First of all, more than six years after the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened, the ICC is holding it’s first trial ever: Thomas Lubanga, 48, a Congo militia leader wanted for his war crimes. He was the president of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), “a military group purporting to further the interests of the Hema ethnic group in the Ituri region of the DRC”. He is especially (but not exclusively) wanted for recruiting child soldiers under the age of 15 into his army, and forcing them to terrorize, kill, harm and rape civilians. In 2003, it was believed that up to 30,000 young child soldiers were a part of the militia group — some as young as 9. He has pleaded not guilty to the accusations, and has finally been put on trial after being in the ICC’s custody for three years.
The exciting news: I will be visiting the ICC in February with other students, and will hopefully have the opportunity to meet the Chief Prosecutor as well as sit in on the Lubanga trial! So this news is just in time for my visit :).
One of the ongoing debates in international law is how exactly child soliders should be treated before the law. Many of the children abducted by Kony and his forces, for example, have grown up to become powerful military leaders themselves, often commanding large armies and continuing to recruit children into their ranks. Should these leaders be convicted or rehabilitated into society? And moreover, what about the child soldiers who maybe haven’t risen in their ranks, but still are responsible for maiming and brutally killing thousands of civilians? How can we distinguish between their roles as victims, but at the same time – horrifying perpetrators?
But the truth is, if we simply condemn these child and teenage soldiers to be perpetrators of war crimes and attempt to indict them, we are ignoring the forces behind their involvement in these armies. First, many children were abducted and threatened, thus forced into joining the army. Often, one of the first tasks that militia leaders forced abductees to do was to chop off the limbs of family members and friends, or torture nearby civilians while watching them writhe in pain, and eventually die. These are ‘initiation tasks’ that children are forced into performing; otherwise, the answer is certain death. After performing such horrific acts within their local communities, the children have no choice but to accept the army as their new home. After all, they will forever be stigmatized within their communities, and often no longer can obtain the support they need to return home. These children are then trained to use a gun – and again and again, are threatened with death or torture unless they kill and harm others. Being brainwashed into a vicious cycle of killing for survival, it is no wonder that these child abductees grow up with a thirst for blood and often a need to continuously engage in violence. The psychological damage suffered by these children is extensive, but the answer to this problem is not to put them behind bars. Ultimately, we have to not just feel compassion for these children – but also understand that they can be and must be rehabilitated into society in order to reclaim their lives. True, they might have killed hundreds of men and women — but forgiveness and psychological support is what they need more than life in an overcrowded prison cell. One amazing success story is that of Ishmael Beah, who tells a heart-wrenching & yet uplifting story of his abduction into a child army and his eventual rehabilitation into society in his memoir, A long way gone. There is hope for even the seemingly bleakest cases, and though it proves to be a great challenge, the rehabilitation of child soldiers is not something governments and international law can ignore.
The second underlying problem is that of poverty and destitution itself, a reality for many children who are tempted to join the army in exchange for food, false promises of protection, drugs, and weapons. Although most children tend to be abducted, and are generally afraid of joining the army, there are certainly those who join by choice. However, it is dangerous to title these children and young adults as “criminals” because this simplistic assumption ignores the challenges these boys and girls face on a daily basis. Children, often lacking basic needs or the support of a caring family, can easily be lured by hopes of a better future. If the present is so bleak, children might view the army as an opportunity for growth and success; at least they’ll be fed, have a group of friends, and perhaps one day even become a leader! I think even these children ought to be counseled and rehabilitated, because ultimately the perpetrator is poverty and lack of education – not the children themselves.
Understanding all of this, though, I still support the ICC’s indictment of Mr. Lubanga. He is one of the senior commanders responsible for some of the killing in Congo, and we must indict the top-most officials in order to slowly put an end to the abduction of child soldiers. Moreover, the statement made by the ICC through this trial is very significant and Lubanga’s is a gory story that simply needs to be heard by the international community in order to raise awareness about the plight of child soldiers in Africa, especially Congo & Uganda.
The opening of Lubanga’s trial suggests how powerful the court may be in deterring war crimes and providing a voice for victims. As Lubanga pleaded not guilty, his court appearance, and prosecution video of him in training camps with child soldiers, was broadcast live on giant screens in Congo’s war-ravaged northeast, devastated by years of attacks by militias like Lubanga’s. — LA Times
The commanders must no doubt be brought to justice in order to expand the rule of law — the focus, yet, must be on the abductees themselves and on ensuring that they are adequately receiving the treatment they need. I think sometimes we tend to lose sight of the actual issue and the hundreds actually involved in the bloodshed when we start focusing on high profile cases and ‘exciting’ events such as this one. There are many more criticisms of the ICC, but that I will save for the next post.
Moreover, another advantage of this case is that it takes a new step in international law; it allows victims to play a direct role in the trial and to be represented by their own lawyers. A group of 93 victims is participating in the Lubanga case.
In fact, this is a small, tiny step forward for international criminal justice — only time will tell if Lubanga and others will finally experience justice for their acts. In the meantime, there is much more to be done in terms of helping the actual victims of his crimes — young children that we can’t forget in our elusive quest to find justice.