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Lubanga trial

September 14, 2009

The trial of militia leader Thomas Lubanga at the International Criminal Court in The Hague is being heavily criticized in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many fear that the process is merely a show trial for the ICC.

Thomas Lubanga with fighters of his milita
Lubanga, left, and his militia are accused of massive abusesImage: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb

Much was made of the arrest of Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo in 2005 on charges of recruiting and using child soldiers in the bloody Congolese civil war between 1998 and 2003. Lubanga was accused of creating an entire infrastructure around child soldiers in the Ituri region and commanding forces responsible for massive human rights violations, including ethnic massacres, murder, torture, rape and mutilation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

His arrest, the first under a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC), was seen as the first step in an international crackdown on seemingly out-of-control military leaders using human rights abuses as tactics in many of Africa's brutal conflicts. His trial for war crimes in The Hague, which began in January this year, appeared to show that the ICC was a judicial force to be reckoned with and that a flood of arrests and convictions would follow.

But as the prosecution rested its case in July, leaving Lubanga's counsel to prepare its defense case ahead of its October presentation, increasing criticism of the trial and accusations against the ICC gathered pace in the DRC.

Congolese call trial a "neo-colonial project"

Alleged Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga
Some say the ICC is making an example of LubangaImage: AP

Many Congolese accuse the historic process against Lubanga as being a show trial, saying that the ICC are trying one individual while many others remain free to commit more human rights abuses in Congo. Some have called Lubanga’s trial a "neo-colonial project" and that the ICC is trying to set an example rather than using the case as part of an on-going quest to bring others like Lubanga to justice. They say his is a token arrest.

"There's a growing disconnection between how the ICC is seen in the West and how it's perceived in Africa," Richard Gowan, an Africa expert at the European Center for Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle. "It has focused almost entirely on African cases so far, so many Africans believe it’s being used in a colonial way and Western leaders haven’t done enough to dispel this negative impression."

Anneke van Woudenberg, Human Rights Watch's Congo expert, believes that distrust in the ICC has its roots in both a political agenda and public confusion in Congo.

"This is certainly not a sham trial and this is something which has been propagated by Lubanga’s supporters and those loyal to him in the Ituri region," she told Deutsche Welle. "There has been confusion in Congo over the narrow nature of the charges. Many don’t understand why Lubanga has been charged only with the recruitment of child soldiers when he was responsible for the ethnic murders, rape and torture which made the Ituri conflict the bloodiest in the Congo war. In addition, the evidence against him is very strong."

Others fear that a conviction against Lubanga will be held up as a justification for the ICC’s existence but will result in a slow decline of its pursuit of other war criminals, not only in the DRC but all over Africa and the world.

"I don't subscribe to these Congolese assertions, other than the undeniable fact that many suspected perpetrators of war crimes in the DRC remain free and in positions of authority," Andrew Philip, a Congo expert with Amnesty International, told Deutsche Welle. "Amnesty welcomes the ICC investigations and prosecutions, although we have encouraged and continue to encourage the ICC Prosecutor to extend investigations to other areas of DRC than just in the Ituri region, and to other crimes within its mandate."

Van Woudenberg also believes that many more war crimes suspects remain at large but believes that the ICC will not be stopping with Lubanga.

"The ICC will not stop with Lubanga and besides, he is not alone in standing trial," she said. "There are three other individuals charged alongside him. But what the ICC prosecutor has to do is to look past the Ituri conflict and the warlords there and go after those who supported and funded Lubanga. This would lead them to the higher echelons of not only the Congolese government but also those in Uganda and Rwanda. For this to have a wider effect the ICC must not stop at the warlord level."

Critics claim UN deaths accelerated Lubanga pursuit

UN troops sit atop their vehicles while on duty in the streets of the town of Bunia, Democratic Republic of Congo
It's claimed the death of UN troops speeded up the pursuitImage: AP

It has also been alleged that Lubanga was only brought to trial after he was implicated in the deaths of UN troops in the DRC and that otherwise, the international community would have continued to turn what some Congolese believe to be a blind eye to atrocities there. Some claim that while six million people have been killed in Congo over the last 12 years and a wide range of abuses recorded, it took the death of nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers in the northwestern region of Ituri to stir the ICC into action.

"The claim that the deaths of the UN soldiers prompted international action is misplaced," said van Woudenberg. "Ituri was the bloodiest region where more people were killed than anywhere else in Congo so this was the ICC’s first focus in its search for war crimes suspects. Because of the violence there, there were a lot of UN troops and consequently UN troops died there - but it wasn’t the only place in Congo where they died."

It is also claimed that Congo's natural resources played a part in the international community’s hesitation to act. The DRC is rich in natural gas and crude oil reserves, while zinc, uranium and copper deposits are also plentiful.

Experts say conviction would prove positive for human rights

Despite these claims, human rights and legal experts believe Lubanga's trial and possible conviction will have a positive effect on the overall battle for human rights and motivate the world to pursue war criminals and bring them to justice at the ICC.

"In terms of human rights, Lubanga’s trial is hugely significant," said van Woudenberg. "It is the first case at the ICC and a conviction would enhance the ICC’s efforts. If he is convicted it will be a first for a suspect involved in the recruitment and use of child soldiers. His arrest has already has a huge effect, bringing child soldiers to international attention and making African leaders aware that this is actually a crime. We would like to see more offences added to his charge sheet so any conviction would hopefully have as strong an impact on those areas of abuses."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge