International Criminal Court: A Congolese warlord’s last refuge

By Simon Allison 19 March 2013

No one was expecting Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda – one of the world’s most wanted men – to hand himself over to US embassy officials in Rwanda. But, running out of options, that’s exactly what the man they call “The Terminator” did, choosing the relative comforts of international justice over the unpalatable consequences of his declining popularity at home. By SIMON ALLISON.

The International Criminal Court has been unsuccessfully chasing Bosco Ntaganda for quite some time. The leader of a rebel militia in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Ntaganda – nicknamed “The Terminator” for very literal reasons – has been evading the court since an international arrest warrant was issued in his name in 2006. He was accused of recruiting children under the age of 15 into his militia, and using them as frontline soldiers. In 2012, a second warrant was issued with even more charges: murder, rape, sexual slavery, pillage and persecution.

None of this seemed to faze Ntaganda or his allies, who ignored the arrest warrants and renewed their hostilities against the Congolese government when that government threatened to enforce them (this was one of several factors behind the recent conflict in eastern Congo). The International Criminal Court, powerless to enforce its own warrants, could only look on helplessly as Ntaganda dined in fancy restaurants in the eastern city of Goma, or played tennis, brazenly thumbing his nose at the international community.

Until Monday morning, when, to the shock of American officials, none other than Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda himself strolled into the US Embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, requesting to be handed over to the ICC to stand trial.

I can confirm that Bosco Ntaganda… walked into the US embassy in Kigali this morning,” state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told equally surprised reporters on Monday. “He specifically asked to be transferred to the ICC in The Hague.” The US, she added, is liaising with the Rwandan government to “facilitate his request”.

Nuland did not speculate on why Ntaganda might have given himself up, but it’s not too hard to connect the dots and come up with a reasonable hypothesis.

Truth is Ntaganda is not as popular or powerful as he once was. The movement that he played a leading role in, known as M23, is riven by factionalism, and recent reports indicate that this has spilled over into actual conflict between the two competing factions – one led by Ntaganda, another led by General Sultani Mukenga. These two men have never quite seen eye to eye, with Mukenga remaining loyal to former leader Laurent Nkunda, now under house arrest in Rwanda.

Over the weekend, reports emerged which suggested that Ntaganda’s faction had been forced to flee M23-held areas of eastern Congo. Take this from Al-Jazeera: “After nearly three weeks of on-and-off fighting between the two factions, hundreds of Ntaganda’s men have now fled. Some surrendered to UN peacekeepers in Congo, others to Makenga’s faction of M23, and many ran, along with civilians, into neighbouring Rwanda. The Rwandan government said it received about 600 combatants, who were disarmed and detained.”

All this left Ntaganda in a bit of a tight spot. Hounded out of eastern Congo, he was short on friends and surrounded by enemies. He could keep fighting a losing battle, risking a messy fate at the hands of Congolese or Rwandan justice or perhaps the more summary, brutal justice (in which he himself is alleged to be an expert) as administered by his former allies. Or he could hand himself over to a rather more comfortable enemy: the International Criminal Court.

As prisons go, the ICC’s detention centre in The Hague is not bad. Not bad at all, in fact. Prisoners awaiting and during trial (if convicted, they are sent to serve their sentence in a another country) enjoy a roomy, private cell in one of the city’s most exclusive areas. In the cell, where prisoners are kept from 21:00 to 7:30, is a bed, desk, bookshelf, cupboard, toilet, basin, telephone (although calls are placed by prison authorities), and TV. During the day, prisoners can mingle with other inmates and are fed three square meals by the prison canteen, which has been criticised in the past for serving vegetables too “al dente” for some tastes. Prisoners have access to multimedia facilities, and can partake in “a series of training, leisure and sports programmes” on offer, according to the ICC’s website.

Contrast this with Al Jazeera’s 2010 report of from a jail in eastern DRC (things haven’t changed much since then): “Prisoners continue to live in extremely cramped conditions, with the jail holding five times more than its 100 inmate capacity… People crowd in tiny rooms while motionless men line the edge of the prison’s courtyard, backed up against latrines that have an overwhelming smell of excrement… In one windowless cell 108 men lay packed side-by-side on threadbare mats on the ground, dozing in the dank surroundings. Plastic bags hanging above their heads carrying each person’s belongings are the only spots of colour. The odour of sweat and other bodily fluids is inescapable.”

If I was Bosco Ntaganda, I know where I’d rather spend the next few years – but there are a few more hurdles to overcome before he can enjoy some telly and a good night’s sleep in his new home. The biggest of these is that the US and Rwanda have to figure out some mutually acceptable way of getting him to The Hague. This is not as simple as it appears. Neither country is a signatory to the Rome Statute which created the international court, meaning they have no obligation towards it. While America will undoubtedly try to comply with the court’s arrest warrant, Rwanda’s position is less clear. The country has, in the past, been very critical of the role of the ICC in Africa, and might have a strong motive for preventing a lengthy, detailed Ntaganda trial, which would shed a lot more light on Rwanda’s oft-denied involvement in facilitating conflict in the DRC.

The cooperation of the Congolese government is also not guaranteed. Although it is doubtlessly delighted that Ntaganda is in someone’s custody, the DRC has repeatedly demanded that it try Ntaganda, and could well reiterate these calls.

These are relatively minor obstacles, however, and the prosecutors at the ICC will be celebrating the chance to prepare a case against one of the DRC’s most notorious warlords. They won’t mind that Ntaganda’s surrender was because of the perception that the ICC offers the softest justice around, and neither should we: fact is, the court offered a way out for Ntaganda that will see him lay down his weapons and answer for his crimes, and that is no small accomplishment. DM

Read more:

  • Bosco Ntaganda: wanted Congolese in US mission in Rwanda on BBC

Photo by Reuters.


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