Hague court issues its first guilty verdict against Congo warlord Lubanga

The guilty verdict against Lubanga will draw new attention to pending cases against 20 other indictees, including Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, the focus of Invisible Children's Kony2012 video campaign. 

Evert-Jan Daniels/AP
Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga awaits his verdict in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday. Judges have convicted a Congolese warlord of snatching children from the street and turning them into killers.

The International Criminal Court at the Hague, Netherlands, has found Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga guilty of conscripting and using child soldiers during the 1998-2003 conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This is the first-ever verdict for the Hague court, and one that is likely to give credibility to future court cases filed against other ICC indictees such as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Uganda’s cultish warlord Joseph Kony. Mr. Kony, founder of the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army, is the first man to be charged with war crimes by the ICC, and has recently become focus of an Internet campaign launched by the American activist group Invisible Children, urging Kony’s arrest for abduction of child soldiers.

From the courtroom, Rachel Irwin, a reporter for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, tweeted the results of the verdict, noting that Lubanga “showed no emotion [but] nodded at those seated in the gallery.”

Human rights groups hailed Lubanga’s verdict as a validation of the ICC, which has taken criticism for its lengthy process, and for its penchant for focusing on African war crimes, rather than those in the Middle East, Asia, or the richer countries of the West.

Human Rights Watch said that the Lubanga verdict should be a warning to other military commanders, including Lubanga's own co-accused, Bosco Ntaganda, who is currently a general in the Congo Army in Goma. 

“The verdict against Lubanga is a victory for the thousands of children forced to fight in Congo’s brutal wars,” said Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “Military commanders in Congo and elsewhere should take notice of the ICC’s powerful message: using children as a weapon of war is a serious crime that can lead them to the dock.”

Don Kraus, chief executive officer of Citizens for Global Solutions, greeted the decision, saying in a statement, “Lubanga’s guilty verdict is a landmark moment in the short history of the Court. For the first time in the history of humanity, nations have come together and established a permanent means of holding tyrants and human rights abusers accountable, while providing a fair system of justice, even for the most heinous crimes. This is how we build a safer, more secure world.” 

In court, prosecutors accused Lubanga – leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots political group and commander of its armed wing, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo – of recruiting children, at times by force, to fight in a lengthy ethnic conflict in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (see map here). Tens of thousands of people died in the fighting in this region, and an estimated 3 million to 5 million may have died countrywide in the two wars that followed the ouster of President Mobutu Sese Seko by Rwandan and Ugandan forces.

Mr. Lubanga now faces a possible life sentence.

While the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court in 2003 has been signed by more than 120 countries, it has not been signed by three very powerful ones – Russia, China, and the United States – and a growing chorus of human rights activists argue that this fact undermines the credibility of the ICC’s decisions. Many African intellectuals, in particular, argue that The Hague focuses more on war crimes in Africa than it does on possible war crimes committed by US forces in Afghanistan or Iraq, or alleged Russian war crimes committed in Chechnya, or alleged Chinese human rights crimes committed in Tibet.

While international war crimes tribunals have been held at The Hague over war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, for instance, all 20 of those indicted by the ICC are from Africa.

Lead ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, speaking to reporters before the verdict announcement, said that his office does not focus “too much on Africa,” but rather it focuses on cases where local or national courts do not have the capacity to bring human rights violators or war criminals to justice.

"Our office has a mandate to prosecute the worst crimes in the world where no one is investigating," Mr. Ocampo told Reuters news agency. "The world is ignoring African victims. My office cannot do that. We are proud to be working the cases we are working."

"The good thing now is we are preventing crimes,” Ocampo added. “We don't need to wait for a new Holocaust to react."

Keep Calm, a winking reference to the World War II slogan "Keep Calm and Carry On," is a new blog that aims to provide a bit of context to help make sense of confusing news events.

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