Today the International Criminal Court reached an historic decision, finding former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba guilty of murder, rape and pillaging during the 2002 – 2003 conflict in the Central African Republic. This decision is historic for two big reasons. First, it marks the the first time the ICC has found a commander guilty for actions committed by his troops. They did so under the theory of “command responsibility,” making a leader criminally liable for the crimes committed by his troops. Perhaps even more significantly, this verdict marks the first ICC conviction for rape and gender based violence. In other words, a commander was just held criminally liable for the rapes committed by his troops.
The unanimous decision by the Trial Chamber marks a significant step forward for the ICC in breaking new ground in international law. But it also highlights how important the diversity of jurists is in holding leaders responsible for their crimes. Three justices, all women, presided over the trial and rendered the precedent-setting verdict. That may have made a difference...
...Today, while watching the summary of the verdict against Bemba being read, it was impossible to ignore that the proceedings were overseen by three women judges: Judge Sylvia Steiner of Brazil, Judge Joyce Aluoch of Kenya and Judge Kuniko Ozaki of Japan. All three of the justices are well respected with distinguished legal careers in their own countries and on the international stage. But in reading the findings – where the court found that not only was rape committed against numerous women and men by the forces commanded by Bemba, but that these forms of sexual violence were part of the modus operandi of the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) troops that he led – one can’t help but wonder if a panel of three men would have come to the same conclusion. International criminal law has made tremendous strides in the last 20 years in recognizing the real injury and trauma that sexual violence inflicts on its victims, but it is also fighting centuries of established norms where rape was seen as a regrettable, but acceptable, part of war.
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