Making Justice Work

The Bemba Case and the ICC’s Future

A boy stands near a poster of Congolese presidential hopeful Jean-Pierre Bemba moments before a gunbattle erupts in Kinshasa November 21, 2006. Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters

On March 21, 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC) found Congolese rebel leader turned politician Jean-Pierre Bemba guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. After holding Bemba in detention for nearly eight years, the court determined that Bemba failed to stop his Mouvement de Libération du Congo (MLC) troops from committing atrocities against civilians in the Central African Republic (CAR) during an attempted coup there in 2002–3. Bemba remains in detention pending sentencing and a judgement on reparations.

Bemba’s conviction marks much more than the end of a successful prosecution at the ICC. It establishes that commanders are responsible for the actions of their troops, even if they did not directly order the actions, and even if those soldiers are part of a non-state militia. The decision is also a triumph for advocates against sexual violence, as it holds Bemba responsible for the rape and assault committed by his MLC troops. And for the ICC, the case confirms that the court can prosecute war crimes trials and obtain convictions—a major win for an institution with a checkered record.

But despite these victories, the politics surrounding the decision to arrest Bemba—let alone the way in which the ICC pursued charges—have done little to appease critics of the court, both inside and outside the region.


Bemba was the ICC’s first big catch. During the Second Congo War in August 1998, the MLC helped then CAR President Ange-Félix Patassé fend off coup attempts from political rival and future CAR president François Bozizé. MLC troops were accused of pillaging and of killing and raping CAR civilians as they retreated from the country, with Bemba commanding troops from afar. Bemba went on to serve as one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) four vice presidents between 2003 and 2006. During the country’s first postwar election in 2006, Bemba forced DRC President Joseph Kabila into a run-off election, only to lose his bid with 48 percent of the vote. His surprising electoral success

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