The Great Lakes: Trials and Injustices

For twenty years, the international community has consistently neglected any process of justice for the countless atrocities committed in the Great Lakes region of central Africa.  Yet recent events offer signs of hope that this trend could be changing.

Image courtesy of Pete Chirico, ©2007, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Pete Chirico, ©2007, some rights reserved.

Earlier this month, the International Criminal Court heard evidence against Bosco Ntaganda.  Ntaganda, also known as ‘The Terminator’, stands accused of war crimes involving the conscription and use of child soldiers, as well as various crimes against humanity.  Despite being born in Rwanda, Ntaganda has a colourful history of involvement with several rebel groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as briefly fighting for the Congolese army itself.  However, it is during his leadership of rebel group, the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) in 2002 and 2003 that he is accused of committing the crimes for which he was indicted.  In 2006, quarrels within the UPC following their lack of success at national elections led Ntaganda to join fellow warlord, Laurent Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP).  As part of a 2009 peace deal with the CNDP, The Terminator was incorporated in the national army.  UN peacekeepers, who had seen this man commit atrocities in the region for years, now looked on helplessly as he enjoyed a luxury lifestyle of fine restaurants and five star hotels, seemingly unmoved by the accusations that were being levelled by the international community.[1]  In April 2012, once again unhappy with his lot, Ntaganda helped found the M23 rebel group, going on to occupy several major cities in the east of the country.

The Terminator, a nickname supposedly earned from his refusal to shy away from getting his hands dirty on the front lines, has made a career of rebellion.  It is thought that from his time controlling regions in the east of the DRC under the auspices of his various rebel groups, he has accrued vast riches off the back and blood of the Congolese people.  It was therefore something of a surprise when Ntaganda handed himself in to the US embassy in neighbouring Rwanda in March 2013 to face the charges against him; a welcome surprise nonetheless.  So far, any meaningful efforts towards pursuing justice in the DRC have been hard to come by.  Breaking the norm from several other African conflicts, there has been no truth commission established as a means of reconciliation and an outlet for grief for those affected.  It has even been argued that the original UN mission in the DRC viewed justice and accountability as a spoiler to the political solutions they were supporting to end the violence.[2]

Whether Ntaganda’s hearing represents a change in this way of thinking remains to be seen.  Although a wealth of evidence has been presented to the panel of judges, they are yet to make their decision on whether there is sufficient evidence to take Ntaganda to trial.  Given the strength of the evidence put against him, it is likely Ntaganda will face a trial; yet even if found guilty, the conviction of one warlord in a region of the world that has dozens seems but a drop in the ocean.  Nevertheless, the Great Lakes region is undoubtedly a better place with Ntaganda facing an official process of justice.

Also covered in the media this month has been the case of Pascal Simbikangwa, a Rwandan man accused of complicity in genocide and crimes against humanity in his home state, but now facing trial in France.  Confined to a wheelchair after a car crash, Simbikangwa had previously been living under an alias on the French island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, but was discovered by Alain and Dafroza Gauthier and arrested in 2008.  The Gauthiers, a married couple hailing from France and Rwanda respectively, have made it their mission to track down Rwandan genocidaires living in France so as to bring them to justice.  Simbikangwa’s trial represents a remarkable shift in French policy with regards to the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide that occurred twenty years ago.  Having once been a controversial ally of a genocidal Rwandan government under President Juvenal Habyarimana, France had, until now, remained reluctant to get too involved in the current regime’s efforts at justice.

Understandably, Simbikangwa’s trial has been welcomed by Paul Kagame’s regime in Rwanda, seen as move towards making amends for French inefficacy at preventing the genocide against Kagame’s Tutsi ethnic group in 1994.  Similarly, the international community has applauded the trial as a sign of Françafrique’s steady decline, and that the old colonial power is willing to work with African leaders outside their own circle of influence.  However, while the trials of Ntaganda and Simbikangwa may be a step in the right direction for international justice in the Great Lakes region, amidst all the back-patting there remains an elephant in the room.  While the ICC and the French look for Congolese warlords and those guilty of genocide, President Kagame and his cronies look on with a satisfying feeling of impunity, despite their own considerable role in the violence in the region.  Lest we forget, Kagame’s regime is responsible for propping up at least two of Ntaganda’s rebel movements.  Furthermore, Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front have been accused of committing mass atrocities against Rwandan Hutus in the DRC following their invasion of the giant African state in 1996.  The sad truth is that it is far easier to arrest a warlord or an old paraplegic than it is to bring a government to justice, especially one that has been something of a favourite amongst Western donors for the past fifteen years.  Yet the reality remains that if the victims of the violence in the Great Lakes are to enjoy any meaningful sense of justice from international prosecutors, it might be time that they started aiming for far bigger targets.


[2] Stearns & Borello, 2011. “Bad Karma: Accountability for Rwandan Crimes in the Congo”. In: ed. Strauss & Waldorf, 2011. “Remaking Rwanda”. Madison; London: The University of Wisconsin Press.

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