Congo Has Reason to Celebrate After Child Soldier Warlord Receives 14 Year Prison Sentence

Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, former leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots, was sentenced to 14 years in prison yesterday. It is the first sentence handed down by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in its ten year history. 

The Court convicted Lubanga of conscripting children under the age of 15 to fight in the UPC during the Ituri conflict. He was arrested in March 2006 and convicted in March 2012 after a difficult six-year trial. The 14-year sentence includes the six years he spent in detention, meaning he must serve another eight years at the Hague, the ICC’s headquarters in the Netherlands.  

Some experts who followed the trial immediately took to Twitter to push back against the court’s decision to reduce the sentence to 14 years from the recommended 30. According to prosecutors in the case, the sentence was dramatically reduced due to “the lack of any aggravating circumstances” and his cooperation with the court. However, the majority of analysts seem to believe that yesterday was a victory for the ICC.

The sentence is undoubtedly a historic moment for international justice movement and the ICC more specifically. The court celebrated its 10th anniversary on July 1st as it received increased attention because of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign, Joseph Kabila’s call to arrest Bosco Ntaganda, and Luis Moreno-Ocampo’s plea to arrest Omar al-Bashir. Moreover, the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor role changed hands for the first time in the court’s history last month with the swearing in of Gambian lawyer Fatou Bensouda. She immediately brought new energy to an often overlooked institution when she asserted that Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir “will be arrested.”

The effects of Lubanga’s sentence on victims of violence in Ituri province are largely unknown.  Translating the decision at a court more than 3,500 miles away from the crimes’ location is difficult and will need to be integrated into a larger reconciliation process. Clearly, there were numerous perpetrators, under Lubanga’s command and not, that participated in the violence, but Lubanga symbolizes the broader conflict. His arrest and conviction is a victory for international justice advocates and a step toward curbing the culture of impunity that exists in much of the Great Lakes region.

The sentence also comes as renewed violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo shatters a brief fragile peace in the aftermath of national elections last November. A newly formed armed group dubbed M23 is quickly capturing towns in North Kivu and now threatens larger cities such as Goma. The group is allegedly led by Bosco Ntaganda, who faces an ICC arrest warrant.  President Kabila’s call for his arrest is a dramatic shift from when Ntaganda was appointed as a general in the Congolese army in 2009. Hopefully, Lubanga’s sentencing will further spur efforts to arrest him and create a more lasting peace.

Lubanga’s sentence is a step in the right direction. He received a fair trial and will serve a relatively short stint in prison. However, there is much more work to be done. A fragile justice system, inadequate national army, and continued interference by the Rwandan government pose major risks to civilians and continue to derail projects such as disease eradication, poverty alleviation, and refugee resettlement. The Congolese government and international community deserves the opportunity to celebrate today, but should return to critical peacebuilding efforts tomorrow.