Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bemba's arrest is selective justice

Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba was arrested in Brussels on Saturday night on an International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant for war crimes.

Bemba is accused of having led a campaign of mass rapes, torture and pillage six years ago in the Central African Republic (CAR), where he had been called in by then president Ange-Felix Patasse to quell an attempted coup d’etat. The arrest is likely to be seen as politically-inspired, both in the DRC and the CAR.

In the DRC, it removed the main challenger to president Joseph Kabila at a time when a strong opposition is badly needed to stem rampant corruption and increasingly authoritarian rule. In the Central African Republic, it has paved the way for President Francois Bozize to deal a final blow to the elected president he eventually overthrew in a military coup in March 2003.

Bemba’s arrest is also likely to be seen as selective justice. Both Bozize’s forces and Kabila’s army have been accused of widespread and systematic human rights abuses in recent years. “CAR security forces have been responsible for the most serious violations in the conflict, including multiple summary executions and unlawful killings, widespread burning of civilian homes, and the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands,” said Human Rights Watch in a 2007 report.

In the DRC, government soldiers have been accused of killings, arbitrary arrests, rape, as well as looting of property of civilians. “Tens of thousands of women and girls have been victims of sexual violence, especially in the war torn eastern parts of the country. Armed groups and government forces continue to rape large numbers of women and girls with impunity,” Human Rights Watch wrote in January this year.

As long as you commit atrocities as part of the government army, they do not qualify for war crimes, seems to be the message. There is the risk of another signal Bemba’s arrest might send to Africa: Don’t stop fighting or accept defeat in elections because they’ll drag you to The Hague.

The ICC must be seen as impartial and politically neutral; its criteria equal to all parties. The court must explain why atrocities committed by the government armies in both countries do not pass the threshold of gravity. It must, above all, avoid to be seen as a court for Africans only.

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