By Elvis Katsana
For more than 20 years, various rebel forces have been fighting in the North Kivu region in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to civil society organisations, they’re committing war crimes that fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
According to Omar Kavota, who is the coordinator of the Study Centre for the Promotion of Peace, Democracy and Human Rights (CEPADHO), an NGO based in Kivu, “even though many crimes have been committed in the province of North Kivu, the ICC hasn’t opened an investigation yet. As time passes, the evidence is disappearing.” This civil society activist in Kivu says the ICC should be more proactive because the Court’s current sluggishness in dealing with cases is making it ineffective. If another 10 or 20 years pass, he asks, how will the Court be able to gather evidence? Isn’t that a failure for the ICC, he asks.
He suggests that an African criminal court should be created to lighten the ICC’s workload. The ICC would be able to work in other continents and also deal with crimes, such as terrorism. Kavota says this would also be a way of dealing with the oft-repeated charge that “the ICC is only going after Africans”.
Defending yourself at all costs
Civilians in the region have been attacked so often by rebels, without any support from the Congolese government or the international community, that they have created self-defence groups. Unfortunately, they too have become rebels because of the immense economic interests in the region. They are no longer dealing with the security of local communities, says an independent risk analyst expert, based in Kivu.
Despite the fact that there isn’t even basic security or justice, some civilians have learned to adapt. They have no choice. “We’ve become used to living together with the armed groups here in North Kivu”, says 29-year-old Mumbere, a law student, who was forced to leave his village near Goma when it was burned down in a rebel attack.
According to Mumbere, “sometimes the violence is so intense that we have to run away to be able to breathe freely. The Congolese government knows full well what is going on in the east. So does the international community because the MONUSCO peace-keepers are here on the ground. Serious war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed here. Yet the ICC hasn’t even lifted a finger, even though the DRC is a signatory to the Statute of Rome.” Mumbere thinks the Court only goes after the “big fish” and can do nothing to protect simple people who are suffering.
Civil society calls for the ICC
For civil society in North Kivu, the work of the ICC in this part of the country is extremely important. Despite the ICC's shortcomings, there have been concrete results in Ituri, for instance. Bosco Ntaganda and the other members of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC) are now in The Hague to answer for their actions.
According to Thomas d’Acquin Mwiti, the civil society president in North Kivu, even though the ICC is working slowly, it is a useful tool to dissuade individuals who might be tempted to commit human rights violations. “Civil society has a key role to play in helping the Court to do its work, most notably in gathering evidence, but it is up to the authorities to request assistance.”
“Everything depends on the government”
According to Marie Claire Bangwene, the administrator of North Kivu’s Masisi territory, “I can’t submit complaints to the ICC because I’m not high enough in the hierarchy”. According to Bangwene, it’s essential that the Congolese government reestablish its authority over the entire country, including in North Kivu. It’s a precondition for humanitarian aid work and for the ICC to start carrying out investigations. It’s also critical, she says, to dissuade the rebels and make them realise that justice is more than just an empty word.
Lead image: Archive picture of Congolese soldiers on patrol in eastern Congo in 2005 (Photo: Lionel Healing/AFP)