The village of Bogoro, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a place swathed in green, dusted with orange earth, and studded with gold deposits. In the early morning of Feb. 24, 2003, at least 200 people in Bogoro were massacred by the Patriotic Resistance Forces of Ituri, or FRPI, a rebel group headed by a man known as Simba (“lion” in Swahili). When they weren’t shot, victims were allegedly sliced with machetes — a mode of killing, also used in the Rwandan genocide, which saves precious bullets. In the course of the Bogoro massacre, as in so many mass atrocities in Congo’s never-ending conflict, women were also raped; some were even taken as sexual slaves.
But unlike in most cases of inhumane acts carried out against Congolese civilians, there was a chance for justice this time. Germain Katanga, the now 35-year-old former leader of the FRPI, was brought to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2007 and tried on charges of murder and attacking civilians. He was also charged for acts of rape, sexual slavery, and the use of child soldiers by his troops.
On Friday, March 7, Katanga was found guilty as an accessory on charges of one crime against humanity (murder) and four war crimes (murder, attacking a civilian population, destruction of property, and pillaging). But he was acquitted of charges pertaining to sexualized violence.
It is hardly the first or the last time someone in Congo, or Africa, or the wider world, has walked away from charges of rape that appeared to have occurred under his watch.
Understandably, the global community of advocates working to end sexualized violence is tired of seeing warlord after warlord get away with rape but not with murder.
Justice for crimes against women always seems to come last in the long, slow line of convictions and reparations for the world’s worst abuses, handed out like crumbs of bread.
In a statement, Brigid Inder, the executive director of the Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice, an international organization advocating gender-inclusive justice both at and through the ICC, called the Katanga decision “devastating” for the victims of the Bogoro attack and other attacks by Katanga’s militia. And in an interview, Jody Williams, a Nobel laureate and chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, said that while Katanga’s conviction for war crimes is a “step forward for those who seek to repair divisions within the Democratic Republic of Congo, justice has once again been denied to survivors of sexual violence perpetrated by Katanga’s forces.”
“Katanga’s acquittal on charges of rape and sexual slavery sends a chilling message to survivors of rape and gender violence worldwide,” Williams added.
Chilling yes, but also inevitable, given the legal interpretation of a certain form of accomplice liability under the Rome Statute, the ICC’s governing document. So said Patricia Sellers, a former legal advisor for gender at the tribunals set up for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and a fellow at Oxford University in international criminal law, in an interview after the Katanga verdict was issued.