The International Criminal Court (ICC) on Monday 21, March 2016 found Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former Vice President of the Democratic Republic of Congo guilty after a five-year trial period.
The verdict announced by the ICC declared the former politician guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the Central African Republic (CAR) more than a decade ago.
This was the first time the Criminal Court featured allegations of the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war by soldiers in a conflict.
According to the verdict, Bemba commanded a private army of 1,500 men who not only raped but also killed and looted property.
Reporting for Al Jazeera from The Hague, Paul Brennan said the ICC's ruling was historic in two ways:
"Bemba is not only the most senior political leader ever to have been brought to judgment here at the International Criminal Court at The Hague but what makes this particular case a landmark ruling is the fact that it has put rape as a weapon of war," Brennan said.
Trial Chamber III of the International Criminal Court declared, unanimously, Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo guilty of two charges: crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three counts of war crimes (murder, rape, and pillaging).
Human rights activists have welcomed the judgment. But what exactly does this decision reflect on Africa especially in Countries where crime has become part and parcel of everyday life?
South Sudan and Burundi should learn from ICC's verdict on Bemba
Since gaining its independence in 2011, South Sudan has been at war for over half of its five-year period of existence as an independent state.
The war in Africa’s youngest country came about after the two leaders; President Salva Kiir and the opposition leader Riek Machar disagreed over power. President Kiir accused Mr Machar of plotting a coup and while Machar denied the accusation, he formed a rebel group that has been fighting against the government.
Recent reports have shown that crimes against humanity have increased in South Sudan with some even indicating that the government of South Sudan is allowing the militia to use excessive violence including rape, murder and raiding.
According to a UN report, up to 1, 300 cases of rape were reported in Unity state -one of ten states in the nation that was recently accepted in East Africa Community.
Just like, Bemba who was the leader of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), the President of South Sudan is not doing anything to stop his supporters from committing murder, rape and other crimes. The Amnesty International report concurs with the UN that soldiers are shooting at civilians regardless of their age or gender.
The detailed study revealed that about 60 men and boys were suffocated in a shipping container by government forces. Bemba’s army shot at civilians as well in their quest to support the former President of CAR, Ange-Felix Patasse. He was later ousted by the current president, Francis Bozize.
Apart from leaving civilians vulnerable out of fear and harassments, the war in South Sudan has also left more than three million children at risk of measles after NGOs and humanitarian bodies cut off their support to the East African Nation. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) also said that 260,000 children affected by conflict will not be supported to return to school. More than 7,000 others will not be reunited with their parents due to the challenges in aid.
Burundi has been in turmoil ever since the current President, Pierre Nkurunziza declared his controversial decision to run for a third term in April 2015. Since then, the chaos has escalated into war leaving thousands of people dead and several others injured. Many others have escaped the country becoming refugees in neighboring countries.
The atrocities committed in the country are heartbreaking. In December 2015, President Nkurunziza refused the deployment of a peacekeeping force to Burundi even as the United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein on January 15 said that "deeply worrying new trends are emerging in Burundi, including cases of sexual violence by security forces and a sharp increase in enforced disappearances and torture cases."
All these cases including persecution of an identifiable group on political grounds; murder, imprisonment, torture, rape, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity; persecution and other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering; or serious injury to body or physical or mental health are termed as crimes against humanity under Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Since the Burundian President is aware of the crimes going on his country, he is liable for prosecution by the ICC. According to the Rome Statute, for wrongdoings to be classified as crimes against humanity, “these acts must be committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.”
In what looks like hope for Burundi, a group of sixty Burundian families has officially authorized a group of lawyers to bring local cases in front the ICC and High Commissioner for Human Rights. This is in regard to alleged crimes against humanity committed in the nation.
The three lawyers- Belgian Bernard Maingain, Burundian Armel Niyongere and Leon Lef Forster from France - have already written to the ICC and the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations.
Speaking to the IBtimes UK, the lawyers have requested that the families of the victims they represent are allowed to actively work together with the authorities through the collection of evidence. "60 families have given us the mandate to collaborate with the ICC with regards to the collection of evidence of extra-judicial executions. This represents a first big step because they are willing to be heard, and to bring forward evidence of these crimes," Maingain said.
This came ahead of the just concluded International Conference on Burundi organized by Burundi Crime Watch in Manchester.
Although many Africans see ICC as biased for targeting the continent, this development could serve as a warning to all the African leaders supporting militia to perpetrate crimes against humanity in the name of safeguarding power.
Even though his sentence has not been delivered, the decree of his guilt is an important milestone not only for ICC but also the African nations that seek justice for crimes committed by the leaders they mandated to rule and bring them development. Jean-Pierre Bemba was arrested in Belgium in 2008 and has been on trial since November 2010.
Image Credit: Peter Dejong/EPA