At the height of Konymania last month, the International Criminal Court (ICC), war criminals and child soldiers become uncharacteristic talkings points. On March 14, the Netherlands-based court made headlines in its own right when it passed a landmark verdict – its very first – by convicting the Congolese warlord, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo. He was found guilty on three counts for the abduction of children in the eastern Ituri region in 2002-03, of forcing them to serve as soldiers, and of using them during the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s from 1998- 2003.
Lubanga served as the alleged head of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UCP) and its former military wing, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, during the Second Congolese war. The ICC decision was unanimous, and now Lubanga faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The Lubanga verdict is exemplary because it was the first one passed by the ICC since its establishment about a decade ago. Lubanga’s trial was due to be held in 2008, but was halted when it was discovered that the Office of Prosecution had failed to disclose evidence. It was restarted on January 26, 2009. Many critics have questioned why it took about six years to convict Lubanga after his arrest, bringing into light the weaknesses and
frailties of the International Criminal Court to administer timely justice.
Some have also questioned ICC’s equity when it comes to convictions of war criminals. All 28 people who have been charged by the ICC so far have been from Africa. The ICC is comprised of 120 countries currently party to the Rome Statute, with 33 African states. “By the numbers alone, assuming that conflicts occur with similar frequency in each inhabited continent, a national of a member state found to be in violation of the provisions of the statute is statistically more likely to be from Africa than from any other continent,” Nanjana Nyabola told Al Jazeera.
Neverthless, the ICC has only ever intervened, with the exception of Kenya (read more about that here), where the countries have asked for intervention or there has been a UN Security Council Resolution.
Another question that has been raised is how much impact the vilification of Lubanga will have on the communities who were affected by his crimes. Many members of the Ituri region, which was ravaged by Lubanga’s forces in 2003, are reported as feeling satisfied by the verdict, but not expressing their opinions publicly due to fear of potential supporters of Lubanga and the UPC.
The verdict has also come after a significant amount of time and the communities have already made progress towards reconciliation, despite ICC’s delay in court proceedings. There is also the issue of others who had been indicted alongside Lubanga, but are still at large in the DRC. A prime example is Bosco Ntganda, who was charged along with Lubanga, but still operates openly in the Eastern Congo region.
It is evident that ICC’s conviction of Lubanga is a historic milestone for international justice, but it also serves to highlight the court’s limitations and weaknesses when it comes to conducting international trials. The Lubanga trial serves as an important step in holding those who commit war crimes accountable by the international community.