This week in the Hague, the International Criminal Court, or ICC, began the war crimes trial of Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese rebel leader charged with systematically recruiting hundreds of children under 15 to fight as soldiers during Congo’s bloody civil war, which resulted in the deaths of roughly 4 million people between 1998 and 2003.
Lubanga reportedly showed no emotion as he plead not guilty to the child soldiering charges and insisted that he was trying to bring peace to the Ituri region. (He is not the only indicted war criminal to have made such a ludicrous claim.) Ituri, like much of eastern Congo, is rich in mineral wealth and has been a site of immense human suffering for over a decade, as armed groups have fought for control of this wealth. Over 30,000 children were reportedly recruited during the Congolese conflict. The Court’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said in his opening statement that Lubanga’s rebel forces abducted children on their way to school or sports fields, and that young girls were taken as sex slaves by militia commanders:
The children still suffer the consequences of Lubanga’s crimes. They cannot forget what they suffered, what they saw, what they did. They were nine, 11, 13 years old.
Moreno-Ocampo will call 34 witnesses and seeks a “very severe” sentence — close to the 30–year maximum — for Lubanga.
Lubanga has been in the Court’s custody since 2006. His trial was set to begin in June 2008 but was delayed while the Court disputed confidential evidence. Human Rights Watch issued a statement heralding the trial as an “important stage in efforts to establish responsibility for the use of children in military operations,” but noted that another Congolese warlord and wanted ICC suspect, Bosco Ntaganda, remains at large. In fact, as Enough’s Congo field researcher wrote last week on our blog, Ntaganda is currently leading the joint Congo-Rwanda military operation against the Rwandan -affiliated Hutu militia, the FDLR, in eastern Congo. Instead of arresting Ntaganda, the Congolese government has sent a delegation to the Hague to attempt to freeze Ntaganda’s prosecution (thanks to Wronging Rights for spotting this development).
The trial of Lubanga is a landmark event in the development of the International Criminal Court and in the fight for justice for the most helpless of civilians—children. However, if the Congolese government’s appalling support for Bosco Ntaganda is any indication, the battle against impunity and for accountability for egregious war crimes committed in the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II will undoubtedly be long and uphill.
Update: On the third day of Lubanga’s trial, the first witness —a former child soldier— retracted his testimony. BBC reported that although the witness was testifying from behind a screen and could not be seen by Lubanga, he could see Lubanga glaring at him while he testified. This incident reportedly threw the trial— the ICC’s first— into disarray, and the case has been suspended until Friday morning, when a new witness will testify.