Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga is seen behind his lawyers in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court at The Hague March 14, 2012. REUTERS/Evert-Jan Daniels/Pool
By the time the first verdict of the decade-old International Criminal Court was finally handed down on March 14, broader implications of this pioneering case were being recognized by human rights groups and international lawyers. In the courtroom, the judges found the Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo guilty of conscripting children under the age of 15 and sending them into a guerrilla war of extreme brutality. Will this conviction make a difference and what does the case say about the functioning of the court?
Lubanga, leader of the armed Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, operated in the northeastern Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, an area torn apart by ethnic conflicts complicated by a Ugandan military intervention and a deadly local free-for-all over the riches of gold mines and other resources. The story is replicated to one degree or another across much of eastern Congo, where thousands of civilians have been raped and butchered in power struggles and deliberate campaigns of intimidation over almost two decades.
The guilty verdict against Lubanga, who was given thirty days to appeal, took years to reach, as the new court and its prosecutor stumbled over missteps and unexpected challenges. Lubanga was turned over to the court by the Congolese government in 2006, the first person to be taken into custody by the ICC. His trial began in 2009 amid squabbles between the prosecutor and judges, internal fights over the gathering and sharing of evidence, stays of proceedings and one early attempt by the bench to free Lubanga on the ground that he could not get a fair trial, a ruling that was subsequently overturned.
Critics faulted the prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina, for limiting the case to the use and abuse of child soldiers (some of them boys and girls younger than 12). Left off the charge sheet were numerous other war crimes allegedly committed by Lubanga and his co-accused, Bosco Ntaganda, another militia leader who is now a general in the Congolese army in the North Kivu area of eastern Congo.
Moreno-Ocampo, who has said that he wanted to see a trial through to conclusion before his term as prosecutor expires at the end of June, apparently focused narrowly in the Lubanga case on what could be proven beyond doubt in court. In that, he succeeded. He is seeking the maximum thirty-year jail sentence for Lubanga. The ICC does not condone the death penalty.
Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, the international advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, called the guilty verdict “a victory for the thousands of children forced to fight in Congo’s brutal wars.” In a statement, she added: “Military commanders in Congo and elsewhere should take notice of the ICC’s powerful message: using children as a weapon of war is a serious crime that can lead them to the dock.” Child soldiers are found in more than a dozen countries, most of them in Asia and Africa.
Coincidentally, the Lubanga ruling came as media interest in child soldiers soared after the release of the now controversial video “Kony 2012,” produced by the group Invisible Children. It tells the story of abuses by Joseph Kony, the leader of the insanely violent Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, which flared in the 1990s. Driven out of Uganda in 2004-2005 by the army (which is also accused by Ugandans of human rights abuses) the LRA now operates mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and southern Sudan.