Setting Legal Precedence on Gender Based Violence: Three Female Judges Deliver A Historic Verdict at the International Criminal Court

At the end of March, three female judges made a historic decision at the International Criminal Court, convicting a commander, Jean-Pierre Bemba, for rapes committed by his troops. Bemba, the former Congolese Vice President, was found guilty of murder, rape, and pillage during the 2002-2003 conflict in the Central African Republic.

Who is Jean-Pierre Bemba?
At the time of his arrest in 2003, Bemba was a senator in the Democratic Republic of Congo and leader of the main opposition party, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo. He previously was one of the country’s vice presidents when a unity government was formed following peace accords after years of armed conflict. He was a founding member of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo in 1998 with support from Uganda’s army, allowing him to control roughly one-third of the territory in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

What was the 2002-2003 conflict in the Central African Republic?
The violence in the Central African Republic connects back to struggles over state power that have been present since the country’s independence in 1960. The country has only had three leaders, three coups have taken place (1966, 1979, and 1981), and leaders have continued to rely on support from other countries particularly the former colonial power France or neighboring Libya. Ange-Félix Patassé became the leader in 1994, squashing three rebellions during his time in power with the assistance of the French military, ending in 1997 with the Bangui Agreements (the disarmament of former rebels, militias, and other armed groups). Patassé was re-elected in 1999, yet former President André Kolingba attempted to overthrow him, which Patassé stopped with assistance from Libya and Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo militia. In response, Kolingba fled with hundreds of soldiers from the national army and Patassé removed his chief of staff, Francois Bozizé, for fear of his support with Kolingba. This led to a break out of violence when Patassé called for Bozizé’s arrest. To avoid arrest, Bozizé fled to Chad with army soldiers, a country that refused to extradite him, creating tension between the Central African Republic and Chad. In August 2002, troops of the Central African Republic presidential guard and a militia crossed into southern Chad with the goal of attacking Bozizé and his supporters; Chadian forces responded and succeeded into the northern Central African Republic where Bozizé established a support base.

Following the attempted coup, Patassé continued to have issues paying members of his national army, which led to discontent, so when Bozizé attacked in October 2002, Patassé looked to Bemba’s Congolese forces for help. The Movement for the Liberation of Congo fighters stayed in the Central African Republic for five months. This period of time was pivotal to the trial of Bemba when prosecutors alleged that Movement for the Liberation of Congo fighters conducted rampages, committing crimes of murder, rape, and pillage against residents of the Central African Republic. In March of 2013, Bozizé was able to take control of the capital city, Bangui, leaving Patassé unable to return to the country and seeking exile in Togo. With Bozizé’s promise to bring back democracy, voters approved a new constitution for the Central African Republic in 2004 and elections took place in 2005 with Bozizé winning. Violence has continued in the region particularly among rebel groups in the north, leading to a peace agreement between the government and rebel group leaders in 2007. Recently, in 2013, Bozizé was overthrown in a violent coup led by a youth coalition of rebel forces, the Séléka, over concerns of a breach of the ceasefire agreement. The UN Security Council has condemned the coup and resulting violence and looting. In 2014, the International Criminal Court Prosecutor announced the start of a second investigation in the region regarding crimes committed since August 2012 although no arrests have been made.

Why does this decision matter?
The case was the first International Criminal Court involving the conflict in the Central African Republic and the third trial ever held at the court. Convicting a commander for rapes committed by his troops was a historic decision of the court because it was the first time the court had found a commander guilty for actions he did not commit but those that his troops committed. The judges were able to do so under the theory of “command responsibility,” implicating a leader’s criminal liability in crimes committed by his troops. Additionally, the verdict is the first International Criminal Court conviction for rape and gender based violence. The court’s decision was unanimous, leading experts to note the court’s changes, moving towards setting new precedent in international law, and the importance of a diversity of judges on the court in convicting perpetrators responsible for committing crimes. Three female justices presided over the trial and had the position of delivering a historical and precedent setting verdict in international law on gender based violence. While this victory has been heralded as a victory for women, decisions made at the level of the International Criminal Court set legal precedent for everyone on an international scale, thus the finding of justice is a victory for all.

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