Congolese Still Struggle to Understand ICC
Trials involving alleged Congolese militia leaders have been ongoing at the International Criminal Court, ICC, for nearly two years, but understanding of how the court works still remains low in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.
The trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba, a Congolese politician indicted for war crimes in the Central African Republic, CAR, opened this week. The case of Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga began in January 2009, and the trials of alleged Congolese warlords Germain Katanga and Matthieu Ngudjolo are still ongoing.
Yet many people in DRC have exaggerated expectations of the court, and place too much hope in its capacity to redress some of the many injustices in their country.
In particular, talking to local people in Lubumbashi reveals a large disconnect between their perception of the ICC and the realities of what it can deliver.
“The ICC should expand its scope,” Christian Kabangu said. “We appreciate the work already done by this court to arrest some criminals, but there are others [whom the court should also prosecute].
“Not just those who kill but also those who take the property of others, especially houses. These people have money and they bribe judges to obtain [favourable] judgements. How can we trust our local courts in these matters? Why can’t the ICC also deal with such cases?”
Moreover, those who have had loved ones murdered are confused about why the ICC has not taken an interest in their cases.
Francoise Mandala says that Kyungu Mutanga Gideon, a Mai-Mai militia leader, was responsible for the deaths of several of his family members.
Although Gideon has since been convicted by a Katanga military court of crimes against humanity, Mandala says that he does not have any faith in the ability of the DRC’s prison system to keep him behind bars.
“I wonder why the ICC is not interested in Gideon, when he has killed so many people,” Mandala said. “I do not have any faith in our justice system. I really want to see Gideon spend his life in prison, but even in prison he is having a comfortable life, since he has money. We hear that, even in jail, he still has people who work for him.”
Mandala also says that he would have liked the ICC to take on Gideon’s case for another reason. The ICC – through the Trust Fund for Victims, TFV – offers compensation for those affected by the crimes it is investigating. The Congolese government does not.
Adolphe Musanga, whose brother was allegedly shot by a police officer during a demonstration in November 2009, feels that the ICC should widen its scope of investigations in the DRC.
“Although the officer who shot him has been identified, the trial has still not started,” he said. “We have already filed a complaint with the military prosecutor of Lubumbashi... that is why I want the ICC to take action in this country to end impunity.”
The ICC has in the past come under fire from NGOs, lawyers and journalists for not doing enough to inform those affected by war crimes about its goals and the progress of investigations and trials. Activists have warned that this lack of understanding and awareness means victims will have little faith in the court.
(See ICC Seen as Struggling to Communicate http://iwpr.net/report-news/icc-seen-struggling-communicate)
Alian Kyalwe, a lawyer, agrees that there is a worrying level of misapprehension in DRC about the court’s aims. For instance, people tend not to understand that the court does not have the resources to go after every perpetrator of human rights abuses, and is only supposed to prosecute the very top-level suspected criminals.
“The ICC cannot replace our courts and justice system, but many people still believe that the ICC has an obligation to act in all cases,” he said. “Even with those disputes that do not constitute crimes against humanity, people still hope they can turn to the ICC for recourse.”
Kyalwe says that this is because people have such little faith in the national justice system – a problem, he adds, that needs to be urgently addressed.
“What I want to see is a culture where all Congolese have access to lawyers when they have a legal problem,” he said. “Let everyone know that not all crimes or offences fall within the jurisdiction of the ICC.”
To correct such misunderstandings, the DRC branch of the Coalition for the ICC, which supports the court, have run outreach campaigns including workshops, training sessions for journalists and radio programmes.
In the latest initiative, the coalition launched a campaign in Lubumbashi aimed at raising awareness of the ICC’s work.
“We have had sessions with NGOs and journalists and some members of civil society. We are now going to meet lawyers,” Freddy Kitoko, a lawyer and the local coordinator of the coalition in Katanga province, said.
Kitoko hopes the campaign, launched in September, will eventually have a broad reach, extending to more remote areas of Katanga.
“If people from Lubumbashi are not well-informed about the ICC, what can be said about those who live in the interior of Katanga?” he said. “You can be certain that it is worse.”
Participants at the sessions that have been held so far have generally been supportive of what the coalition is trying to do.
“This campaign is very important,” Francine Mundula, a radio journalist in Lubumbashi, said. “We always hear about the ICC, but one does not really know how it works. I support the [initiative], but activities must reach out to all levels of the population. For me, I have always wondered how cases are referred to the ICC. Is it the same as with our local courts? I am satisfied that my questions found an answer.”
Jeef Mbiya, another journalist, also welcomed the clarifications he received, particularly about the trial of Bemba, who still heads the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, MLC, party.
“I wanted to know why the Bemba case has taken so long to be handled,” he said. “Has the ICC not played a [political] role by stopping him running in the 2011 elections?”
One of the most popular discussions concerned the question of how magistrates are appointed at the ICC.
“We received [many] questions from participants, even ones we did not expect,” Georges Kapiamba, the national coordinator of the coalition, said.
Although he admitted there were big gaps in the public’s knowledge of the court, interest in how it worked was high.
“The coalition usually sets asides three hours for public debates, but we always need more time because of participants’ questions.”
Heritier Maila is an IWPR-trained reporter.