Bemba on Trial: Setting the Bar for War Crimes

War crimes are a serious deal. No one will ever argue that. Breaking international agreements about the so called “rules of engagement” is a big no no. But ordering or even allowing someone under your command to commit certain atrocities and crimes is a gray area, at least as far as prosecution goes. Jean Pierre Bemba, the former Congolese rebel leader, commanded a group of troops who entered neighboring territory in the Central African Republic to help a president quash a coup attempt. In the process, civilians were attacked with reports of over 400 women and men raped. Bemba, who later became appointed as vice president in the DR Congo, now stands trial with the International Criminal Court in the Hague for the incidents during the coup attempt. You might ask yourself “why this is important” or even “how is this relevant to me”? Well, should they find Bemba guilty of war crimes for murder, rape, and other atrocities committed by his troops, it will set a greatly influential precedent for the prosecution of military leaders in the future. If they find him guilty, essentially, every leader who directly commands a group of soldiers who break the accepted laws for war will be subject to punishment should that leader condone or ignore those actions. That would mean that instances of torture or “advanced interrogation techniques” would be answerable by the commanding officer at a prison or a commander on the ground regarding excessive force issues when entering civilian areas in post conflict situations.

With the technology to bomb the bejesus out of foreign countries from home, the U.S. could see officers who direct those bombings prosecuted if they ordered the destruction of a known civilian area being put on trial. The ripples of this decision will travel LONG AND FAR. No one will really know the effect of the decision for at least a decade, but it will be felt by the entire world. No one, save for a few Congolese extremists, thinks that Bemba is guiltless, but the extent to which he is guilty is a strong issue for contention. One obviously bad dude is about to be punished for ordering and allowing other soldiers to be even worse. What isn’t clear, is how many “kind of bad” folks are going to be taken down under the banner of this precedent. Interesting times we live in. Food for thought in a world where small decisions now have a global impact. It begs the question, “if your commander in chief sanctions torture to catch the baddest S.O.B. on the planet, should he be prosecuted and held responsible for it or even the advisers who said it was legal“? I say, unfortunately, yes. Justification only works for the one justifying. In the case of Bemba, he obviously has no moral ground to stand on. In the States, the situation is stickier. We were trying to save lives and prevent terrorism. But, like the death penalty, we were using suffering to try and stop suffering. We were causing death in war to stop death in war. Fighting fire with fire is a nice catchphrase, but in actuality, fighting fire with fire makes a bigger fire. Remember, terrorists are justifying their actions by pointing to atrocities they feel have been perpetrated upon them and their people and in some cases they are right. They say that even though the one in charge now didn’t actually commit the crime, that he is still responsible for answering for the hurt done to the Muslim nations of the world. Which, if you ask me, sounds a lot like the trial implications we have now. Perspective is an amazing thing. In the end, it’s not about whether it is justifiable to blow someone up or not. Justification will serve the purpose of the one calling her name. She easily whores herself out to the man of the moment. Perhaps, just perhaps, we should take the approach that if something must be craftily justified, then a better course of action may be available. No one ever has to justify finding a peace. I sincerely hope that Bemba is brought to justice by this trial. But, I hope that we use this as a marker not for the precedent of prosecution, but the opportunity for accountability.

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