Yesterday in The Hague, the International Criminal Court (ICC) found the Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga guilty of recruiting and using child soldiers under age 15 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, making him the ICC’s first convicted war criminal. Human Rights Watch extensively documented his abuses in the Congo and pushed for him to be held accountable.
Lubanga’s name is not as quickly recognizable as Joseph Kony’s, because of the Kony 2012 viral video that educated nearly 80 million people on the atrocities of Kony’s rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). But like Kony, Lubanga has the blood of many Congolese on his hands and is one of the most infamous present-day recruiters of child soldiers.
Lubanga was the leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), a rebel group implicated in ethnic massacres, torture, and rape in the Ituri district of northeastern Congo. There, government armies and numerous armed militias, often divided along ethnic lines, fought for the region’s lucrative gold mines and trade routes – and the resulting money, guns, and power. More than 60,000 civilians were slaughtered in the Ituri conflict between 1999 and 2006. Thousands of children were recruited, often by force, into the ranks of Lubanga’s UPC and other armed groups. The children were so prevalent in the UPC’s ranks that it was called “an army of children.”
Lubanga’s conviction is a landmark for international justice as the first ICC judgment. But it is especially important for the Congolese victims, who have long sought justice. Human Rights Watch began documenting war crimes in Ituri in 1999, and we have repeatedly called for the arrest of those responsible. We encouraged the ICC prosecutor to investigate the crimes in Ituri and, together with a courageous local human rights group, we provided assistance, where we could, to ensure that justice was done.
We have also worked to make sure the legal proceedings against Lubanga at The Hague were meaningful for his victims in Congo. We pressed the ICC’s victims and witnesses unit to reach out to the Congolese people – including those in remote villages in Ituri. We shared with the ICC our regional knowledge and our tips and strategies for operating in Congo. We monitored Lubanga’s trial and created documents and news releases to explain what was happening during the trial’s critical moments.
Yesterday’s verdict was a stark warning to all those who recruit children for use in combat. In particular, it shines a spotlight on others who are wanted on arrest warrants from the ICC for this crime – most notably Kony and Bosco Ntaganda.
Ntaganda is the co-accused in the Lubanga trial and has so far evaded arrest. He is a general in the Congolese army and lives openly in Goma, eastern Congo, where he has been implicated in more horrific abuses against civilians – including the recruitment of child soldiers. Human Rights Watch documents his crimes and the urgent need to arrest him.
In another advance for justice, today the ICC prosecutor announced he would press additional charges of murder and rape against Ntaganda and would meet with the Congo’s President Joseph Kabila to push for Ntaganda’s arrest. Human Rights Watch has been advocating such additional charges for both Ntaganda and Lubanga. We’re also urging the ICC prosecutor to investigate additional crimes allegedly committed by Ntaganda in eastern Congo’s Kivu provinces.
Most of Congo’s warlords seem to think they can terrorize people and never be held accountable for their crimes. But with Lubanga’s guilty verdict, this could be about to change.