High-Ranking DRC Official Convicted of Crimes Against Humanity

February 22, 2011

Yesterday, an innovative mobile gender court in the DRC convicted  a high-ranking military official, Lieutenant-Colonel Mutware Kibibi of crimes against humanity for rape.

Lt-Col Mutware Kibibi in court. Picture: Richard Lee (OSISA)

He was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment as were three of his subordinate officers. Five other officers received sentences ranging from ten to fifteen years. The convictions stem from the events in the South Kivu town of Fizi on New Years’ Day when more than sixty women were subjected to mass rape. The convictions stand as an important repudiation of a horrific crime which has become almost emblematic of the conflict in the DRC. But they also point to the importance of the principle of complementarity in international criminal justice — that international criminal justice is almost always best served, if properly done, before local courts and communities. You get a vivid sense of this reading the accounts of Louise Olivier and Kelly Askin who observed the trial. Louise and Kelly were representing the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) and the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) who had provided the American Bar Association’s (ABA’s) Rule of Law Initiative with a grant to implement the mobile gender court project. The mobile court is integrated within the DRC’s military court system and points the way to possibilities of international criminal justice initiatives shoring up domestic judicial systems, and not only being side-shows.

My opinion on the trial appeared in Business Day today and on the War and Law blog, and the unedited version appears below. 

The world of international criminal justice has offered lots of theatrics in recent weeks. Courtenay Griffiths, lead defence counsel for Charles Taylor on trial in the Hague before the Special Court for Sierra Leone, stormed out of court refusing to reappear. His client took the opportunity to excuse himself too.

Then there was the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, never one for understatement, intoning: “The world needs legal limits. We need a platform to live together. That is the International Criminal Court.”

The African Union Commission’s Chair Jean Ping, equally adept at the rhetorical flourish, opined: “Frankly speaking, we are not against the International Criminal Court. What we are against is Ocampo’s justice – the justice of a man.”

The disinterested observer might conclude that with all these egos in play, and with so many elevated platforms to play on, the world of international criminal justice probably has little room for justice. But there was another development last week – far less noted and heralded – which speaks to what international criminal justice, absent the big egos, might yield. Eleven soldiers from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) went on trial, accused of raping more than sixty women on New Year’s Day in the town of Fizi in South Kivu province. Their trial is expected to continue for the next week.

The accused have not only been charged with rape and imprisonment but given the systematic nature of the crimes committed have also been charged with crimes against humanity. What’s noteworthy here is that these trials are not being heard in some far-flung place, miles from the affected communities – as is the case with Charles Taylor’s trial or any of the cases likely to be heard by the ICC. Rather the cases are being heard before an innovative mobile gender court – stationed in Fizi’s neighbouring town of Baraka.

Nor, as so often happens with crimes of this kind, have these cases taken years to come to trial – with all the prejudice this implies for those who have suffered the crime, those who await trial and for the safeguarding of evidence. It has taken less than two months since the crimes were committed for the trials to commence.

It isn’t merely low-level officers being prosecuted which might suggest that this type of innovative prosecution procedure is suitable for less powerful actors but that higher-level authorities still need to command the type of expensive trials reserved for Taylor or Slobodan Milošević. Among the soldiers prosecuted is commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Mutware Kibibi. The attack on the population of Fizi is said to be the largest single incident of atrocity involving the government’s army.

Quite apart from the innovative mobile gender court, it is the DRC government’s co-operation in the process –aimed at holding its own troops to account—which makes these trials so remarkable. Typically government actors, when accused of grave human rights violations, use state machinery not to secure accountability but to obfuscate such efforts. It is why international criminal justice often only happens outside the country where the crimes were committed. In this instance, in the arrest and prosecution of Kibibi, the DRC government is making good on its promise that a “zero-tolerance policy will be enforced on the spot in Fizi.”

Several factors help explain the DRC’s government’s stance. Chief among them likely being the fact that the DRC has attracted international approbation for its reputation as the “rape capital” of the world and that it can’t look to international assistance, from groups like the UN, in countering vicious attacks on its civilian population by several different militia groups when its own army engage in similar atrocity.

But it would also be hard to paint the efforts of the mobile gender court as somehow alien to the interests of the DRC’s population, as a number of African leaders have tried to do of, by contrast, the efforts of the ICC. Since its start in October 2009, the DRC’s mobile gender court has conducted approximately 10 trials a month and has secured 94 rape convictions. It has also ensured training of 150 judicial police officers, 80 lawyers and 30 magistrates. As the mobile gender court is integrated within the DRC’s own justice system, the skills and resources invested by outside donors not only secure convictions and accountability but point the way to a fully-functioning, comprehensive domestic judicial system for the DRC.

The mobile gender court also points the way to enhanced delivery of international criminal justice almost always preferably secured, if properly done, before local courts and affected local communities – very, very far from the stage-lighting and grandstanding of messrs Griffiths, Ocampo and Ping.

Nicole Fritz is the director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre

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