The historic ICC ruling is a step in the right direction, but the fight to prevent and to rehabilitate child soldiers must continue.
In a historic ruling, Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga was convicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) last Wednesday for “conscripting and enlisting children under the age of fifteen years and using them to participate actively in hostilities.”
Not only is the verdict a welcome development for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and for the people of Ituri, but it will also help to end a culture of impunity for those who use and abuse child soldiers.
Lubanga’s story begins exactly a decade ago, when he founded the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC), a vicious armed group claiming to act on behalf of the ethnic Hema population in the Ituri region of northeastern DRC.
Over the course of this conflict, the UPC “massacred civilians, executed or tortured those they captured, and burned down villages in their path,” leading to the death and destruction of 60,000 people.
According to testimony against Lubanga, “The need for a more substantial army led to increased recruitment of young people – regardless of age – by targeting schools and villages.”
The children were sent to one of Lubanga’s 20 military camps throughout the region, where “they were beaten, whipped, imprisoned and inadequately fed, and young girls were raped.”
Perhaps most cowardly of all was the fact that Lubanga used children as young as 11 years old as his personal bodyguards.
In convicting Lubanga, the court has sent a clear message to warlords everywhere that the use of children as soldiers and sex slaves will not go unpunished.
The verdict also sets a new standard prohibiting the use of any children in hostilities, including those whose families have been coerced into giving consent for a child’s involvement.
In the same vein, it recognizes threats facing all child soldiers, including those who are not handling weapons on a daily basis but are used to support the overall military effort.
But while this landmark decision moves the yardsticks forward in dealing with the situation of child soldiers, there is still much work to be done.
First, we cannot forget children who are still actively participating in armed conflicts worldwide. We need to find a way to identify and demobilize these children before it’s too late. This includes those used by both state and non-state armed groups.
Second, we cannot forget former combatants, who are often at risk of re-recruitment. This means funding comprehensive rehabilitation programs and providing education and employment opportunities to allow for reintegration back into society.
Third, and most importantly, we need to ensure efforts at the ICC are coupled with prevention strategies. It is simply not enough to catch the perpetrators and abusers after the fact. We need to prevent this from happening in the first place.
As the ICC now moves into the sentencing and reparations stages, we must not only add our voices in support of this decision, but also renew our commitment to the global quest to eradicate the use of child soldiers once and for all.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.