AMSTERDAM // Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a Congolese warlord, was found guilty yesterday of recruiting and using child soldiers in the first-ever verdict issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
The verdict by the court, established almost a decade ago to judge the world’s most serious crimes and human-rights abuses, brought both relief about the ICC’s efficacy as well as reflections on its many limitations.
Human-rights organisations regretted the narrow scope of the charges against Lubanga as well as the ICC’s difficulties in arresting many suspects that is has issued arrest warrants for in several conflicts, including in Libya and Sudan.
The verdict also comes as the court has been forced to the sidelines while the bloody conflict in Syria continues. United Nations organisations, governments and human-rights groups have alleged that war crimes and crimes against humanity have taken place in Syria but the country is not a signatory to the ICC’s treaty and the conflict’s referral to the court by the UN Security Council is being blocked by veto-wielding members Russia and China.
Despite these caveats, many still celebrated the verdict in The Hague.
“It is a historic moment for international justice and the International Criminal Court. This judgement signals very strongly that the court is at work, curbing impunity and issuing judgements against criminals,“ said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Programme.
She emphasised the importance both to the victims of Lubanga’s policies in Congo and for deterring the future recruiting and deployment of child soldiers.
The ICC’s presiding judge, Adrian Fulford read out the verdict, saying: “The chamber concludes that the prosecution has proved beyond reasonable doubt that [Lubanga] is guilty of conscripting and enlisting children under the age of 15 years”.
Some 60,000 people are estimated to have died in the conflict in which Lubanga was involved in Congo’s Ituri region in the early and mid-2000s. He was the leader of one of the factions, the Union des Patriotes Congolais, and is being held accountable for the recruitment of thousands of child soldiers who were actively deployed in combat and who were subjected to many abuses.
The 51-year-old former warlord, who was arrested in 2006, sat in court wearing white traditional dress and looked down at his hands impassively as the verdict was issued.
The sentencing will take place at a later date and he has 30 days to appeal the verdict.
All the cases in which the ICC has started trial proceedings so far are in Africa. This has led to criticism from both African and international organisations, but which is also a reflection of the willingness of many on the continent to seek recourse to the court. The Congo conflict came under the ICC’s jurisdiction on the request of the country’s government.
Human-rights organisations emphasised that others co-accused with Lubanga are still at large, a problem that is plaguing the ICC also in other conflicts. It has not been able to arrest high-profile suspects such as Omar Al Bashir, the Sudanese president. Nor has it been able to take the son of the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, Saif Al Islam Qaddafi, into custody. A faction of former rebels is still holding him.
The guilty verdict against Lubanga may be the only one that takes place under the direction of the ICC’s first prosecutor, the controversial Argentinian jurist Luis Moreno Ocampo. His term ends in June this year and he will be replaced by Gambia’s Fatou Bensouda, his current deputy.
Mr Moreno Ocampo has a reputation for seeking the limelight and making bold gestures that are not always backed by the court.Last year he went to Libya and said that Saif Al Islam Qaddafi would be judged by the new Libyan authorities, but he was later corrected by the ICC, which still claims jurisdiction for now.
International law experts see his successor, Ms Bensouda, as a more cautious prosecutor whose task it will be to get more convictions and to broaden the scope of the ICC’s cases to outside Africa.