On Monday, 8 July, the International Criminal Court (ICC) found Bosco Ntaganda guilty of 13 counts of war crimes and 5 counts of crimes against humanity committed in Ituri province, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), between 2002-2003. Ntaganda perpetrated these crimes while directing operations for the Forces Patriotiques pour la Libération du Congo (FPLC), the military wing of the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC).
According to the judgement, the UPC/FPLC, a predominantly Hema ethnic armed group, carried out systematic attacks against members of the Lendu ethnic community. The ICC determined that “Ntaganda and his co-perpetrators wanted to destroy and disintegrate the Lendu community and ensure that the Lendu could not return to the villages that were attacked. This involved the targeting of civilian individuals by way of acts of killing and raping, as well as the targeting of their public and private properties, through acts of appropriation and destruction.”
The ICC found Ntaganda to be a direct perpetrator of murder and persecution, while also being responsible for atrocities committed by forces under his command, including ordering attacks against civilian populations, forcibly displacing civilians, and using child soldiers. The trial is also an important victory for victims of sexual violence, including men, and marks the first time the ICC has held a commander responsible for sexual crimes perpetrated by his troops against members of their own forces.
The long-awaited verdict demonstrates that even powerful perpetrators can be held accountable for their actions. Ntaganda was once one of the most feared warlords in the Great Lakes region, connected to powerful politicians. Following a 2009 peace agreement with the DRC government he was appointed to a senior position in the national army, despite being on a UN sanctions list and being indicted by the ICC. After fomenting a mutiny within the army in 2012 and helping form the March 23 Movement (M23), Ntaganda surrendered to the ICC in March 2013. The M23 rebel group was defeated and dissolved by the end of the year.
While the Ntaganda verdict is a victory for his many victims and for international justice, it is also a reminder that instability and atrocities continue to plague the DRC. This week’s verdict was delivered amidst a resurgence of deadly violence between the Hema and Lendu communities in Ituri. The UN has documented that more than 100 people have been killed and 300,000 displaced since fighting broke out in the province in early June. The DRC government must hold all perpetrators of atrocities accountable for their crimes and end the climate of impunity that enabled men like Bosco Ntaganda to evade justice for so long.
At least 20 civilians, including 7 children, were killed in airstrikes on the Syrian village of Mhambel on 6 July. The airstrikes were part of the ongoing offensive by the Assad government and Russian forces against opposition-held territory in Idlib governorate. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported on 8 July that at least 544 civilians have been killed since fighting escalated on 26 April, while the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has recorded that more than 140 children have been killed in northwest Syria since the start of this year.
The Russian and Syrian offensive has been characterized by the deliberate targeting of civilian-populated areas, including the use of illegal cluster munitions, barrel bombs and incendiary weapons. The World Health Organization has documented at least 25 attacks on health facilities, some of which had deliberately shared their coordinates in order to ensure protection under international law. At least 330,000 civilians have been displaced since April, adding to the more than 1.5 million internally displaced persons already living within the governorate. The armed extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which controls most of Idlib, has also indiscriminately fired rockets towards government-held areas of nearby Aleppo and Hama.
During 2017 Idlib was designated a “de-escalation zone” and in September 2018 Russia and Turkey agreed to the establishment of a “demilitarized zone” within the governorate. On 2 July the Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, told the UN Human Rights Council that the ceasefire in the demilitarized zone was “at risk of total collapse.”
On 27 June the heads of 11 humanitarian organizations launched a global solidarity campaign for populations in Idlib, entitled #TheWorldIsWatching. During the launch, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, said, “Yet again innocent civilians are paying the price for the political failure to stop the violence and do what is demanded under international law.” Henrietta Fore, the head of UNICEF, warned that “Idlib is on the brink of a humanitarian nightmare unlike anything we have seen this century.”
Systematic attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure constitute violations of International Humanitarian Law, while targeted attacks on medical facilities also violate UN Security Council Resolution 2286. Syrian government forces and their Russian allies, as well as HTS and all other armed groups, should all commit to an immediate ceasefire and the full implementation of the demilitarized zone agreement.
On 5 July, during the 41st session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, presented her report on the human rights crisis in Venezuela. Covering the period from January 2018 to May 2019, the report notes an “unusually high” number of suspected cases of extrajudicial killing, torture, and arbitrary detention.
The government reported 5,287 people killed in “security operations” during 2018 and another 1,569 by mid-May this year. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has asserted that many of these killings may constitute extrajudicial executions. The High Commissioner’s report further documents the arbitrary detention of alleged government opponents and their family members, often accompanied by torture, ill-treatment and/or sexual and gender-based violence, “as one of the principal means to intimidate and repress” dissent.
The High Commissioner’s report emphasized the role of the Special Action Forces (FAES), which many victims referred to as a “death squad,” and who are accused of hundreds of executions. OHCHR noted that “impunity has enabled the recurrence of human rights violations, emboldened perpetrators, and side-lined victims.” The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect believes that persecution and violence carried out by the FAES and other sections of the Venezuelan security forces may constitute crimes against humanity.
The High Commissioner’s report was published shortly after she visited Caracas. Following Bachelet’s visit, the government agreed to the presence of two human rights officers to monitor the situation. The government should uphold this commitment, grant OHCHR full access to detention centers, and also allow visits by UN Special Procedures mandate holders. All policies that enable torture, arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings must immediately end.