Will surrender of Congo warlord 'The Terminator' boost the standing of the ICC?

For an International Criminal Court with waning credibility in Africa, Bosco Ntaganda's still unexplained decision to give himself up is 'good news.'

Paul Harera/Reuters
Fugitive Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda talks on his mobile phone at his office in Goma, April 2009. Ntaganda walked into the US Embassy in Rwanda on Monday and asked to be transferred to the International Criminal Court, where he faces war crimes charges racked up during years of rebellion.

The surprise surrender of a Congolese warlord after seven years on the run is a welcome boost for the International Criminal Court, after a slump in its support amid snail-paced trials and failed cases, legal analysts and rights advocates said Tuesday. 

Bosco Ntaganda – known as The Terminator for all-too literal reasons – walked up the gates of the US Embassy in Rwanda yesterday, turned himself in, and asked to be flown to the international court in The Hague. 

Mr. Ntaganda has ignored the ICC since 2006, when his first arrest warrant was issued for 10 charges of recruiting child soldiers, murder, rape, and sexual slavery linked to wars in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002-03. 

Why he suddenly decided that a Dutch cell was a better place to be than a Congolese forest is not yet clear. His rebel army had split, and recently split again, leaving him more militarily isolated than for more than a decade. 

Support for his insurrection from Rwanda - which that county denies - may have shrivelled under international pressure for Kigali to keep its tentacles out of Congo.

Whatever the reason, Ntaganda's surrender comes at a time when the ICC, established 11 years ago with the professed ideal to impartially prosecute the world’s worst crimes, is going through an extended rough patch.

US officials were Tuesday said to be “working to facilitate his transfer to The Hague,” according to US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland at a press briefing. The US is not a signatory to the ICC but has been willing to refer numerous indictments via the United Nations. 

So far, the court has indicted 30 people – all Africans – but has convicted and sentenced just one, Ntaganda’s co-accused, Thomas Lubanga. Mr. Lubanga has appealed his verdict.

In Kenya, three of the six men originally accused of orchestrating post-election violence five years ago have seen their cases thrown out. Kenya’s president-elect Uhuru Kenyatta is pushing to have his ICC charges dropped as they were against his co-accused, Francis Muthaura, on Mar. 11. 

Joseph Kony, the Ugandan militia leader, has disappeared in central Africa’s rainforest, evading capture despite being hunted by troops from the US, Uganda, Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. 

Sudan’s President Omar Al Bashir continues to woo domestic support by thumbing his nose at his ICC arrest warrants. He also won re-election a year after he was indicted for genocide and other crimes against humanity. 

And it took the Court more than a year to confirm charges against Laurent Gbagbo, Ivory Coast’s former president, after he first appeared before its judges in 2011. 

“The ICC rarely gets good news these days, and Ntaganda’s surrender will be very welcome indeed,” says George Kegoro, head of the Kenya chapter of the International Commission of Jurists. 

At first, many in Africa welcomed the idea of a world court that would swoop in to pluck from impunity warlords, terrorists, and inhumane politicians. 

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC’s first chief prosecutor, became a national hero in Kenya when he launched his case promising to target those bearing the greatest responsibility for the horrors that followed the last elections.

Today, after the three failed indictments and continuing delays advancing the remaining trials, the ICC has become so tainted in the minds of many Kenyans that publicly trashing the decade-old world court during campaigning is thought to have boosted Mr. Kenyatta’s vote haul. 

Domestic reconciliation efforts in Uganda have brought swifter peace than the ICC’s attempts to find Mr. Kony, who terrorized the country’s north for two decades before being driven out in 2006. 

In Darfur, where Bashir is said to have ordered a genocide, life for his alleged targets has settled into a miserable but largely peaceful routine even though their tormentor remains their leader. 

Time, says Mr. Kegoro, is the main enemy of international justice.

“The slower the process goes, the more intervening factors have time to play their part, witnesses recant, new scripts emerge over what happened, and revisionism sets in,” he says. 

“The fact that the court has indicted only Africans is a problem. Credibility is always a fragile thing, it can get lost with just one small step in the wrong direction.”

However, he adds, “small, consistent steps in the right direction can start to rehabilitate that credibility.” 

That is why Ntaganda’s surrender is such a crucial step, says Carina Tertsakian, senior researcher in London at the Africa division of the international NGO Human Rights Watch.

“Bosco really is one of the most notorious war criminals in that part of the world, and he has managed to get away with committing the very same crimes for more than ten years now,” she says. “He had become a symbol of how you ignore the ICC and ignore justice. If he is now facing justice, that could shake up some of the other perpetrators floating around Congo or elsewhere.” 

But without powers to go out and arrest the people it indicts, the court remains hamstrung, says Amal Alamuddin, a British international criminal lawyer representing Muammar Gaddafi’s former intelligence chief, Abdullah Al Senussi, before the ICC. 

“The limits of the court's powers to enforce its warrants and orders is more apparent than ever,” Ms. Alamuddin says. 

“Today we are seeing Libya refusing to surrender Al Senussi, despite an ICC order last month. We are at a crossroads, and the credibility of the Court – and the system of international criminal justice as a whole – is at stake.”

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