A Congolese warlord who forced child soldiers to fight for his militia has become the first person convicted by the international criminal court since it launched almost 10 years ago. The guilty judgment against Thomas Lubanga was hailed as a legal landmark in the fight against perpetrators of war crimes and genocide around the world. The international criminal court’s first verdict in its 10-year history finds that children as young as nine were forced to fight in the DR Congo.
Human rights groups said it was also a “pivotal victory” for the protection of children in conflict, but noted that questions remain over the court’s reach and effectiveness.
Lubanga, 51, was found to have snatched children off the street and turned them into fighters as well as using them as his personal bodyguards. They were so prevalent in his Union of Congolese Patriots force that it was known as “an army of children”. Children as young as nine took part in a ferocious ethnic conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2002-03 that left an estimated 60,000 people dead. Competition for the region’s lucrative gold mines and trade routes was a major factor in the fighting.
It took six years from the time he was handed over by DR Congo for Lubanga to be convicted, but ultimately the three-judge panel in The Hague, Netherlands, was unanimous in finding him guilty on three counts of war crimes.
“The prosecution has proved beyond reasonable doubt that Mr Thomas Lubanga is guilty of the crimes of conscripting and enlisting children under the age of 15 years and using them to participate actively in hostilities,” said presiding judge Adrian Fulford, who took half an hour to deliver the verdict. Lubanga “was essential to a common plan to conscript and enlist girls and boys below the age of 15,” he added.
The judges said children were forced into camps in the Ituri region, where they were placed under harsh training regimes and brutally punished. Soldiers and army commanders under Lubanga’s authority used girls as domestic workers and subjected them to rape and sexual violence.
Lubanga will be sentenced later this year and faces a maximum of life imprisonment. The court cannot impose the death penalty.
But the successful prosecution is not likely to end the debate over the international criminal court’s merits any time soon. Since its creation in July 2002, the court has struggled to shake off a reputation as being slow and ineffective. Even in its apparent coming of age on Wednesday, there were attacks on the way the case against Lubanga had been handled.
Commentators also note that Lubanga is a “small fish” and that one of his co-accused; Bosco Ntaganda – remains a serving army general in eastern Congo. Mattioli-Zeltner said: “With Lubanga found guilty, Ntaganda’s continued freedom from arrest is an all the more shameful betrayal of the victims. The Congolese authorities should immediately arrest Ntaganda and turn him over to the ICC.”
The highest profile suspects among five in custody are former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo and ex-Congo vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir has been indicted for genocide in Darfur but refuses to surrender to the court. Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, whose use of child soldiers is the subject of a viral internet campaign is also wanted.