A ruling by the International Criminal Court (ICC) finding former Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga guilty of conscripting child soldiers in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Ituri region is good news in the fight against impunity but more crimes there should be prosecuted, say analysts.
Lubanga had been indicted by the ICC for conscripting child soldiers in Ituri between 2002 and 2003 while serving as leader of the Union des patriotes congolais (UPC) militia. The UPC claimed to be acting on behalf of the ethnic Hema population in Ituri during the armed conflict that pitted them against the Lendu ethnic group between 1999 and 2003.
“Finding him [Lubanga] guilty is good news for Congo and for the people of Ituri. It shows that impunity can be stopped and is not tolerated by the international community,” Marc Andre Lagrange, a senior analyst for central Africa with the International Crisis Group, told IRIN.
Regarding concerns that Lubanga's supporters may strike out in revenge against the court’s decision, Lagrange said: “The UPC is no longer a militia group; it is also not so powerful as a political party nowadays.”
In 2011, for example, Lagrange noted that General Kisembo, a former UPC general, had been killed during his arrest by the DRC army, the FARDC, in Bunia, "showing that Kinshasa will not tolerate any more rebellions in Ituri".
Lagrange added that “the condemnation of Lubanga is a strong reminder that Bosco Ntaganda [Lubanga’s successor at the UPC], is still acting freely as a FARDC general in Goma.”
Ntaganda has also been indicted by the ICC for war crimes in Ituri and human rights activists are calling for his prosecution.
“This verdict [for Lubanga] should not be an excuse to ignore other grave crimes committed by the UPC and other armed groups in Congo, and it underscores the importance of prosecuting others for a fuller range of serious crimes, including Ntaganda,” said Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, the international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a statement.
HRW added that “the ICC guilty verdict against Lubanga should be a stark warning to Joseph Kony, who continues to send children into combat”.
Kony is the leader of the Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which has been accused of abducting and recruiting children as soldiers, porters, cooks and sex slaves.
|We have leaders in the government and opposition who used children in their ranks during the war, but no-one has ever tried to bring them to justice|
Kinshasa resident, Louis Bofenda, said: “If it is true Thomas Lubanga used children, he deserves the sentence. But the ICC should also go far by bringing to trial his godfathers who used to supply him with arms.”
The Congolese government referred Lubanga’s case to the ICC in 2004; he surrendered to the court in March 2006 following an ICC arrest warrant issued earlier that year. The oft-halted trial, which was characterized by procedural hiccups, has taken about three years; sentencing will be decided at a later date.
Critics have in the past said the ICC takes too long to conclude cases but noted that despite its shortcomings it provides a backstop to impunity.
Lubanga’s trial is the first to be decided by the ICC, following the enforcement of the Rome Statute, which established it, on 1 July 2002.
“I think it'll set a lesson to others trying to launch rebel movements to think twice,” Paulin Mutshipayi told IRIN in Kinshasa.
However, another Kinshasa resident, Kabongo Francois, said: “I oppose Thomas Lubanga's verdict as I see it as injustice because the DR Congo has been at war since [the] 1990s. We have leaders in the government and opposition who used children in their ranks during the war, but no-one has ever tried to bring them to justice.”