By Katherine Iliopoulos
Former Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo pleaded not guilty to charges of using child soldiers at his trial which opened on January 26, 2009. It is the first trial in the history of the International Criminal Court, taking place approximately six years after the Court’s inception and more than ten years after the Rome Statute was signed by 120 nations.
The trial of Lubanga is the first international criminal trial in the history of international law to focus solely on allegations concerning the enlistment and conscription of child soldiers and the first one in which victims will participate fully in the proceedings.
Lubanga faces three counts of war crimes under Article 8 of the ICC Statute on the basis of accusations of having committed, as co-perpetrator, war crimes consisting of enlisting and conscripting of children under the age of 15 years into the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC), and using them to participate actively in hostilities in the Ituri district in the Eastern Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), between September 2002 and August 2003. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Lubanga’s militia “recruited, trained and used hundreds of young children to kill, pillage and rape,” ICC Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo said in his opening address. “Hundreds of children still suffer the consequences of Lubanga’s crimes. They cannot forget what they suffered, what they did, what they saw. They cannot forget the beatings they suffered, they cannot forget the terror they felt and the terror they inflicted. They cannot forget the sounds of the machine guns, they cannot forget that they killed. They cannot forget that they raped, that they were raped.”
More than 30,000 child soldiers were recruited during the fighting in Ituri, a region that has witnessed years of ethnic conflict over its mineral reserves, particularly gold. According to the BBC, children are still being forced to fight in a separate conflict in the neighbouring province of North Kivu.
In an interview last week, Moreno-Ocampo indicated that he hoped to educate the world about the plight of child soldiers: “This case is about how serious it is to enlist hundreds of children and transform them into killers.”
UNICEF estimates that up to 300,000 child soldiers still fight in at least 15 countries including Afghanistan, Burma, Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), India, Iraq, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Philippines, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. “The charges in the Lubanga case will reverberate around the world … in Sri Lanka, in Colombia, in many countries,” said Moreno-Ocampo. “This first ICC trial makes it clear that the use of children in armed combat is a war crime that can and will be prosecuted at the international level,” said Param-Preet Singh, counsel in Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program. “Lubanga’s Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) also slaughtered thousands, and those responsible should be held accountable for these crimes as well.”
Ninety-three victims, including some former child soldiers, are being represented by eight lawyers and can apply for compensation. “What my clients expect from the court is, first of all, recognition of the harm they suffered,” said lawyer Joseph Keta. Victims have certain rights including the right to submit relevant evidence in relation to the charges, consistent with the procedural rights of the accused and his right to a fair trial.
This first trial of the ICC is significant in many other respects. Richard Dicker, director of the international Justice Program at Human Rights Watch, said that the trial marks the end of “the complete impunity that has prevailed for these most serious crimes in eastern Congo over the last 10 years.” The landmark trial is also considered a test of the Court’s credibility and efficiency, and according to Mr. Dicker “it is essential … that the trial is well-managed by the judges and that it is scrupulously fair so that Mr. Lubanga has every opportunity to mount a vigorous and effective defence.”
Katherine Iliopoulos is an international lawyer based in The Hague, Netherlands.
The Prosecutor vs. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo
International Criminal Court
DRC: ICC’s First Trial Focuses on Child Soldiers
Human Rights Watch
January 23, 2009