Child Soldiers Trial: Thomas Lubanga Verdict Could Set Important Precedent
THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Thomas Lubanga and Joseph Kony are accused of leading jungle militias that turned African children into killers, but while Lubanga awaits verdicts in a Hague jail Kony remains one of the world's most-wanted fugitives.
Lubanga's moment of judgment comes Wednesday when a panel of three judges at the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal lay down a crucial legal landmark by delivering their verdicts.
The case is the first at an international tribunal to focus exclusively on the use of child soldiers, meaning it will set legal precedents that could be used if the likes of Kony – who last week found internet stardom in a video about the atrocities carried out by his Lord's Resistance Army – are captured and brought to justice.
The Kony 2012 video was released by a U.S.-based group called Invisible Children and quickly became an online sensation, with the likes of pop stars Justin Bieber and Rihanna tweeting about it. It has been clicked on more than 75 million times on YouTube.
The goal of the video and online buzz is to have Kony captured by the end of the year.
Lubanga has pleaded innocent to charges of using child soldiers to fight in eastern Congo in 2002-2003, while Kony is accused by activists of using children to murder and mutilate his enemies on a far larger scale across four African nations.
Prosecutors say Lubanga led the Union of Congolese Patriots political group and commanded its armed wing, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, which recruited children – sometimes by force, other times voluntarily – into its ranks to fight in a brutal ethnic conflict.
"A guilty verdict in the case will send a powerful signal to all those who recruit and use child soldiers around the world," said Prof. Michael Scharf, director of the International Law Center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. "It will make it clear that the use of children under age 15 as soldiers is a serious war crime."
The United Nations estimates tens of thousands of child soldiers are still fighting in conflicts from Africa to Asia and Latin America.
Congo surrendered Lubanga to the ICC in March 2006, making him the first suspect taken into custody since the tribunal was established in 2002 as a court of last resort for alleged high ranking perpetrators of atrocities in countries unable or unwilling to prosecute them.
In another such case Tuesday, the court appealed for help from member states and the U.N. Security Council in arresting Sudan's Defense Minister, who is charged with orchestrating atrocities in Darfur. Sudan refuses to extradite suspects to the court, including President Omar al-Bashir.
Lubanga's case has been dogged by delays and clashes between prosecutors and judges. "Unfortunately, the Lubanga case was not a model in efficiency," Scharf said.
Part of the reason for the lengthy case was the court's groundbreaking rules allowing victims to participate in the trial. It has also been criticized for not including sexual violence charges against Lubanga, despite allegations that fighters under his command abducted women and girls and turned them into sex slaves.
If he is convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The court has no death penalty.
Lubanga, a psychology graduate, has cast himself as a politician, patriot and peacemaker in the eastern Ituri region of war-torn Congo, a country that is rich in natural resources but impoverished by years of civil conflict over the vast mineral wealth.
His French defense attorney Catherine Mabille has called 19 witnesses and alleged that go-betweens used by prosecutors coached witnesses to lie in court.
Lubanga does not deny leading the Union of Congolese Patriots, but claims he had no control over its armed wing.
But a key piece of prosecution evidence appeared to contradict that assertion – a video showing Lubanga addressing recruits including young men and what appeared to be children at a training camp. Another video shown to judges showed a pickup full of heavily armed bodyguards, including at least two who looked like children, following Lubanga's vehicle.
"The defendant stole the childhood of the victims by forcing them to kill and rape," prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told judges at trial. "Lubanga victimized the children before they ever had a chance to grow up into full human beings who could make their own decisions."
That is what Moreno-Ocampo also accuses Kony of doing, but on a far greater scale, first in Uganda but also in Congo, southern Sudan and Central African Republic.
While Lubanga was arrested and jailed by Congolese authorities before he was even indicted by the ICC, making him an easy target for the court, Kony's continuing freedom underscores one of its key weaknesses – it's lack of police force to make arrests.
Despite the problems, Lubanga's case has also demonstrated – albeit haltingly – that the court has matured in its 10 years of work into an institution that can bring suspects to justice.
As Benjamin Ferencz, a U.S. prosecutor at the post-World War II Nuremberg trials of Nazi commanders, told ICC judges in the summing up of Lubanga's trial last year: "Let the voice and the verdict of this esteemed global court now speak for the awakened conscience of the world."