The Hague, Netherlands – The International Criminal Court (ICC) recently heard closing arguments against former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba, accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes in the Central African Republic more than a decade ago.
The trial – the first time the ICC has focused on rape as a weapon of war – is seen as an important step for the recognition of sexual crimes and a breakthrough for the prosecution of high-ranking military and political leaders worldwide.
Bemba, who became vice president of the DR Congo in 2003, deployed his militia – the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) – to neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR), where his troops assisted then-president Ange-Félix Patassé in quashing a coup.
According to the ICC prosecution, as Bemba and his troops moved deeper into the country, they left a grim trail of rapes, murders, and pillaging and were responsible for hundreds of sexual assaults in just a few days.
“MLC troops committed widespread rapes with complete impunity during the conflict,” a prosecutor said earlier this month in closing statements. “MLC raped victims in front of their family members. They sometimes forced one family member to rape another … This was how Jean-Pierre Bemba’s MLC troops carried their rape campaign in the Central African Republic.”
Targeting CAR civilians was a main focus of Bemba’s soldiers during the conflict, according to the prosecution.
“Anyone you encounter in the combat zone will be an enemy because I received information that the enemy is wearing civilian clothing,” Bemba allegedly told his troops.
When they entered the country, smaller platoons were organised and groups of three or four soldiers would enter houses to rape and rob the women, girls and elders.
Women were raped systematically to assert dominance and to shatter resistance; men were raped in public to destroy their authority, their capacity to lead.
“The massive rapes were not just sexually motivated,” then prosecutor Louis Moreno-Ocampo said when the trial opened in November 2010. “Women were raped systematically to assert dominance and to shatter resistance. Men were raped in public to destroy their authority, their capacity to lead.”
Bemba has pleaded not guilty to all charges, saying MLC fighters were not under his direct command when they entered Central African Republic.
If Bemba is found guilty, it would be the first conviction for rape since the ICC began its work in 2002. The prosecutor has charged sexual violence crimes in an earlier case but failed to secure a conviction.
“We hope this case will change that record and usher in a new era of accountability for sexual violence before the ICC,” said Brigid Inder, executive director of the Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice, an international women’s human rights organisation that advocates for gender justice through the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Bemba is not being prosecuted because he ordered his troops to commit the crimes – but because he did not stop them. “A commander that lets his troops carry out such criminal tactics is hundreds of times more dangerous than a single rapist,” Moreno-Ocampo said.
Under international criminal law a person can be held accountable for omission – the failure to prevent crimes. International crimes such as genocide or systematic attacks on civilians are often committed by armed forces, militias or other organised groups. The concept of command responsibility is a tool to hold the leaders of those groups liable.
According to international law, the prosecutor has to prove three elements are met: the commander had effective control over his troops; he knew or should have known that they were committing crimes; and he did not take steps to prevent the crimes or punish his soldiers.
It is the first time that the ICC applied the concept of command responsibility. “The decision might have relevance around the world because the ICC could very well set a precedent for other situations,” said Guenael Mettraux, a scholar and international lawyer.
A verdict in Bemba’s trial is expected sometime in 2015. The decision could set out the standards and thresholds by which political or military leaders could be held responsible for crimes committed by their subordinates, Mettraux told Al Jazeera.
It could also be used as a benchmark by national courts, he added. Judges could refer to the Bemba decision in the future when prosecuting commanders.
Bemba’s defence lawyers demanded an acquittal and denied all three elements the prosecution must prove. His lawyers argued he did not receive information that crimes were being committed; that Bemba did not have control over his soldiers since the troops fought under the command of CAR’s national armed forces; and that he tried to prevent the crimes.
“It was simply military chaos,” defence lawyer Peter Haynes said. “I don’t think Mr Bemba himself would have gone into [the CAR capital] Bangui and identified his own soldiers.”
Bemba’s lawyers claim when he learned of rapes and pillaging in the media, he sent letters and deployed a team to investigate the allegations. Several of his own soldiers have been arrested.
Bemba did not speak during the court sessions.
During the trial, four men were arrested, including two of Bemba’s lawyers, accused of presenting false evidence and bribing witnesses. The ICC has decided to open a separate trial against Bemba and the others.
Observers doubt, however, the trials will have an impact on the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic.
“One positive impact may be to show that perpetrators of mass violence are ultimately brought to justice,” said Patrick Vinck, a researcher at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. “Unfortunately, the current situation in CAR undermines that argument.”
The same areas affected by the atrocities of Bemba’s troops 10 years ago have now experienced new violence, Vinck told Al Jazeera.
“The failure of the international community to assist the country achieving peace is also seen as the failure of the ICC, with a trial 10 years after the event,” he added.
Follow Benjamin Durr on Twitter: @benjaminduerr