President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo should immediately order the arrest of Gen. Bosco Ntaganda and promptly transfer him to The Hague for a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said today. Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes. Human Rights Watch released a video with witness accounts of Ntaganda’s alleged crimes.
In a public statement in eastern Congo on April 11, 2012, Kabila indicated he was considering Ntaganda’s arrest. Kabila’s emergency visit to the region followed renewed insecurity in North and South Kivu after army soldiers loyal to Ntaganda attempted to mutiny. The statement signified an important change in the Congolese government’s policy toward Ntaganda, who was previously touted as needed for the country’s peace process.
“President Kabila has put Ntaganda’s arrest firmly on the agenda, which is a major step forward for justice in Congo,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kabila’s words should promptly result in a lawfully conducted arrest that will ensure Ntaganda goes straight to The Hague and civilians aren’t harmed.”
The ICC issued a sealed arrest warrant for Ntaganda in 2006 on charges of war crimes for recruiting and using child soldiers in active combat in 2002-2003 in the northeastern district of Ituri. At the time he was chief of military operations for the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), a Congolese militia group. The arrest warrant was unsealed in April 2008.
Despite the ICC warrant, Ntaganda was allowed to become part of the Congolese army and promoted to the rank of general in 2009. He moved about freely in eastern Congo in full view of Congolese government officials, United Nations peacekeepers, and foreign diplomats. The Congolese government stated that Ntaganda was an important partner for peace and contended that arresting him would undermine the peace process. Congolese civil society organizations repeatedly denounced the promotion and called for Ntaganda’s arrest.
Over the past decade, Human Rights Watch has frequently documented Ntaganda’s continuing role in horrific abuses including ethnic massacres, killings, rape, torture, and recruitment of child soldiers. The government’s policy of rewarding commanders implicated in abuses, such as Ntaganda, with high-ranking army positions shows cruel disregard for the victims of their atrocities, Human Rights Watch said.
“Ntaganda has boldly walked around the restaurants and tennis courts of Goma flaunting his impunity like a medal of honor while engaging in ruthless human rights abuses,” Van Woudenberg said. “The UN and others should offer help to ensure his long overdue and lawful arrest and bring some relief to his many victims.”
In March, the ICC found Ntaganda’s co-accused, Thomas Lubanga, guilty of the war crime of recruiting and using child soldiers in the court’s first case. Following the verdict, the ICC prosecutor announced that he will pursue additional charges of rape and murder against Ntaganda in connection with his activities in Ituri.
The ICC verdict against Lubanga highlighted Ntaganda’s continued impunity and increased pressure for his arrest, Human Rights Watch said. Fearful that action against him was imminent, Ntaganda encouraged his troops to defect from the ranks of the Congolese army. The move backfired when only a few hundred troops rallied to his support, many of whom rejoined the army’s ranks or were arrested days later.
In his speech in Goma, Kabila denounced the defections and the indiscipline in the army, and stated that, “it gives us reason to arrest any officer, beginning with Bosco Ntaganda.”
Kabila also suggested that Ntaganda could stand trial in Congo, rather than being transferred to the ICC after arrest.“We don’t need to arrest Bosco and to bring him to the ICC,” Kabila said. “We ourselves can arrest him and we have more than a hundred reasons to do so and to try him here, and if that’s not possible, elsewhere, possibly in Kinshasa [the capital], or elsewhere. It is not reasons that we lack.”
The government referred the situation in Congo to the ICC in 2004, however. As a state party to the ICC treaty, Congo is legally required to cooperate with the court and follow its procedures, including enforcing the ICC arrest warrant for Ntaganda.
Should the Congolese government want to try Ntaganda in Congo, it would need to file a legal submission to the ICC judges challenging the admissibility of the case and demonstrating that the Congolese justice system is genuinely willing and able to prosecute Ntaganda in fair and credible proceedings for the same crimes. The final decision rests with the ICC judges whether a national trial in Congo could trump its own proceedings.
Congo’s justice system has proven weak at holding those responsible for mass violence to account, Human Rights Watch said. Very few top-ranking officers or armed group leaders have been held to account for war crimes or crimes against humanity despite the numerous serious crimes committed during Congo’s recent armed conflicts. Military courts have been starved of resources, often plagued with political interference and many procedures fall short of respecting international standards for a fair trial. A number of those who have been convicted have been able to escape from prison.
“Ntaganda has a lot to answer for, but now is not the time to backpedal on Congo’s legal commitments to the ICC,” Van Woudenberg said. “Without substantial investment and legal reforms, Congo’s justice system will be unable to fairly try the international crimes for which Ntaganda has been charged. When arrested he should be transferred to The Hague without delay so his victims can have their day in court.”