The first step to possibly try Bosco Ntaganda, a Congolese warlord born in Rwanda, for war crimes and crimes against humanity, began recently at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Ntaganda, who turned himself in to the court last year by going to the United States Embassy in Rwanda, allegedly committed the crimes as a deputy chief of staff of the FPLC (Forces Patriotiques pour la Libération du Congo, in French), which is the military arm of the Union des Patriotes Congolais, or UPC. He has denied the charges.
The case against Ntaganda, which is being presented by prosecutors at a five-day court hearing that began Feb. 10, is the first time in international criminal law when an accused is charged with acts of rape and sexual slavery of child soldiers committed in his own militia and under his command.
The case, however, does not include Ntaganda’s warmongering with other potent militias, including the notorious M23, which crumbled in 2013 after the newly formed “international brigade” of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo nullified its core.
The Ntaganda case brings before the international court, known as the ICC, one of the most flagrant perpetrators of sexual violence in eastern Congo in the last decade by a rebel leader. When he surrendered, the United States called Ntaganda “one of the most notorious and brutal rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
The judges at the hearing have 60 days to decide whether the prosecution has a strong enough case to go to trial, once final submissions from the defense have been sent. The ICC is the world’s only permanent court to prosecute serious atrocity crimes.
“Bosco Ntaganda is alleged to have terrorised communities in at least three provinces within eastern DRC as a senior military leader for more than a decade and is known locally as the Terminator,” Brigid Inder, executive director of the Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice, said in a recent statement.
Inder’s group works closely with the International Criminal Court advocating for gender justice and helps investigate sexually based crimes in conflict settings. It is highly regarded for its annual Gender Report Card on the International Criminal Court. Inder is also a gender adviser, an unpaid post, to Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor for the ICC.
Ntaganda, 41, has been charged with 13 counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity. He speaks just a smattering of French, he says, so the court must translate the most important documents into Kinyarwanda, his native tongue.
Thomas Lubanga, his former boss in the FPLC, was convicted by the ICC in 2012 for the war crimes of conscription, enlistment and use of children under age 15 to engage in fighting. Lubanga was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment.
Explaining the case against Ntaganda, Inder said: “Ordinarily, charges of sexual violence relate to the commission of these acts committed by combatants of one militia group against females of another militia or against women, primarily within the civilian population. But in this case, Ntaganda, in light of his leadership position, is charged as being responsible for the rape and sexual slavery of girl soldiers within his own militia group committed by other FPLC combatants and commanders.”
Documentation conducted by Inder’s group in 2006 and 2007, in the Ituri region in eastern Congo, found that the rape of girls and women occurred not only between warring tribes and militias but also within militias and ethnic groups. In the case of girl soldiers being conscripted, enlisted and used by the militia, their vulnerability as young females appears to have been systematically exploited and violated “as part of the routine internal management of this militia,” Inder said.
Ntaganda is also charged with crimes of sexual violence against civilians. The combination of charging Ntaganda for gender-based crimes committed within the militia and by the militia on outsiders reflects the sexually violent nature of his rebel force and is considered a positive development by the court, Inder added.
More specifically, he is charged with the war crime of murder and attempted murder of civilians; attacks against a civilian population; rape of civilians and of UPC/FPLC child soldiers; sexual slavery of civilians and UPC/FPLC child soldiers; pillaging; displacement of civilians; conscription, enlistment and use of children under age of 15 to participate in hostilities; attacks against protected objects; and destruction of property.
He is also charged with the crimes against humanity of murder and attempted murder of civilians; rape of civilians; sexual slavery of civilians; persecution; and forcible transfer of population. The alleged crimes, which were also ethnically based, took place in Ituri from September 2002 to September 2003.
The broader prosecution of gender-based crimes in the Ntaganda case — against child soldiers and civilians — represents a bolder approach to tackling such criminality by the court, Inder said, noting that the case against Lubanga had been narrower.
“We hope the Court will also be addressing the full extent of the experience and harm suffered by children conscripted, enlisted and used by the UPC as well as the gender dimensions of these crimes including the overall treatment of girl soldiers and the roles to which they were assigned within the FPLC,” Inder said.
The initial arrest warrant for Ntaganda, issued by the court on Aug. 22, 2006, did not include charges for sexual violence crimes. But a second arrest warrant, issued on July 13, 2012, charged Ntaganda with sexual violent acts, including rape and sexual slavery, as war crimes and crimes against humanity.
After the first warrant and the signing of a peace agreement in 2009 with the Rwanda-backed rebel group he led at the time, the National Congress for the Defense of the People, Ntaganda and his fighters were integrated into the Congolese Army (FARDC). He was eventually promoted to the rank of general and became the de facto second-in-command in charge of operations in the Kivu provinces in eastern Congo. In April 2012, Ntaganda led a mutiny against the army, and the Mouvement du 23 Mars (March 23 Movement), took seed.
Partners of the Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice have reported crimes by the M23 and the Congolese Army, including abductions, killings and rapes. Such crimes were also detailed in a 2012 UN report on Congo.
Josephine Malimukono, a member of the Ligue pour la Solidarité Congolaise (League for Congolese Solidarity) in Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province, said that “the communities of Rutshuru and Nyiragongo believe that the consideration of charges against Bosco Ntaganda will be a significant step in the healing process of victims and affected communities.” She added, “Families and survivors welcome the hearing as contributing to their psychological recovery.”
Malimukono also urged the Congo government to keep in mind “the humiliation experienced by the women victims of sexual violence and other abuses committed by armed men” and urged the International Criminal Court “‘to expand the charges against Ntaganda” in light of his senior military role in other militias, including the M23.
[This article was updated on Feb. 14, 2014.]
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.