On 21 March 2016, Trial Chamber III of the International Criminal Court (ICC) will deliver the trial judgment in the case against Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo (Bemba). It will be an important day in the life of this now 14-year-old institution. If Bemba is convicted as charged, he will not only be the first military commander to be convicted for crimes committed by troops under his command, but it will be the first conviction at the ICC for sexual violence. Both issues have been the subject of fierce litigation.
Bemba stood trial as President and Commander-in-Chief of the Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC) for five counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by MLC soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002-2003. The MLC had entered the CAR to assist then CAR President Ange-Felix Patassé to suppress an attempted military coup. There, the MLC soldiers are alleged to have engaged in a campaign of pillage, murder, and rape against the civilian population. While he did not commit these crimes himself, Bemba stood trial because “he knew or should have known” that his troops were committing these crimes, and “did not take all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress their commission”. He is the first person to have been charged at the ICC with command responsibility under article 28 of the Rome Statute.
This mode of liability, however, was disputed. During the confirmation of charges hearing in 2009, the Prosecution originally submitted that Bemba was responsible as a co-perpetrator under article 25(3)(a). When the Pre-Trial Chamber, adjourning the confirmation hearing, indicated that the evidence appeared to suggest a different mode of liability, the Prosecution amended the charges, bringing both article 25(3)(a) and article 28 in the alternative. Amnesty International was subsequently accepted as amicus curiae on the issue of superior responsibility. The Pre-Trial Chamber eventually confirmed charges against Bemba under article 28, finding substantial grounds to believe that he “knew that MLC troops were committing or were about to commit crimes”.
In September 2012, the mode of liability was again the subject of discussion, this time following a Trial Chamber decision to use the controversial Regulation 55. Whereas the Pre-Trial Chamber had only confirmed charges on the basis that Bemba “knew” crimes were being committed, the Trial Chamber notified the parties and participants that it may consider the alternate form of knowledge, namely that “owing to the circumstances at the time, … [he] should have known that the forces … were committing or about to commit such crimes”. The Defence objected and sought leave to appeal, which the Trial Chamber rejected. After further back-and-forth between the Defence and the Chamber concerning the need for additional investigations, the Trial Chamber reiterated in a decision in 2013 that it had not yet made a “formal decision” on the recharacterisation. It reserved judgment on the matter for its article 74 decision. The question is thus likely to be addressed extensively in the upcoming trial judgment, and will hopefully provide important clarification on the responsibility of military commanders for the actions of their troops and for failures to prevent, repress or punish the commission of crimes.