Why tyrants and warmongers must face the music

By Ishbel Matheson, the director of communications at Minority Rights Group International and a former BBC East Africa correspondent (THE TIMES, 21/11/06):

In the conflict-ridden, resource-rich heart of Africa, the horse-trading has begun. Jean-Pierre Bemba, the wealthy businessman-turned-rebel, has lost the first presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo for more than 40 years, and is crying foul. He is already challenging the result in the Supreme Court. But everyone knows that it won’t be the law that settles the issue, but raw power politics. Bemba controls the youth on Kinshasa’s volatile streets, and swaths of the north and west of this vast African nation.

International time, effort and money have been spent building a fragile peace in Congo, which hosts the biggest UN peacekeeping force in the world. So the pressure will be on to strike a deal to soothe Bemba’s ruffled ego and neutralise his threat. But will it be peace at any price?

The complicating factor is this: Congo is the subject of one of the first investigations by the new International Criminal Court at The Hague, and Bemba is squarely in the frame. The ICC’s remit is to bring to justice perpetrators of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. If the court gets the chance to function as intended, tyrants and warmongers across the world should be looking nervously over their shoulders. Instead, ill-judged politicking threatens to strangle it in its infancy.

Bemba was known to us hacks in the East African press corps as le rebel chic. His taste for the good life in Brussels and fondness for chocolate cake was renowned. He cut a podgy, comical figure strutting about in army fatigues, inspecting his rag-tag army of boys from the Bush.

But there was nothing funny about his soldiers’ actions in Eastern Congo. Minority Rights Group International has presented evidence to the ICC of their campaign of terror against the forest-dwelling Bambuti pygmies. Among the crimes alleged are mass murder, rape and acts of cannibalism. Yet one senior UN diplomat has indicated privately that — for the sake of peace — the investigation into Bemba’s responsibility for his men’s conduct may be sidelined.

It isn’t just in Congo that trade-offs are being made. In neighbouring Uganda, President Museveni promised amnesty recently to Joseph Kony, the head of a rebel group — notorious for abducting children to become fighters or sex slaves — to end the long war. This dealt a blow to the ICC. When the tribunal issued its first arrest warrants last year, top of the wanted list was Kony.

Why should Britain care about dubious deal-making in Africa? At stake is a legal and moral principle that we all have an interest in defending — that of individual criminal responsibility.

On the national level, the idea is hardly startling. The police investigation into the peerages-for-loans scandal is a reminder that even the most the powerful man in Britain is not above the law. But at the international level, individual accountability has traditionally been much weaker. For centuries, leaders who prosecute wars were seen to be acting not as individuals but on behalf of the State, and so have been insulated from the legal consequences of their actions.

But this old order is under attack. From the Nuremberg trials through to the Pinochet case and the courtroom dramas of Milosevic and Saddam, a different standard is emerging. When war crimes and crimes against humanity are committed, it is individuals not states who are to be held responsible.

Sceptics point out that those who have stood trial so far have either been defeated in war or are retired and irrelevant. They insist there would be no chance of hauling powerful political figures in Washington and London before a court, to answer for their actions. So could a British prime minister, conceivably, be done for shady financial deals but never for crimes against humanity committed down the chain of command? Those who believe that better start looking more closely at the fallout from Iraq.

In the United States, there is growing distaste at American soldiers and military police being — rightly — punished for their abuses in Iraq, while politicians and officials who set the tone for a “human-rights-free” policy, which flouted international standards on prisoners of war and torture, get off scot-free.

The US has always refused to sign up to the jurisdiction of the ICC. But there are other ways — as the former Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld is discovering. Within days of resigning, he faced the threat of court proceedings in Germany, for his role in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Mr Rumsfeld may not be losing much sleep over the dim prospect of his incarceration in a German jail. But, for sure, he’ll have to pick his foreign vacation resorts with care in the future. Even in the friendliest nation, there may be a nasty surprise in store. Ask Pinochet.

And aside from the strong moral case, there are powerful practical arguments too. Impunity poisons the body politic. We see this daily, on our television screens, in Iraq, where rampaging militia are protected by powerful figures in the Baghdad Goverment.

So should it be deal or no deal for Bemba and Kony? No deal. It’s not worth the gamble. It’s not just morally right — but a necessity too. For the sake of a lasting peace, let the wheels of justice roll.