African Warlord Thomas Lubanga Trial Will Not Solve Human Rights Problems in Congo

On Tuesday, Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga became the first person to be tried and convicted by the 10-year old International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC handed down a 14-year jail sentence to Lubanga for conscripting child soldiers to fight in his rebel group in the Democratic Republic of Congo between September 2002 and August 2003. The verdict is significant for a number of reasons, most importantly for setting a legal precedent against the use of children in warfare.

The Lubanga trial put the issue of child soldiers at the forefront of the international justice arena, leaving no doubt about the criminality of using children in war. Lubanga was found guilty of recruiting and enlisting children under the age of 15 in his rebel army, the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), which fought against other ethnic-based rebel groups in northeastern Congo, specifically the Ituri province. Witnesses testified that Lubanga traveled from village to village asking families to contribute a cow, money, or a child to the war effort. The conflict between rebel groups is estimated to have claimed nearly 60,000 lives. In eastern Congo, a country ranked number two on the failed state index, children are even more vulnerable to conscription because of their economic status, lack of formal education, and desire to avenge the death of family members in war. Commanders like Lubanga prey on these children because they are easily manipulated and more likely to obey and carry out military orders without question.

Instability continues to distress Lubanga’s homeland—eastern Congo. Since March, when a group of defectors from the Congolese army formed their own rebel group, eastern Congo has been on the brink of war. The current situation in Congo and elsewhere in Africa reminds us that Africa has other Lubanga’s that are not being deterred by these verdicts. Case in point: Bosco Ntaganda. Ntaganda was Lubanga’s comrade in the UPC and is wanted by the ICC for conscripting child soldiers along with a long list of egregious crimes against humanity. As head of the newly formed rebellion, M23, he is receiving military support from the government of Rwanda. The fighting between M23 and the Congolese army has already displaced close to 200,000 people in Congo’s eastern Kivu provinces.

Defenders of the court are arguing that M23 formed in response to the  pressure from the international community to arrest Bosco and deliver him to the Hague. While the threat may have influenced the situation, the underlying grievances of Ntaganda’s close circle within the Congolese army, the threat of being redeployed outside of eastern Congo’s mineral rich areas, and the involvement of the Rwandan government for their own security and economic interests seem to offer a better explanation.

There is no doubt that convicting Lubanga and arresting Ntaganda are important steps forward for the international community. The effect the ICC will have on Congo, however, is debatable. Congo’s own justice system is nonexistent, and countless instances of rape, murder, and economic crimes remain unattended to. It is hard to argue that Lubanga’s verdict will ease the suffering of his victims—those thousands of child solders that he forced to hold a gun and give their lives to his movement. Ntaganda is a detriment to justice everywhere, and his M23 rebellion is catapulting Congo back into war.

Lubanga’s trial will certainly not bring peace to Congo. Unless the conviction is coupled with efforts to educate victims from Ituri on the verdict, rehabilitate former child soldiers, and start up local justice and reconciliation efforts, it is unclear how this decision will resolve anything in Congo. Lubanga’s trial will set an important precedence for international law, the use of child soldiers, and the ICC’s ability to act as a mechanism for accountability. Yet, as warlords like Ntaganda continue to use child soldiers and operate with impunity, the case for the ICC acting as a deterrent has yet to be made. 

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Alexandra Hellmuth

Alex is a member of the Raise Hope for Congo campaign team the Enough Project, a project of the Center for American Progress aimed at ending genocide and crimes against humanity in Sudan, Congo, and Lord's Resistance Army-affected areas of central Africa. Alex works on engaging student leaders on college campuses and in high-schools across the country to take action for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Alex is a 2010 graduate of the University of Notre Dame with a BA in Political Science and Peace Studies who has lived, traveled, and studied in East Africa, the DRC, and Spain, and she has aspirations to travel to southeast Asia and the Middle East. Alex also enjoys dreaming of making it to Hollywood on American Idol, and grabbing lunch from local food trucks. Views expressed are my own.

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