The International Criminal Court (ICC) delivered its first ever verdict on 14 March in the case of the Prosecutor vs. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, marking an historic day for the international legal body and the fight against impunity for the gravest breaches of international law. The decision was also an important milestone for the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), as the ICC is an important tool under the norm’s preventive framework. The verdict sent a clear message to perpetrators of war crimes that such acts would not go unpunished.
The Court found Lubanga, the former President of the Union des patriotes Congolese (Union of Congolese Patriots or UPC) and Commander-in-Chief and political leader of UPC’s military wing, the Force patriotique pour la libération du Congo (Patriotic Force for the Liberation of the Congo) (FPLC), guilty of committing war crimes – in particular of conscripting, enlisting, and actively using children as soldiers – in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) between September 2002 and August 2003.
“Today, impunity ends for Thomas Lubanga and those who recruit and use children in armed conflict,” said the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy. “In this age of global media, today’s verdict will reach warlords and commanders across the world and serves as a strong deterrent.”
Civil society organizations, including ICRtoP members Citizens for Global Solutions (CGS), Human Rights Network Uganda (HURINET), Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), as well as the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC), Amnesty International, and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) lauded the Lubanga verdict as an important step for the ICC in deterring and preventing egregious violations of international law.
CGS CEO Don Kraus remarked on the importance of the Lubanga verdict for the ICC and the rule of law:
“Lubanga’s guilty verdict is a landmark moment in the short history of the Court…“During the past decade we witnessed the Court mature from a fledgling institution, to one that delivers results, holds mass killers accountable, and helps bring justice to their victims. The precedents set in this case will affect how the ICC administers justice for the rest of this century, if not beyond.”
On the message the decision sends to would-be perpetrators, Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, stated:
“The verdict against Lubanga is a victory for the thousands of children forced to fight in Congo’s brutal wars. Military commanders in Congo and elsewhere should take notice of the ICC’s powerful message: using children as a weapon of war is a serious crime that can lead them to the dock.”
A press release by ICRtoP Member HURINET and the Uganda Coalition for the ICC (UCICC) echoed both of these points, applauding the “sure and steady” process, which included victims in the proceedings, and the condemnation of the use of child soldiers in armed conflict, which, “deprive and rob children of their childhood, innocence and future.”
The verdict was also an opportunity to reflect on the processes of the Lubanga trial itself and the impact of the ICC’s intervention for the people in the Ituri region of the DRC, where Lubanga’s forces were most active.
While the decision was an historic moment for international justice, it was a long time coming: Lubanga was detained on 17 March 2006, but, according to the CICC, “two successive suspensions of the proceedings contributed to significant delays in the trial.” See HRW’s Q&A on the Lubanga trial, including why the proceedings were so delayed.
Concerns were also raised in the final judgment by the Court, which were echoed by HURINET and the UCICC, HRW, and the CICC in their respective statements, regarding the role of intermediaries in the Lubanga trial. It was found that the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) should not have relied on local individuals and/or organizations in the DRC to establish contact with witnesses in the case, as the evidence provided by a number of witnesses was deemed unreliable.
As such, both HRW and HURINET and the UCICC called for improved field investigations conducted directly by the OTP, and for greater regulation and supervision of the role intermediaries play in the Court’s processes.
Ntanganda was indicted by the ICC on 22 August 2006 for the same charges as Lubanga, but remains at large, and, according to the ICC, is allegedly still active as the Chief of Staff of the Congrès national pour la défense du people (CNDP) in North Kivu in the DRC.
This touched on a more general concern raised by HRW, who stated that the scope of the ICC’s involvement in the DRC was not deep enough. The human rights organization contends that the charges brought against Lubanga were too narrow, and do not adequately reflect other atrocities committed by him and his militia in the DRC. Also, HRW stated:
“The ICC’s docket in relation to the DRC – currently limited to one other trial involving two leaders of an armed group that opposed the UPC in Ituri – fails to address the causes and extent of horrific crimes endured by civilians throughout eastern Congo.”
HRW called for a broader investigation into a fuller range of serious crimes, “in particular against those who armed, financed, and directed armed groups in eastern Congo.”
Reflecting on the importance of the trial for the people in Ituri, IRRI and the Association pour la promotion et la défense de la dignité des victims (Association for the Promotion and the Defence of the Dignity of Victims) (APRODIVI) took stock of the Court’s intervention in the DRC in order to better understand its impact on one of the most war-affected regions of the country.
Steps Towards Justice, Frustrated Hopes: Reflecting on the Impact of the ICC in Ituri chronicles how after years of devastating internal warfare, much was expected of the ICC’s involvement in securing peace and justice in the region by its people, including in preventing further atrocities. Years later, despite a “degree of appreciation for the Court’s work” and the Lubanga verdict, the report details from first hand accounts with individuals and organizations on the ground in Ituri that action is still needed from many actors – from the Congolese government to the ICC to the international community of states – to improve accountability for crimes committed in the region.
While the ICC’s first conviction is being celebrated, it remains unknown whether Lubanga and his lawyers will exercise the right to appeal the decision, what the sentence for his crimes will be, and the manner in which providing reparations for victims will proceed.
The reflections of civil society organizations highlight the crucial importance of learning from the trial. And if learned and implemented, as William Pace, Executive Director of the World-Federalist Movement-Institute for Global Policy, Convenor of the CICC, and Co-Founder and Steering Committee member of ICRtoP stated, “the difficulties encountered during the course of this trial will serve to improve the expediency of those to follow and will someday bring about an end to the era of impunity.”