THE United States and senior officials with the European Union and United Nations have hailed the conviction of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for enlisting and using child soldiers to fight in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2002 and 2003.
"It is an historic moment and an important step in providing justice and accountability to the Congolese people," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says. The spokesman for the National Security Council, Tommy Vietor, also says, "This decision illustrates the international community is united in its determination to end the repugnant practice of using child soldiers."
He adds that the Wednesday decision was a reminder that those who prey upon children, forcing them to become soldiers and sex slaves were committing a despicable crime for which they would be held accountable. On her part, the European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton declares that the verdict on Lubanga constitutes a landmark for international criminal justice and offers an opportunity for the ICC to reflect on the proceedings and analyze lessons learnt.
"This judgment constitutes a significant achievement for the Court in its task of ensuring respect for, and enforcement of, international justice," she says. According to her, the verdict demonstrates that perpetrators could not act with impunity and resonates far beyond the DRC, as Lubanga's trial has risen awareness about the plight of child soldiers and the fact that recruiting and using children under 15 years in combat was a war crime.
Officials with United Nations say the ICC decision was a "milestone" warning to all states which use child soldiers. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon describes the ICC ruling as "an important step forward" in making sure that "perpetrators of crimes against children in situations of armed conflict are brought to justice."He is quoted in a statement by UN News Centre as calling for greater international effort "holding accountable those who commit genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes."
The UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay calls Lubanga's conviction for conscripting child soldiers "a major milestone in the fight against impunity" and sends a strong signal on "grave breaches of international law that will reverberate well beyond the DRC."Two decades ago, international justice was an empty threat," she says in the statement adding, "Since then a great deal has been achieved, and the coming of age of the ICC is of immense importance in the struggle to bring justice and deter further crimes.
"On Wednesday, the day the verdict was announced, the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, announced an accord in South Sudan to keep youths under 15 out of the army and allied militias.She is quoted as saying, "In this age of global media, today's (Wednesday) verdict will reach warlords and commanders across the world and serve as a strong deterrent."
The UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, executive director AnthonyLake terms the ruling "a pivotal victory for the protection of children in conflict," adding that the conviction of Lubanga "sends a clear message to all armed groups that enslave and brutalize children: impunity will not be tolerated."A minister in DRC says his government wanted the ICC to impose an "exemplary" sentence on Lubanga. Lubanga will receive his sentence on April 18, 2012.
"The government is hoping for an exemplary punishment as a deterrent to all of those who have chosen war and murder, so that all these people know that genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity will always be tried", Justice Minister Emmanuel Luzolo Bambi says In Kinshasa, the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC (MONUSCO), stressed that the judgment sent "a powerful message to the individuals responsible for grave human rights violations that they will be held accountable for their actions."
Roger Meece, who is also the Secretary-General's Special Representative in DRC, then urges Congolese authorities "to pursue actively investigations and hold to account all who have committed human rights violations". An ICC arrest warrant was issued in 2006 against Bosco Ntaganda, a former member of Lubanga's militia.
He is currently a general in the Congolese army, under the protection of President Kabila. Anneke Van Woundeberg, a Congo Specialist with Human Rights Watch was in The Hague. "It's a great victory for child soldiers in Congo and elsewhere", she declared. However, she adds that she was surprised to hear the judges stating that Ituri's conflict had been a civil war.
"It was clearly an international conflict involving Uganda and Rwanda", she claimed. "The Prosecutor should now go on with his investigations to find out who armed the militia, who financed and fueled the conflict. That should lead him to Kigali, Kampala and Kinshasa". Other rights activists also criticized prosecutors for not charging Lubanga with sexual violence crimes, despite allegations that women and girls were raped and abused by his forces.
"The Prosecutor's office must review its limited investigation strategy adopted in the Lubanga case," said Michael Bochenek of Amnesty International. "Lessons need to be learned for future cases." The Hague-based ICC found Lubanga (51) guilty of enlisting child soldiers into his militia and using them to fight in a gold-rich region during the bloody four-year war in Ituri, a district in the eastern part of DRC from September 1, 2002 to August 13, 2003.
Three judges unanimously found that Lubanga had participated in a "common plan to build an army" and control Ituri politically and militarily. This plan, they concluded, led to the conscription of children under 15 into the troops of the Union des patriotes congolais (UPC) and its armed wing the Forces Patriotiques de libération du Congo (FPLC). Lubanga was president of the UPC at the time.
The International Criminal Court is the first permanent international judicial body capable of trying individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes when national courts are unable or unwilling to do so. The European Union has been a strong supporter of the International Criminal Court since the adoption of its founding Treaty in 1998.
The Court enjoys broad support with 120 states parties from all regions. Judgment for Lubanga is the first to be delivered by the ICC since its establishment in 2002. About 15 cases in seven situations have been brought before the ICC. Situation in Uganda (the case of Joseph Kony; Vincent Otti; Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen who are alleged members of the Lords Resistance Army -LRA); situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the case of Bosco Ntaganda; Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui.
The situation in Darfur in Sudan (the case of Ahmad Muhammad Harun ("Ahmad Harun") and Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman ("Ali Kushayb"); Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir; Bahar Idriss Abu Garda; Abdallah Banda Abakaer Nourain and Saleh Mohammed Jerbo Jamus; and Abdel Raheem Muhammad Hussein). Situation in the Central African Republic (the case of Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo); situation in the Republic of Kenya (the case of William Samoei Ruto and Joshua Arap Sang; and Francis Kirimi Muthaura and Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta) and the situation in Libya (cases of Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi and Abdullah Al-Senussi), whereas the situation in Côte d'Ivoire (case of Laurent Gbagbo).