The children were not always the best soldiers. Sometimes their clothes were too big and they lost their boots when they ran. Some were too small to carry a Kalashnikov. Some were too slow to flee and were shot dead by their enemies.
But in northeastern Congo, militia leader Thomas Lubanga continued to conscript children into his army. He found them obedient and fearless. “They were not very demanding, they were not asking for money to buy what they wanted, they didn’t have a girlfriend [and]they couldn’t drink,” one witness explained to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
In a historic verdict, the court on Wednesday ruled that Mr. Lubanga was guilty of recruiting and using children as soldiers, bodyguards and sex slaves. It was the first ruling by the international court in the 10 years since it was established to try war crimes and crimes against humanity – and it marked a key blow in the campaign to liberate children from military servitude.
Some of the children in Mr. Lubanga’s militia were as young as 9, witnesses testified. Some as young as 5 were placed in training camps because they would “grow up as real soldiers,” a commander said. “The defendant stole the childhood of the victims by forcing them to kill and rape,” said the court’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo.
It was the first international criminal case to focus on the use of child soldiers, and it could lend momentum to the fight to prosecute others for similar crimes – including Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, the target of a wildly popular video by the nongovernmental organization Invisible Children that has gone viral on the Internet with more than 100 million viewings.
Tens of thousands of child soldiers are still conscripted or recruited in more than 25 countries around the world, including for at least 15 armed conflicts, activists say. But there is mounting pressure on warlords and military commanders to halt the practice. This week, for example, the United Nations signed an agreement with South Sudan to oblige it to release all children from its army.
The guilty verdict against Mr. Lubanga – who now faces a sentence of up to life in prison – is another step in this campaign. “In this age of global media, today’s verdict will reach warlords and commanders across the world and serve as a strong deterrent,” said the UN’s special representative for children and armed conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy.
Mr. Lubanga’s militia, the Union of Congolese Patriots, was one of the combatants in a vicious tribal war in 2002 and 2003 in northeastern Congo, where an estimated 60,000 people were killed.
“The chamber reached its decision unanimously that the prosecution has proved Thomas Lubanga guilty of crimes of conscription and enlisting children under the age of 15 and used them to participate in hostilities,” presiding judge Adrian Fulford told the court.
The international court has been criticized for being too slow and bureaucratic, and for focusing exclusively on African conflicts so far. Though the court is backed by 120 countries, it is not supported by the United States, China or Russia, and this makes it difficult for the court to prosecute war crimes in the Middle East and Asia, where suspects are protected by the superpowers.
Human-rights activists hailed the verdict. “This verdict will contribute to consolidating the legitimacy of the court, which is essential for the exercise of real preventive authority,” said Dismas Kitenge, vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights.
He said the verdict will benefit the Democratic Republic of Congo, torn by a series of bloody wars over the past two decades. “The Lubanga trial and the verdict should have a preventive effect on the commission of international crimes in the country, and especially the use of child soldiers,” Mr. Kitenge said in a statement.
Another group, Human Rights Watch, also praised the ruling. “The verdict against Lubanga is a victory for the thousands of children forced to fight in Congo’s brutal wars,” said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, the group’s international justice advocacy director.
“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,” she said. “The ICC guilty verdict against Lubanga should be a stark warning to Joseph Kony, who continues to send children into combat.”
Actress and activist Angelina Jolie watched the court ruling from the public gallery in The Hague on Wednesday. She said the verdict was a victory for the former child soldiers and will demonstrate that there is no impunity for those who recruit them.
Critics, however, allege that the international court is too expensive and cumbersome, with 700 employees and a budget of nearly $1.2-billion over the past decade. One legal expert, William Schabas, said the court’s prosecutor is “woefully behind schedule.”
Another issue is that the court’s prosecutors have sometimes used “intermediaries” to find victims and witnesses in war zones. In the Lubanga case, some intermediaries may have coached witnesses or bribed them to lie, the court said in its ruling. These field investigations must be improved in the future to ensure that justice is done, Human Rights Watch said.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague, which is meant to hear cases when countries where crimes occurred are deemed unable to provide a free trial, is not the only venue created in recent years to hear and judge alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. Different conflicts have produced a variety of tribunals employing both international and local jurists. In some cases, purely national courts have judged alleged war criminals in proceedings seen as a charade of international law. The most recent was the trial in Iraq of former president Saddam Hussein.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established by a 1993 United Nations resolution to prosecute serious crimes committed in the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, among them violations of the Geneva Convention, genocide and crimes against humanity. Its chief prosecutor is appointed by the UN Security Council; its judges are a variety of nationalities. Its best-known defendant was former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, who died of a heart attack during his war-crimes trial.
The Special War Crimes Court, a special tribunal set up within the criminal court system of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo, was broken out from the ICTY in 1993, in part to reduce the first court’s workload and to judge alleged war crimes in the country where they were perpetrated. It is supported by some 30 donor countries and each panel includes one Bosnian and two international judges.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone was established by the United Nations at the request of Sierra Leone after its civil war in the 1990s, and operates according to international humanitarian law and domestic law at its headquarters in Freetown. It is also a hybrid court, with judges appointed by the UN and others nominated by the Sierra Leone government.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was established by a UN Security Council resolution in 1994 to judge those responsible for what is known as the Rwandan genocide earlier that year. It is based in Tanzania, and its judges come from at least 77 countries.