Lubanga trial: Is an army of child soldiers a war crime?
Legal experts say the war crimes trial of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga is helping to curtail the practice, though child soldiers continue to fight in a number of conflicts.
MADRID - Nine months ago the International Criminal Court at The Hague opened its first trial - putting Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga in the dock for conscripting and using child soldiers in 2002 and 2003.Skip to next paragraph
2011 Reflections: Suddenly, a new era in the Middle East
2011 Reflections: the end of a landmark year for Latin America
2011 Reflections: Africa rises, taking charge of its affairs
How the 'Year of the Protester' played out in Europe
In Prague, a tale of communism past
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Kidnapping or leading kids under 15 into violence and murder might seem an obvious war crime. But in global justice terms, it is a recent one. The first convictions for deploying child soldiers only came in the Freetown tribunals for Sierra Leone in 2004 and 2005.
Lubanga’s trial has proven both bumpy and compelling. Some 28 witnesses have testified, and more than 90 victims have spoken out – many of them female. Indeed, so vivid were female victims’ stories of sexual slavery and soldiery that the court took the unusual and perhaps legally dubious step of expanding Lubanga’s charges mid-trial.
Legal experts note that international justice is evolving. Rape was added as a war crime in the 1990s. Now, with the addition of child soldiers, the law has been refined further. The problem has captured the public imagination, helping to bring it before the court, according to analysts at the International Bar Association (IBA) meeting in Madrid this week.
Drugging innocent children and training them to spy, sabotage, man checkpoints, or kill civilians and each other – to kill “human beings like they were chickens,” as Nina Jorgensen, a senior legal adviser to the Sierra Leone tribunal at The Hague, described it – is a crime that is cresting in global awareness.
“Child soldiers are a ‘campaigning issue’ for human rights,” says Stuart Alford, co-chair of the IBA's war crimes committee. “Murder is a crime, but it does not get pursued in the same way. Child soldiers are also a ‘correctable crime.’”
Is trial changing behavior?
Indeed, raising the profile of child soldier cases – among their advocates is film star Angelina Jolie, who has attended the Lubanga trial – may have had some results. Militias may work harder to hide children, says Cecile Aptel of the International Center for Transitional Justice in Washington. But in Nepal and Columbia, groups have “stopped, released, or demobilized” many soldiers under 18, she said in Madrid.