The acquittal of Jean-Pierre Bemba: lessons must be learned

Congo (the Democratic Republic of the)International justiceNews

Brussels, 11 June 2018 – The acquittal on appeal of Jean-Pierre Bemba by the International Criminal Court leaves several thousand victims in the Central African Republic without no proper response to the extreme violence committed against them during the armed conflict. In 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC) found the former Vice-President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, guilty of the crimes committed by his forces, the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo, against the civilian population of the Central African Republic between October 2002 and March 2003, in support of Ange-Félix Patassé’s regime. He was initially sentenced to eighteen years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The decision taken by the ICC on Friday 8 June to acquit Mr Bemba on appeal has dealt a serious blow to the hopes of the 5,000 victims who came forward and, more generally, to the prospect of justice for crimes committed in the Central African Republic. After ten years of proceedings, this result casts serious doubt on the capacity of international justice, which in this case was operating at the highest level, to pursue the struggle against impunity. The argument that Mr Bemba was not in control of his troops who were deployed in the Central African Republic sends a particularly worrying message to all the commanders of factions operating in the region with complete disregard for its borders. Though the acquittal is undeniably legitimate from a strictly legal standpoint and conforms to the international standards on fair trials, it has left several thousand victims, including many victims of sexual violence, helpless. They have been denied recognition or reparation, a great disappointment given the scale of the resources mobilised in relation to this case. The victims were actively encouraged to get involved in the procedure and had placed a great deal of hope in the outcome, given the absence of any other prospects for justice in the short term. By participating proceedings of this kind, people are often putting themselves and their families at risk, exposing themselves to coercion and the threat of reprisals. The Bemba trial was no exception: the accused was himself convicted by the ICC of suborning witnesses. This decision threatens the credibility of international justice, making it even more difficult for ASF and other organisations to carry out their work with victims. The news is particularly unwelcome at a time when the Special Criminal Court for the Central African Republic is being put into operation in Bangui. While waiting for the verdict to be published, ASF wishes to draw attention to some lessons that can already be learned from this case. ASF considers it vital to make possible access to justice and reparations for the victims of armed conflicts through mechanisms other than the International Criminal Court, by strengthening national mechanisms for pursuing international crimes and developing transitional justice mechanisms more generally. ASF also stresses the importance of taking steps to prevent the experience of justice from becoming another form of damage to victims, adding the denial of justice to the harm originally suffered.
Photo © CPI-ICC, 2017