International Criminal Court’s First War Crimes Conviction
Former Democratic Republic of Congo warlord Thomas Lubanga was found guilty of war crimes by the International Criminal Court on March 14th. The ICC found Lubanga, 51, guilty of abducting children as young as 11 and forcing them to fight and commit atrocities in a bloody war in the gold-rich region of Ituri in 2002 and 2003. The children were abducted and conscripted from homes, schools and football fields – boys were forced to become soldiers and girls to become sex slaves.
The conflict left as many as 50,000 people dead in the Ituri region alone, and forced many more to flee their homes. Lubanga, who at one point had 3,000 child soldiers under his command, led the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) in an ethnic war between the Hema and the Lendu communities that devastated the gold mining area close to the border with Uganda. Human rights workers have accused several international mining firms of colluding with armed groups there and competition for the lucrative mines and trade routes was a major factor in the fighting.
The ICC ruling has been hailed as a landmark for international justice, which demonstrates a commitment to combating impunity. But there have been criticisms too – of the slow pace of the prosecution, (six years of hearings) and escalating costs (£600m) as well as the limited scope of the charges brought against Lubanga. Human rights groups said it was a “pivotal victory” for the protection of children in conflict, but warned that questions remain over the court’s reach and effectiveness.
Thomas Lubanga’s forces have been accused of carrying out ethnic massacres, torture, rapes and forcing young girls into sexual slavery. But Lubanga was convicted of the more limited charges of “conscripting and enlisting children under the age of 15 and using them to participate actively in hostilities”. Amnesty International was one of several groups which, while welcoming the verdict as a demonstration that “the ICC can bring the world’s worst offenders to justice”, attacked the limited charges brought in the case.
Lubanga’s conviction for using child soldiers does not reflect the full scale of abuses in the Ituri conflict, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) quoted local people as saying.The city of Bunia saw some of the worst fighting during the conflict that ravaged Ituri in 2002 and 2003, and memories of massacres are still vivid for many inhabitants. Many in the region argue that communities in Ituri would have been better served by prosecutions for additional war crimes and crimes against humanity such as murder, pillage and rape.
“The real crimes that were committed in Ituri were not the enrolment of children, but the murders and the rapes,” human rights activist Jean-Paul Lonema said. “If the ICC had prosecuted him for these crimes, it would have had a positive impact on reconciliation and peace in the region.”
There were also questions over the authenticity of prosecution evidence and witnesses. Several local human rights activists have argued that the ICC investigation relied too heavily on reports from Human Rights Watch, other international organisations and local intermediaries.
Twice the trial looked like it was going to collapse. In 2008, judges ordered Lubanga to be released on a technicality but were persuaded to keep him in custody while prosecutors appealed. Its near collapse was because of prosecutors’ failure to disclose evidence to defence lawyers. Trial judge Adrian Fulford excluded the evidence of three witnesses, saying that intermediaries used by prosecutors had “persuaded, encouraged or assisted [the witnesses] to give false evidence”.
Lubanga will be sentenced later this year and faces a maximum of life imprisonment. The court cannot impose the death penalty.
Who will be next?
One of Lubanga’s co-accused, Bosco Ntaganda – similarly suspected of recruiting and using child soldiers – remains a serving army general in eastern Congo. “This verdict [for Lubanga] should not be an excuse to ignore other grave crimes committed by the UPC and other armed groups … and it underscores the importance of prosecuting others…, including Ntaganda,” said Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, the international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a statement.
HRW added that “the ICC guilty verdict against Lubanga should be a stark warning to Joseph Kony, [leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group] who continues to send children into combat” .