Editors note: This op-ed authored by Holly Dranginis and Timo Mueller originally appeared on AllAfrica.
Washington, DC — If Congo and the international community are to learn anything productive from the Minova trial, they will look beyond its verdict. The devil – and the value – is in the details.
Embarking on a renewed peace process, Congo just completed one of its first tests of war crimes accountability: the prosecution of army officers for rape and other war crimes perpetrated in the South Kivu town of Minova. The result is mixed. Of the 39 defendants, 14 were acquitted, 22 sentenced to 10 or 20 years in prison, and two in perpetuity. Only two were convicted of rape, the rest for pillage and breaking rank. The rape crimes acquittals have spurred disappointment and cynicism, but they should not be equated with failure, just as convictions do not always denote victory. The Minova trial offers constructive lessons as Congo continues to pursue justice: prosecutors and defense attorneys need more time, coordination, and resources to build viable cases and high-level perpetrators must be stripped of their de facto impunity.
Since proceedings opened in Minova, the case was a beacon of hope.
Widespread sexual violence has persisted unpunished in eastern Congo for decades, leaving physical, psychological, and cultural scars. On the night of November 23, 2012, the Congolese army entered Minova, pushed north from Goma in a state of humiliation by the M23 rebel group. By the next morning, reports emerged that over 200 civilians were raped by army elements.
The Minova trial presented an opportunity to prosecute rape in an environment where impunity reigns. Congolese activists like physician Denis Mukwege and attorney Sylvie Maunga have stressed that justice is critical to stemming Congo's sexual violence crisis. With mounting international pressure, authorities agreed to open investigations. But Minova was a Pandora's box for Congo's justice system, full of resource gaps, political barriers, and hasty attempts to prosecute complex crimes. Rightly pushed open for the victims of Minova, it revealed just how demanding prosecuting atrocities really is.