Thomas Lubanga sentenced, but child soldiers still struggle

The International Criminal Court handed down its first sentence today, ordering warlord Thomas Lubanga to serve 14 years for the recruitment and use of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But the children of eastern Congo still need our attention.

Jerry Lampen/AP
Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, second from right, awaits his sentence in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague on July 10, 2012. Judges at the ICC are handing down their first-ever sentence on Tuesday, following the conviction of Lubanga in May for conscripting child soldiers.

You might think that Jean Paul Dhelo would have been the sort of person most angry with Thomas Lubanga, the warlord sentenced today by the International Criminal court to 14 years in prison for using children to fight in a brutal conflict that terrorized the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In 2007, not long after Lubango had been sent to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes, Dhelo ran a rehabilitation center for child soldiers for just outside the dusty, grim town of Bunia. He had seen it all: boys as young as nine and 10 who had killed; young girls who had been forced to work as sex slaves for commanders; children of both genders who were shell-shocked, traumatized, and violent.

But when I spoke to Dhelo about Lubango that year, on a reporting trip for the Monitor, he expressed ambivalence.

“We welcomed children from all those groups,” he said. “And in each group there was a leader.”

He said he didn’t understand why Lubanga was the target. And he didn’t really know what good would come of prosecuting him.

Human rights activists today are hailing the International Criminal Court’s sentencing of Lubanga. The move, they say, is a victory for children’s rights, and it sends the message to other military leaders that recruiting children to fight will turn them into international pariahs. 

Indeed, this is a message of growing importance. Despite a nearly two decades of increased attention by the UN and advocacy groups, many analysts say that the role of children in conflict – both as fighters and victims – is on the rise. Think Syria. Or the Lord’s Resistance Army. 

But upon reading the news about Lubanga today, I couldn’t help but think back on the conversations I had those years ago in Ituri province, where the people were so ambivalent, the needs of children so great, and everything masked behind the proceedings of the international court and the fate of one man. (Who, although it’s a complicated story, was of debatable importance in the grand scheme of the international conflict in eastern Congo.)

According to UNICEF, the children most likely to be forced to be soldiers come from impoverished and marginalized backgrounds. And in eastern Congo, you have more than your fair share of poverty. 

When I spoke to women on the the other side of Bunia from the child soldier rehabilitation center – a part of town that was of another ethnicity, and therefore more inclined to dislike Lubanga in a conflict that was divided along ethnic lines – they told stories of the warlord coming into their village and demanding that all children 10 years and older join their army. Those families who resisted were attacked with machetes. But even Charlotte Ayogo, who clearly anti-Lubanga, wondered about the amount attention paid to this one person. While the international community was focused on Lubanga, she said, more children in her neighborhood were dying because they had no access to clean water. 

While this all can seem worlds away to those sitting in the US or Europe – troubles of a distant, mysterious, and violent land – we are closer to the problem than we think. 

Children living in extreme poverty are our problem. So are children forced to be in wars. 

Graca Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela, longtime children’s advocate, and the former first lady of Mozambique (which saw its share of child soldiers during a decades-long conflict), wrote in the preface to the 2004 UN’s Child Solders Global Report that she didn’t know how to answer children who ask her when the world would actually act to protect them.  

“.. the haunted eyes of child survivors ask all of us how we can live in a world where children can be brutalized and murdered as part of adult conflicts. I have no answer for these children. No reasonable or convincing explanation for why we have collectively failed to protect them from the atrocities of war. No justification for generations of broken promises.”

She continued: “It is heartening that the Security Council has condemned the use of child soldiers and outlined measures to end the practice. But this is not enough. Governments and armed groups must be held accountable for their actions, yet assisted to take concrete steps to get children out of conflict and back to their families.”

And then, read this part closely:

“This must include efforts by ‘the silent partners’ – those organizations, corporations and governments in Europe, North America and other parts of the world that provide military training and resources that assist waring parties in conflict zones. They must ask themselves how they can fulfill their personal, their human, and their State obligations to the care and protection of children while they continue to sell weapons and provide assistance to those shown to abuse children in their armed conflicts.”

This is us. Because these conflicts that seem very far away are often fueled, at least in part, by our addiction to natural resources. The poverty has more to do with global economics and our own choices than we would like to think. And the world-wide moral responsibility is huge.

The conflict in eastern Congo, for instance, is complicated and contested, involving a tinderbox of poverty, ethnic tensions, and valuable natural resources such as gold and coltan. But the role of international corporations, which have supported different sides in the conflicts to get better access to resources, has been well documented by rights groups. Other organizations have found bullets linked to the US, Russia, and other countries. 

The international court’s decision today on Thomas Lubanga may well be celebrated. But more importantly, for parents everywhere, it should be a call to look globally and consider what we can do to fight some of the most crucial, desperate challenges to children across the world. 

The answers are not easy, nor simple. But we must take responsibility to grapple with them.

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