courts have tried several cases relating to abuses in the Congolese conflict. In February, 13 soldiers were convicted of massacring civilians in Ituri. And in April 2006, seven officers were found guilty of mass rape - the first time rape was tried as a crime against humanity in the Congo.

At the moment, the DRC’s legal system allows for the Rome Statute to be directly applied only in military trials.

Benjamin Yogolelo, a journalist based in DRC, told IWPR that the law of implementation is of “capital importance”, since it would permit Congolese law to try perpetrators of international crimes in civilian courts.

“The adoption of such a law would contribute to the reduction of impunity,” he said.

In efforts to push the issue into the public domain, NGOs are now publishing editorials on the benefits of adopting such a law.

“Everybody agrees that this is something they have to do, and then you wonder why it doesn’t happen,” said David Donat-Cattin of Parliamentarians for Global Action, PGA, a New York-based international organisation of more than 1,300 free elected legislators from more than 114 democratic countries.

Donat-Cattin said that opponents of the bill have successfully stalled it for years. “We are finding a lot of resistance,” he said.

While he was reluctant to give specific details on where resistance was coming from, he pointed in the general direction of the country’s leadership. “It’s [coming] from those who should be supportive of this legislation,” he added.

Government critics say that one of the key reasons why parliamentarians have blocked the passage of the bill is to protect themselves from possible prosecution.

“Nearly one-third of the people elected [to parliament] have been involved in the atrocities [in DRC] directly or indirectly,” claimed Donat-Cattin. “So, it’s very difficult for a parliament full of alleged war criminals to legislate on something that might affect [them].”

A source from the League for Peace and Human Rights, LIPADHO, a Kinshasa-based NGO, said, “Of course, such a law would be a good thing, but [justice] is not a priority for the Congolese government.”

Another reason cited for parliamentary resistance to the bill is that its adoption would scrap the death penalty. Under the Rome Statute, the maximum sentence the ICC can hand down is life imprisonment. Many MPs want to retain capital punishment as a judicial option.

Even if the proposed legislation is passed, however, some observers question whether DRC’s civilian courts are capable of handling complex war crimes trials.

Donat-Cattin, though, believes that the country’s lawyers and judges would meet the challenge, and stressed the importance of introducing legislation that gives them the potential to do so.

“There is no single country that [is fully] equipped to handle… [such] difficulties on the ground. One should not underestimate the capacity of an independent judiciary to take up exemplary cases,” he said.

“One should not give up on the idea that you should have good laws, whether or not a developing country has the resources to carry out trials. Good laws don’t cost anything. To adopt good legislation doesn’t cost a dollar or euro. It’s a matter of political will.”

Sonia Nezamzadeh is an IWPR reporter in The Hague and Desire-Israel Kazadi is a journalist based in Kinshasa.

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