November 22nd of last year marked the beginning of the ongoing International Criminal Court trial of former Congolese vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba. Bemba, who was a major force in Congolese politics as well as a presidential hopeful, is being held responsible for war crimes committed by his private militia, the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC), in Congo’s northern neighbor the Central African Republic.
The arrest and extradition of Bemba gives a significant boost to the ICC, which has struggled with questions of legitimacy since its creation in 2002. But despite achieving the milestone of prosecuting its first head-of-state, officials of the ICC have overlooked a key factor in the circumstances surrounding the case: the culpability of Ange-Félix Patassé, who was President of the Central African Republic while these human rights violations were taking place.
In 2002, President Patassé commissioned the MLC to help quell a rebellion staged by his political rival Francois Bozize. Bemba agreed to Patassé’s request and sent 1,500 troops to assist the soon to be supplanted president.
It was during this time human rights activists accused MLC soldiers of pillaging resources from villages. During these raids members of the militia raped both women and men, and killed anyone who resisted.
Bemba in an attempt to remove himself from any accountability argues that he had limited control over his forces once they crossed the border. Bemba’s defense places blame squarely on the shoulders of Central African Republic officials, specifically Patassé. It’s doubtful the ICC will consider Bemba’s argument as a legitimate excuse to absolve him of wrongdoing, but there is some merit to his assertion.
Although Patassé’s status as leader was unsettled (as a result of the coup), he was still in control of the Central African Republic’s military, which meant he had the capacity to end the human rights violations.
Despite this he focused the bulk of his resources on trying to end the coup, while allowing his people to remain at the mercy of foreign aggressors. The men and women who had to endure those unspeakable crimes are every bit a victim of Patassé’s selfish ambition as they are of Bemba’s incompetence.
Fortunately the idea of holding Patassé accountable hasn’t been completely lost on the ICC.
Daphne Anayiotos, a spokesperson for the ICC, said, “Patassé hasn’t been charged yet and we don’t know whether he would be charged or not, but investigations in CAR are still ongoing. So, there is a chance that the prosecutor will request a warrant of arrest against Patassé in the future.”