The International Criminal Court (ICC) has rendered it’s first ever sentence in the case of Mr. Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese warlord and leader of UPC (Union Patriotique Congolais). Lubanga was convicted, as co-perpetrator, on three counts of war crimes including enlisting and conscripting of children under the age of 15 and using them to participate actively in hostilities in the Ituri region, in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) between September 2002 and June 2003.
The judges did find enough evidence, some of which included videos, that effectively showed Lubanga had committed war crimes. Some of the videos were shot by citizen journalists. Witnesses were also crucial part of the evidence; victims of Lubanga’s crimes (those recruited by Mr. Lubanga as well as family members of those killed by his forces) were allowed to participate in the proceedings, which was the first time ever in an international court.
On July 15, the judges issued the decision on sentencing pursuant to Article 76 of the Rome Statute. Mr. Lubanga was sentenced for 14 years in prison. Since he’s been in prison since March 2006, which is six years to date, he’ll now serve only eight more years in prison. It’s not clear where he will serve the remainder of his jail term.
I’d like to welcome this verdict but also want to express my dissatisfaction with the judges on the sentencing. I
recently watched this video that I co-produced with WITNESS in 2004 when I was a partner, on the very topic of child soldiers in the Congo.
As I understand the gravity of the use of child soldiers, especially as someone who has lived and worked on armed conflict in the Eastern DRC, I am not sure the judges have the same understanding or interpretation as me. I don’t believe Lubanga’s sentence reflects the gravity of his crimes which I would describe as:
1. Recruiting (by force or voluntarily) a child to make him live in constant risk of dying, and transform him into a killer, a terror-maker;
2. Enslaving a child for the purpose of war, is itself, creating and perpetuating war and atrocities and make it nearly impossible for the children and the community to recover;
3. Depriving the child of all basic rights as stipulated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child;
4. Some of the child soldiers, especially girls, will never recover from the traumatic experience they endured in the training camps.
Now let me now project the consequences looking at the year 2020, when Lubanga is expected to be released.
Mr. Lubanga is almost 52 years old. By the time he finishes his jail term, he’ll be about 60 years old. Considering the situation in Ituri and political climate in the Congo, his release could revive the war because his supporters in Ituri region (political and military) will be invigorated by his return, unless preventive measures can be established.
The conflict in eastern DRC is still ongoing, the Rwanda-backed militia M23 has emerged in North Kivu province, which is just south of the Province Orientale (where Ituri is located). There are increased reports of killings, recruitment of child soldiers, displacements, looting and pillaging, rape of women and girls, and other atrocities. One of the co-perpetrators in the Lubanga case, Mr. Bosco Ntaganda, former deputy chief of Lubanga’s UPC and now leader of the M23 rebels, is under an arrest warrant issued by the ICC in 2006. He remains at large.
The conflict in Ituri hasn’t ended, armed groups are still operating in the region, including Lubanga’s militia. The UPC still hope that their leader will return again. When he is released from his ICC sentence, he’ll return as victorious because he’ll have survived the most powerful court in the world. He’ll be seen as a winner, which will be a nightmare for the former child soldiers as they will be portrayed as having betrayed their leader.
Though the steps made in the Lubanga case are very significant and could enhance the deterrent effect for future crimes in the Congo, and could inspire Congo’s jurisdiction in defining the use of child soldiers as an international crime, I am worried that the nightmare for child soldiers might not be over. A few years from now, when they see Lubanga return in Ituri, as he’ll have the right to, it will be traumatizing for these children (who will by then be young adults) and the peace that is so vulnerable in that region may become even more difficult to achieve.