In a history-making event, the International Criminal Court issued its first verdict this past Wednesday, finding Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga guilty for conscripting child soldiers into his militia to fight in bloody civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Not only was it the first time that ICC issued a verdict since it was created in 2002 to try the perpetrators of war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression, this is also the first time that any international tribunal has convened for the try a suspect for charges based solely upon the use of child soldiers.
During the fighting in the eastern Congo in 2002 and 2003, Lubanga recruited children to fight in his militia and also to serve as his bodyguards. Former child soldiers who testified against Lubanga said that he recruited them to kill, rape and rob. Luis Moreno Ocampo, the ICC’s top prosecutor sees the case as “a huge step in the struggle against these serious crimes against children. Child conscription destroys the lives and futures of thousands of children around the world. This case will contribute to exposing the problem and in stopping these criminal practices.”
Michael Bochenek, the director of Amnesty International’s law and policy program, was similarly hopeful: “Today’s verdict will give pause to those around the world who commit the horrific crime of using and abusing children both on and off the battlefield.” The verdict takes on particular importance in light of the Joseph Kony, the fugitive leader of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony who is accused of using children to kill and mutilate his foes across four African Nations (including Uganda and Congo), became an internet sensation last week when he released a video detailing the brutality of his rebel army. Already being sought by the ICC, there is now a much greater likelihood that he will be brought to justice for the horrific acts he has perpetrated using child soldiers.
The Lubanga case is truly remarkable in many ways. In fact, Lubanga was almost released as a consequence of two due process issues that delayed this ultimate decision: first, pre-trial proceedings were suspended when the prosecutor failed to disclose information to the defense, and, second, the trial itself was suspended when the prosecutor failed to disclose the identity of an intermediary. The case is now moving to the sentencing and reparations phase. The prosecution indicates it will seek “close to the maximum” sentence: not more than 30 years. Art. 77(1)(a) of the Rome Statute. It will be the Court’s first foray into reparations, for which it has no developed principles. What may strike some as surprising is that while all child soldiers, and by extension their families, are considered “victims,” the people killed, maimed, or terrorized by the child soldiers, in all likelihood, will not be.