July 17 is International Justice Day. On this day, we commemorate the anniversary of the adoption of the Rome Statute — the treaty that created the International Criminal Court (ICC). The pursuit of justice during the ICC’s ten year history has been fraught with difficulty, but this year’s anniversary comes at a remarkable moment.
Just one week ago, on July 10, Thomas Lubanga — the first person convicted by the ICC — was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Lubanga was found guilty last March of conscripting children under the age of 15 during the fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s northeastern Ituri region from 2002 to 2003. The trial has highlighted the importance of international justice, but it has also exposed ongoing challenges.
Rights activists have recognized the case as a milestone in efforts to prosecute the widespread use of child soldiers in conflicts around the world. The sentence has also renewed attention to other suspects wanted by the ICC on similar charges. One is the infamous Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who has been abducting children and forcing them to fight for decades. The other is Bosco Ntaganda, Lubanga’s former deputy, who remains at large in eastern Congo. On July 13, 2012, the ICC issued a second arrest warrant for Ntaganda on three counts of crimes against humanity, for murder, rape and persecution. Current efforts to capture Ntaganda have triggered a mutiny that is threatening regional stability. An estimated 200,000 people have been displaced from their homes due to increased violence.
It is hoped that the recent Lubanga trial has served to focus international attention to the plight of child soldiers and the need to address reparation proceedings. However, observers have expressed frustration over the length of the sentence, which fell short of the 30 years requested by the prosecution. One of the judges issued a dissenting opinion, saying that the sentence should have been 15 years. Moreover, the time that Lubanga has served in pretrial detention since March 2006 would be deducted from the sentence, which means he would only be imprisoned for eight additional years. Civil society groups in Congo where Lubanga committed his crimes have slammed the decision as inadequate. Prosecutors are considering whether or not to appeal the sentence on the grounds that it is too short.
Outside of the sentence itself, there’s another element to the case that can help to further peace, which is the ICC’s anticipated decision on reparations for Lubanga’s victims. A ruling on this matter is expected soon. These funds could go a long way in sustaining current rehabilitation programs for child soldiers. According to UNICEF, the children most likely to be forced to be soldiers come from impoverished and marginalized backgrounds. While the decision brings an element of consolation to the victims, reparations will seek to address the root causes, such as poverty and insecurity, that put children at increased risk.
Lubanga’s conviction has been dubbed a non-event by some in the Congolese Diaspora. Congolese activist and policy analyst at Africa Faith and Justice Network, Jacques Bahati, warned that the light sentence does not achieve justice for the victims or change anything for the people living in Congo’s war-torn eastern provinces. Bahati contends that the ICC will not make meaningful and lasting change in Congo and argues that justice must be local, accessible and independent. This, Bahati adds, is one important step for Congo to end violent conflicts.
In this vein, strengthening local and national institutions will be critical to sustainable peace. Here, the goal should be to address the culture of impunity that is pervasive in eastern Congo, and this should be done in a manner that complements rather than competes with the ICC’s work. The ICC, in collaboration with the Congolese government, should provide technical expertise toward reforming Congo’s abysmal justice sector. This will require major donors to apply sustained pressure on the Congolese government to implement necessary reforms. Further, there is a need to foster justice and accountability mechanisms that are context-specific, relevant to the affected communities, and foster reconciliation instead of retribution.
In creating these mechanisms, lessons can be incorporated based on successes and failures similar initiatives like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, the Gacaca traditional courts in Rwanda and transitional justice systems in Burundi. Engagement with Congolese civil society groups will be a crucial element in developing indigenous and sustainable solutions that can help to break the cycle of violence.
It’s important to celebrate and advance international justice, but the global community must also remember the importance of investing in local and national justice mechanisms. The Lubanga case and the ongoing culture of impunity in Congo offer one example.