ICC path to justice tested in Congo
Investigations for the International Criminal Court's first trial face serious logistical and security obstacles as well as charges of selective justice.
Bunia, Democratic Republic of Congo
In many ways, the hope for a new era of international justice starts here in this dusty, war-scarred city far from almost everything.Skip to next paragraph
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This is where the first defendant charged and arrested by the International Criminal Court (ICC), a Congolese warlord named Thomas Lubanga, allegedly recruited children to fight in his militia. And this is where court investigators have been piecing together the landmark case, interviewing victims and gathering evidence in hopes of creating not just a solid prosecution for the ICC's first trial but also a model for holding alleged war criminals accountable.
But drive across ethnically divided Bunia and something else about the world's latest attempt to end impunity becomes clear: the challenges to international justice run deep.
"We should have no illusion about how difficult it will be for this court to fulfill its mission and its mandate," says Richard Dicker, the director for international justice at Human Rights Watch, who has worked on efforts related to the ICC for 14 years. "The crimes this court looks at are widespread and systematic. They occur ... in remote regions that are insecure, lacking in infrastructure. To investigate these crimes is an extremely challenging task."
For many involved in human rights and international law, the ICC's opening in 2002 was a long-awaited step toward a world where war crimes would not go unpunished. Unlike the tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda – or the special court for Sierra Leone, which is scheduled to start hearing the war-crimes case against former Liberian President Charles Taylor next month – the ICC is a permanent court, independent from the United Nations and with international jurisdiction.
The court has delved into some of the world's most devastating modern conflicts – the long-running war in northern Uganda, the resource-fueled battles in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region. This week, the ICC announced a new investigation into violence in the Central African Republic.
The difficulties of investigating
In 2004, the Congolese government asked the ICC to investigate the many atrocities that took place in this country during and after the Second Congolese War, the five-year conflict that ended in 2003 and killed some 4 million people through hunger, disease, and violence. It didn't take long for investigators to zero in on Mr. Lubanga, who headed one of the militias fighting over the gold-rich Ituri Province.
Wide swaths of Ituri are still plagued by warring militias. The region is so volatile – and so underdeveloped – that it can take investigators days or weeks to travel short distances.
Still, prosecutors say they have pieced together a case that shows that Lubanga forced children to fight.
In January 2006, the ICC submitted an application for an arrest warrant against Lubanga. Two months later, the government handed him over without dispute.
Meanwhile, ICC investigators continued their work in and around Bunia, asking people such as Charlotte Agoyo what she remembered about Lubanga.
"Thomas Lubanga came and held a meeting here," Ms. Agoyo says, sitting in a neighbor's house on the western side of Bunia. "He said all children older than 10 should come for military service. Families who resisted would be considered enemies. Those who didn't agree were sliced with machetes."