Thomas LubangaThe International Criminal Court (ICC) has found Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga guilty of enlisting child soldiers in the final years of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s 1998-2003 war. This milestone in international justice prompts a reflection on the impact of the Court’s effort in communities affected by the conflict, particularly in the eastern province of Ituri.

Lubanga’s guilty verdict is a massive step towards justice and accountability for human rights violations, including massacres, sexual violence and recruitment of child soldiers—crimes committed during the conflict in Ituri between Lubanga’s ethnic Hema group and the Lendu group clashing over the control of land and other resources.

By the time the Court was established in 2002, tens of thousands of lives had been lost: 50,000 people are estimated to have been killed between 1999 and December 2002 and an estimated additional 5,000 civilians are thought to have died as a direct result of violence between July 2002 and March 2003. Human Rights Watch claims that 500,000 had been displaced internally by mid-2003, and the UN reported that 10,000 to 30,000 had crossed into Uganda as refugees.

How will this news be received by the people in Ituri? Local communities have divergent attitudes towards the Court.

On the one hand, holding individuals such as Lubanga accountable for their acts and bringing them to justice shows that the ICC is piercing the veil of impunity, which the abysmal national judicial system has failed to address adequately. Yet the failure to secure the arrest of Bosco Ntaganda—alleged to be Lubanga’s former Deputy Chief of Staff—also charged of enlisting child soldiers dents the Court’s credibility.

The ICC is also seen to be playing a role in deterring violence. People in Ituri have noted a significant improvement in the security situation. But inclusion of warlords in the national army, albeit in commanding position, undermines the Court’s effectiveness a deterrent of human rights violations.

On the other hand, there was disappointment expressed about the nature and impact of the ICC intervention in DRC. The ICC and its leader are perceived to be distant, lacking an understanding of the context on the ground. Concerns have also been raise about prosecutorial strategy, continuing barriers to full and effective participation of victims and the fairness and objectivity of Court proceedings.

The ICC has issued four arrest warrants for crimes in DRC since opening its doors at The Hague in 2003 and is investigating seven cases, all based in Africa.  Lubanga is one of 20 suspects who have been the subject of arrest warrants from the ICC. Others include Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the former Libyan leader, several members of the Sudanese government, including President Omar al-Bashir, and Joseph Kony, the fugitive Ugandan leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

In spite of the mixed views on the Court, Lubanga’s guilty verdict will send a powerful message to all those who recruit and enlist child soldiers and it will set a precedent for future ICC cases. The case against Lubanga, former leader of the Union Congolese Patriots (UPC), is the first trial of the international court to focus exclusively on war crimes. At United to End Genocide, we will be working to be sure it is not the last.

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United to End Genocide President Tom Andrews is arrested for civil disobedience at the Embassy of Sudan (photo credit John Robinette)

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