The fight against impunity for mass atrocities may have scored a victory this week.
Bosco Ntaganda, one of the most wanted war criminals in the world, unexpectedly has surrendered to the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda and asked to be sent to The Hague to face trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
The question now is whether his wish will be granted.
Ntaganda is the worst of the worst. He is the murderer of thousands, a mass rapist, sexual slave master and conscriptor of child soldiers. Ntaganda has been the most feared man in the Eastern Congo for more than a decade. Not satisfied merely ordering others to do his dirty work, he’s nicknamed “The Terminator” for his personal ruthlessness and lust for combat. In the words of a child soldier who testified against Ntaganda in The Hague, he is known as someone who “kills people easily.”
The international community, in the form of the International Criminal Court, first issued a warrant for his capture and arrest in 2006 and again in 2012.
So how has he remained free all this time?
He wasn’t in hiding like Bin Laden. A year ago, my human rights project at UCLA School of Law was doing unrelated research in the Eastern Congo and stumbled upon him there living openly and notoriously in his compound in the city of Goma. Ntaganda—who has controlled much of the conflict mineral trade in the Eastern Congo through alleged deals with corrupt political leaders in the region—was living lavishly.
Ntaganda managed to live a life of luxury protected by the country he had committed so many horrible crimes against. He played tennis, held court at Goma hotels, and frequented restaurants there. But the ICC has no police force; it relies on states to arrest its indictees. And no one in the region was willing to arrest him.
Ntaganda’s world started disintegrating last summer. He had a falling out with the Congolese government, which finally called for his arrest. He fled Goma for the countryside and became a co-leader of the M23 rebel group. The Congolese government and those who follow conflicts in the region, believed that M23 was backed by Rwanda, a charge denied by the Rwanda Government. In fact, a UN report in November which extensively documented the Rwandan support of M23 concluded that the M23 “de facto chain of command” included Ntaganda and ended with the Rwandan defense minister.
Earlier this week, Ntaganda’s M23 rebel coalition partners turned on him and he fled to Rwanda—but the Rwandan government no longer has any use for him: if they were to protect him, it would only be more proof that he had been backed by Rwanda all along. Some even think the Rwandans may now want him dead.
Finally, Ntaganda was at the end of the road and surrendered to the U.S. Embassy.
Technically, he’s on U.S. soil and the U.S. is not an ICC state party. Nor is Rwanda. So neither is obliged to hand over Ntaganda to the ICC.
State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last night: “We want to facilitate that request [to be turned over to the ICC]. We strongly support the work that the ICC is doing to investigate the atrocities committed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And we are going to continue to work with the ICC on this matter.”
This is exactly the right stance and the Obama Administration is to be commended for taking it. But the U.S. needs to get Ntaganda to the airport in Kigali and for that to happen Rwanda must agree to safe passage.
Last month, Rwanda signed the UN-brokered Congo peace accord pledging not to interfere in the affairs of its neighbors. Now it has an opportunity to show that it is willing to abide by its promises. Rwanda should voluntarily allow the U.S. to transport Ntaganda out of Rwanda and to The Hague. And if it doesn’t, the U.S. government should go to the Security Council to demand it.
Whoever stands in the way of that stands in the way of justice. As a victim of mass atrocities in Bosnia, I can see no choice other than to support the work of the ICC. Justice for the thousands of Ntaganda victims and their families in Eastern Congo is now within reach and cannot be denied.