In September 2002 Thomas Lubanga became President of the Union of Congolese Patriots and founded its military wing, the Patriotic Force for the Liberation of the Congo (FPLC). Under his leadership the UPC subjected the people of Congo’s Ituri region to a war of terror including:
- Between November 2002 and June 2003, killing 800 civilians on the basis of their ethnicity in the gold mining region of Mongbwalu.
- Between 18 February and 3 March 2003, destroying 26 villages in one area, killing at least 350 people and forcing 60,000 to flee their homes.
- Recruiting 3,000 child soldiers between the ages of 8 and 15.
It is for the recruitment of child soldiers that Lubanga was indicted by the International Criminal Court, where he has been held for 6 years before the court finally reached a verdict earlier this year.
The decision to sentence Thomas Lubanga to only 14 years (6 of which he has already served) is dangerous for children – it suggest a moral equivalence between gross and widespread violations of children with much lesser crimes. Military commanders in the field already know that the chances of ending up in court are remote. They now know that even if they are convicted the penalty will be so short that they can expect to return home and live out their retirement in freedom and comfort.
The short sentence is also dangerous for the International Criminal Court. Lubanga’s conviction, the ICC’s first successful prosecution so far, was greeted by a wave of support for the ICC, along with a sigh of relief from the governmental funders of the court who were facing increasingly pointed questions about the court’s ability to deliver justice in return for the $1 billion invested in its operations since its inception. The handing down of such a paltry penalty will surely give ammunition to the courts critics and represents a difficult moment in the history of efforts to stop the culture of impunity around gross abuses of human rights.
On a broader level the sentence is dangerous for the credibility of international criminal law itself. This is a body of law supposed to address crimes so horrific that they warrant the pooling of national sovereignty and the application of a higher legal code. A sentence of 14 years does not address the extent to which the international community has declared itself determined to stamp out the use of child soldiers.
There are currently over 250,000 children, boys and girls who are being forced to carry arms, kill and maim, burn down villages, submit to sexual slavery and all kinds of abuse in the name of one military cause or another. They are desperately in need of protection. They have right to expect adults to come up with an effective system for ending these horrific practices and keeping them safe. They should be able to rely on the ICC to stand up for their dignity as human beings. The ICC has a leadership role in this respect which it is sadly failing to deliver.
The UK government, which was instrumental in the creation of the ICC will need to work hard to make sure that the court is properly funded and lives up to the legitimate expectations of the international community.
War Child UK