Two landmark decisions advancing justice in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) came down last week. The first was a local court in Kavumu, DRC, where between 2013 and 2016 a rash of abductions and rapes were perpetrated against at least 46 girls. For years after the initial incidents, and even once the disappearances and violence became an epidemic, the Congolese authorities failed to act, subjecting families to mystery and denial of justice. After a month-long trial held in Kavumu starting in late November 2017, and with protection measures for witnesses who testified, members of a local militia were convicted. Notably, the verdict reached a high level politician, with the court issuing a conviction against provincial Member of Parliament Frederic Batumike as leader of the militia’s crimes in Kavumu.
One of the common pitfalls of prosecuting serious crimes in Congo is interference with cases that result in the conviction of only low-ranking perpetrators or proxies, rather than the architects of the crimes who may be protected by their elite office or military rank.
Dr. Denis Mukwege, who attended to several of the victims of the attacks, said the day after the verdict: “I congratulate the parents of the victims and survivors for their courage. They were steadfast and strong until the end of the trial despite threats and intimidation of all kinds. They knew how to brave the fear, the shame, and the stigmatization to assert their rights. I salute with respect and great emotion this strong wind of truth which blows over our military and demonstrates to the world it is time to speak for what is right, no matter the political stature of the accused.”
Two days after the Kavumu verdict, in a public hearing in The Hague, the International Criminal Court (ICC) handed down a landmark decision on reparations for victims of atrocities in a case against the Congolese former rebel commander Thomas Lubanga. In its March 2012 verdict in the case, the court found Mr. Lubanga guilty of conscripting child soldiers.
Last week, the ICC assessed the harm to victims at $3.4 million to an already-identified 427 victims, and an additional $6.6 million for harm to yet-unidentified victims. At a total of $10 million, the order was the largest financial assessment of harm handed down by the court to date.
Mr. Lubanga has claimed indigence, so he will not be responsible for the funding necessary for distributing the reparations. Instead, the money will come from the ICC’s Trust Fund for Victims, a budget made up of contributions by the countries that are state parties to the ICC.
In November, the court issued an innovative new roadmap for more effectively tracing and freezing assets linked to defendants for use in reparations orders or penalties. More robust training and integration related to these practices could close funding gaps for reparations in the future.
Amidst an escalating political crisis in the DRC, and related violence in The Kasais, Uvira, and Beni, the need for justice in Congo for repression and atrocities — including full due process rights for the accused, rights to adequate protective measures for witnesses, thorough investigations, and reparations — remains urgent and essential.