IAWJ President, Hon. Vanessa Ruiz, and IAWJ Members, Hon. Janet Nosworthy and Col. Linda Strite Murnane, participated in a panel in the American Bar Association Section of International Law’s 2019 Annual Conference

IAWJ President Judge Vanessa Ruiz moderated a panel: “Command Responsibility or Command Exemption? What the Bemba Case Tells Us About Sexual Assault as a War Crime” in the American Bar Association Section of International Law’s 2019 Annual Conference, on April 12.

IAWJ members, Judge Janet Nosworthy, who serves at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and Col. Linda Strite Murnane, a retired US Air Force Judge Advocate and retired Chief Circuit Military Judge, were among the panelists.

Judge Ruiz opened the panel by explaining the background for the Bemba case, summarizing the ICC initial finding of criminal liability, the reversal of the conviction, and highlighting the importance of debating the issue of responsibility of supervisors for war crimes and crimes against humanity including rape committed troops during armed conflicts.

Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo was the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Mouvement de Libération du Congo (MLC). From October 26, 2002 to March 15, 2003, in the Central African Republic (CAR) part of the national armed forces of Ange-Félix Patassé, the President of the CAR, which had allied with combatants of the (MLC), were confronted by a rebel movement led by François Bozizé, former Chief-of-Staff of the Central African armed forces. The ICC’s Trial Chamber convicted Mr. Bemba of rape (among other war crimes) perpetrated by the soldiers based on the principle of commander responsibility. However, his conviction was overturned on appeal. 

Dr. Reka Varga, former legal adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and currently the head of International Law Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary (currently on sabbatical), presented an overview of the legal framework for protection against sexual violence and command responsibility in international law: the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute. Dr. Varga also discussed the widespread prevalence of sexual violence during armed conflict and its motivations. 

Judge Janet Nosworthy explained the composition and role of the various ICC chambers and summarized each chamber’s decision in the Bemba case in particular the ground for reversal of the conviction: application of appellate standards of review, the requirement of notice of the charges to the defendant, and the sufficiency of the evidence.

Major Matthew Aiesi, US Army Judge Advocate and Professor in the National Security Law Department at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, compared the standard for command responsibility under the Geneva Conventions, the Rome Statute and US law He also spoke about how the standard can be made operational and enforceable so that charges can be brought and cases prosecuted in a manner that is fair to defendants and protective of the rights of victims for justice and compensation/rehabilitation. 

Col. Linda Strite Murnane (ret.) explained ABA Resolution 105 on the development and implementation of methodologies to measure and track the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence, the assistance to victims of sexual violence and the creation of publicly accessible databases of information on assistance to victims of domestic violence.

Judge Ruiz asked the panelists what they thought could be done and what proactive measures would be effective to stop these crimes from happening in armed conflicts. 

There was a spirited Q&A with the audience, which included a number of experts and practitioner on the field.