The arrest of an FDLR leader in exile in France is unlikely to prompt any major changes on the ground in Congo, where the same rebel group is still a threat.
The arrest this week in Paris of the political leader of the FDLR rebel group in eastern Congo is a boon for international justice, but will it have a positive effect on conditions where the crimes were committed?
Callixte Mbarushimana is well known as the executive director of the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) and a key member of the group’s diapora network. Its leadership in Europe has long tried to make the case that the FDLR is a political force to be negotiated with, as opposed to just an armed group responsible for mass atrocities in eastern Congo.
If that’s the argument, their alleged approach is certainly a perverse one. The court documents (available here in French) claim that the FDLR “used violence against civilians as their main bargaining tool," creating a humanitarian crisis that they will end if given what they want. The arrest warrant obtained by the International Criminal Court alleges that Mbarushimana is responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes – including targeting of civilians, murder, torture, rape, destruction of property – committed throughout 2009 in villages in the North and South Kivu provinces.
Fidel Bafilemba, Enough’s eastern Congo-based researcher, said that while news of the arrest will likely renew activism in the region toward ending the FDLR’s long reign of terror, he isn’t optimistic that it will alter the way the military commanders operate. “The arrest last year of Ignace Murwanashyaka – the most notorious FDLR leader in Europe – didn't really make a big difference here in Congo,” Bafilemba said. “The FDLR military wing seems to be independent from their political/moral leaders.”
There are also fears that the FDLR could launch attacks to “punish” civilians for this latest blow to their leadership.
A bit of background on Callixte Mbarushimana: The former UN employee fled from his home country of Rwanda to France where he was granted political asylum in 2003. In 1994, Mbarushimana worked for the United Nations in Rwanda and was accused of genocide for killing 32 of his Tutsi colleagues while he was supposed to be delivering them food aid. (The UN war crimes investigator who collected the evidence for the case told The New York Times that an indictment wasn’t pursued because Mbarushimana wasn’t considered a key planner of the genocide.)
But it’s Mbarushimana’s ties to crimes in eastern Congo that captured the attention of the ICC; the allegations in Rwanda aren’t addressed, likely because crimes from 1994 do not fall under the purview of the ICC, whose mandate began in 2002.
The International Criminal Court revealed on Monday that it had issued an arrest warrant for Mbarushimana, the same day that news broke that French authorities had arrested him. The ICC said the arrest was the result of an ongoing investigation that began in 2004 into crimes committed in eastern Congo by the FDLR. The court kept the arrest warrant under wraps for two weeks and only announced the proceeding against him once he was in custody.
It would be far-fetched to think that removing Mbarushimana from the battleground and the airwaves will lessen the threats against civilians in eastern Congo. Indeed, the UN and rights groups should be on the lookout for flare-ups. But Mbarushimana was one of the big fish of the FDLR, and his arrest sends a message that will be hard for his comrades and other ICC indictees to ignore: sooner or later, justice will catch up to them. For one, advocacy in favor of executing the arrest warrant for notorious rebel-turned-army commander Bosco Ntaganda is certainly ramping up.