The Hague as comfortable exile

The Hague as comfortable exile

Feared Congolese militia commander Bosco Ntaganda made his first appearance at the International Criminal Court in the Hague yesterday. Last week, Ntaganda unexpectedly presented himself at the U.S. embassy in Kigali and requested that he be sent to the ICC for trial. He was indicted by the ICC in 2006, although the arrest warrant wasn’t made public until 2009.

The precise events that prompted Ntaganda’s sprint for the embassy aren’t known yet, but a split within the M23 rebel movement to which he belonged appears to have prompted his decision. There’s been informed speculation that Ntaganda may not have felt safe seeking refuge with the Rwandan government, although he was born in Rwanda and reportedly received Rwandan assistance over the years. The ICC likely looked like the best of several bad options for the beleagured warlord.

That may say something important about the role the ICC can play. One of the debates that swirls around international justice efforts is whether they may actually impede political transitions by backing key actors into a corner. During the Libya conflict, many observers — and likely some Western government officials — worried that ICC indictments of Qaddafi and his lead henchmen might cut off the possibility of exile and encourage him to fight to the last. But the Ntaganda case suggests an alternate possibility: that the ICC itself can become a form of exile.

A sojourn to the Hague has several distinct advantages. Pre-trial proceedings and trials themselves are drawn-out affairs, meaning that indictees can sometimes spend years before facing a verdict. Acquittal is a real possibility. Cases against senior leaders are notoriously complex and sometimes rely on evidence that doesn’t hold up in court. Accommodations for prisoners while they await the end of their trials reach pretty high standards, with  television, computer access, and ample opportunity for exercise and recreation (see the video at the bottom of this post for a virtual tour). The food is carefully prepared:

Detained persons are provided with suitably prepared food that satisfies in quality and quantity the standards of dietetics and modern hygiene. Additionally, detained persons are allowed to cook for themselves; they can purchase additional items, listed on the shopping list of the Detention Centre, as available, in order for them to adjust the meals provided to them, according to their taste and cultural requirements.

There’s nothing to prevent a retired warlord or dictator from penning memoirs and staying in touch electronically with friends, family and colleagues:

With a view of maintaining family links, as provided for by the Regulations of the Registry, the Registrar gives specific attention to visits by the family and visits by the wife or partner of the detained persons; and may take measures to assist the family in the necessary procedures thereof, if required.

Even if a guilty verdict does eventually come down, the ICC’s statute does not permit the death penalty; the worst possible outcome is extended imprisonment (although not in the same detention center). Being indicted for serious crimes may sting, but for many it will be more enticing than the possibility of living life on the lam, with the possibility of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s grisly end always in the background. 

(Click anywhere on the image to stop/start play.)