Thomas Lubanga, the Congolese militant accused of war crimes by recruiting child soldiers under age 15 to fight in conflicts in the eastern region of his country, has been found guilty of the war crimes by a three-judge chamber presiding at his case at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The decision was made after seven months of deliberation.
The two-year Lubanga trial is the first for the court, which began operating in 2004 and has been closely watched as it established itself as the first permanent international judicial body to try criminals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
“This is a new milestone, an event the international community has been waiting for,” Tiina Intelmann, president of the Assembly of States Parties, which manages the court, said in a statement. “The court’s institutional reputation and its place in the international system are contingent upon the ability to deliver justice with all the guarantees of a fair trial.”
Sentencing of Lubanga, 51, will take place at a later date. An appeal can also be made.
His story centers on enlisting and conscripting child soldiers in his army, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo, or FPLC in the French acronym, from September 2002 to August 2003 to gain control over the northeastern Congo region of Ituri. He took part in recruiting children by giving speeches to the local population and the youths.
Then, once the children were compelled to join or volunteered for his army, he trained hundreds of them, some as young as 7 years old, to fight, maim, mutilate and kill in the front lines against other local militias and foreign government troops and to also act as bodyguards for him and his top men. Girls who were lured into the Lubanga entourage were often forced to become sex slaves, cooks, cleaners, fighters and spies. Many of the child victims were also drugged and beaten to conform.
“They cannot forget what they suffer, what they saw, what they did,” said Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the court’s chief prosecutor, in his opening statement at the trial’s start on Jan. 26, 2009. Lubanga was arrested in 2006 and held by the court until his trial; he pleaded not guilty. His defense contended at the start that the more responsible leaders for the crimes were being spared.
In the conflict, the Lubanga militia claimed that it was acting on behalf of the ethnic Hemas in Ituri when it began fighting the Lendu ethnic group in 1999, a battle that also involved the Ugandan military, which occupied the area from 1999 until 2003. During this time, Lubanga’s group and others, says Human Rights Watch, were committing serious human rights abuses besides using child soldiers. These included summary executions, torture, rape and abduction.
The long, horrific conflict resulted in at least 60,000 civilians dead in the region, in what also became a contest for gold mines and trade routes. Human rights groups regretted that charges against Lubanga did not include other crimes he is said to have committed, such as the raping of young girls, or that government officials were not arrested for their role in the conflict. But some groups say that the arrest of Lubanga by The Hague helped deter the use of child soldiers elsewhere.
“The Lubanga trial sets an important precedent, not only for the prosecution of war crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but also for the International Criminal Court’s ability to successfully prosecute crimes against humanity and war crimes,” said Laura Seay, a political science professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta and a Congo specialist. “It is an important step for combating impunity worldwide.”
“That said, the Lubanga conviction does not address the root causes of violence in Ituri, which have yet to be resolved,” Seay added. “Tensions over land and citizenship rights are still very high, and many Congo-watchers worry that without serious peace-building efforts centered on these issues, a return to violence could occur. The most important task for building peace in Ituri is to address communal conflicts. The prosecution of war criminals is of secondary concern to most of those affected by violence in the region.”
Fourteen other cases are before the court, three of which are at trial, all stemming from Africa.