The International Criminal Court (ICC) has found the Congolese militia leader Germain Katanga guilty of war crimes, but acquitted him on charges of sexual offences.
The trial chamber ruled that Katanga was instrumental in organising the 2003 massacre of over 200 people in Bogoro village in the north-eastern Ituri province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The judge said that investigators could not prove Katanga directly engaged in the violence, but said the defendant was at least involved in facilitating the atrocity.
Katanga − known by his men as Simba, meaning lion − is believed to have been the commander of the Patriotic Resistance Force of Ituri (FRPI), one of the groups which was responsible for the brutal attack. In 2009, Katanga went on trial at the ICC along with Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, the leader of another militia group implicated in the assault, but Chui was acquitted in December 2012 due to lack of evidence.
Ahead of the verdict, many were concerned Katanga might also be acquitted of his long list of charges but in the end the court handed down only its second ever conviction since its creation 12 years ago. However, many will nevertheless be disappointed that Katanga wasn't convicted for sexual violence and for using child soldiers.
“In their heart, many victims want to believe that, somehow, this judgment will contribute to peace and reconciliation," says Fidel Nsita, the Legal Representative of the Main Group of Victims in the case. However, as he points out, conflict in the region is still ongoing and members of Katanga's militia continue to be active. To this day, Nsita says, the rebels “conduct routine attacks against the local population including pillaging cattle and killing people."
In August last year, for example, clashes between FPRI and the Congolese army in Ituri led to 80,000 people being displaced as reports emerged of kidnappings, sexual violence and other abuses by armed men.
In many cases, victims have to live side-by-side with their perpetrators and are in constant fear of new attacks. The Congolese government has long been unable to tackle impunity for crimes in the region and, moreover, Nsita claims that Congolese government is considering enrolling former militia members − including some of those who participated to the Bogoro attack − into national army.
This may be seen as a way to demobilise rebel soldiers, but according to Nsita such moves strengthen victims' sense that their politicians have “forgotten them and that no adequate measures are being taken to put an end to the continuous attacks."
It is in this context that many hope Katanga's conviction will prompt broader moves towards upholding justice in the region. For instance, Bukeni Waruzi, Senior Programme Manager for Africa and Middle East at Witness and founder of the AJEDI-KA/Child Soldiers Project, insists the ICC sentence should be "a catalyst and an inspiration to establish local courts and to prosecute the low-level perpetrators.”
Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), is similarly hopeful but points out that the precedent is less than promising. In 2012, the ICC handed down its first ever conviction to Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga, but she says the sentence did not lead to "a dramatic change in the situation in the Congo."
"It is important to stay realistic because the ICC has only a handful of cases in the Congo, and justice takes time and multiple cases to make an impact," she cautions. Though Mattioli-Zeltner does see hope in the fact that the Congolese government seems interested in establishing “specialised mixed chambers in the national judicial system which would only look into cases of war crimes." This move, she says, would be “a very strong signal of commitment” in ending impunity.
However, a sense of justice is not the only thing victims need, especially in the short-term.
As Nsita points out, before the violence many villagers “had a good, or even very good, standard of living. Many had cattle, businesses and fields. Their children used to go to school.” But as a result of continued attacks, hundreds have been killed or forced to flee, and those left behind have lost often everything. Livestock is pillaged, houses are looted and burnt down, and survivors are left psychologically traumatised.
These victims have received little support from the government and often had to rely on the help of national and international NGOs.
One of these organisations is the AJEDI-KA/Child Soldiers Project which aims to help child soldiers demobilise and reintegrate with their families and communities. But as the group's founder, Waruzi, emphasises, such processes cannot be achieved by local organisations alone.
“Reintegration has to be a common process that involves several stakeholders from the state-level to the family level," he says. "Moreover, it is a long-term process. Therefore the only one institution that can sustain it is the state.” Part of responsibility, Waruzi adds, is to "provide necessary social infrastructure with accessible and affordable schools and health centres."
Frustratingly though, the Congolese government has long struggled to tackle the recruitment of child soldiers. In the period between January 2012 and August 2013 alone, for example, the UN mission in the DRC documented the recruitment of nearly 1,000 children.
“It is crucial that the Congolese government sends a strong signal that it is absolutely out of line to recruit child soldiers," says Mattioli-Zeltner. "We also need to have more prosecutions of armed group leaders and others who are responsible for their recruitment.”
On this note, Katanga's acquittal at the ICC over issues of child soldiers and sexual violence is disappointing to those trying to tackle these issues. However, activists hope that his conviction on other charges will deal a blow to impunity in the region and signal another small step on the long road to justice.
Correction 11/3/14: The article originally misspelt Fidel Nsita's name.
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