|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Press Conference on International Criminal Court’s Guilty Verdict in Lubanga Case
Just hours after the International Criminal Court delivered its first ever verdict — convicting former warlord Thomas Lubanga of conscripting child soldiers in north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo — civil society actors at United Nations Headquarters hailed the decision as sending a powerful message that the Court “is a strong, credible institution delivering justice for victims”.
Key members of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC) and representatives from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Open Justice Society called today’s decision a “milestone” for the Rome Statute — the Hague-based Court’s founding treaty — as the Lubanga case was one of the few international criminal proceedings that had charged an individual with enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15 to participate in hostilities.
The speakers agreed that just a few years ago, child soldiering was not necessarily considered a serious offense. The conviction of Mr. Lubanga, alleged leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) and the commander-in-chief of its military wing, the Forces patriotiques pour la libération du Congo (FPLC), was therefore not only a major development in the international community’s ongoing campaign to evolve an effective system to end impunity for war crimes, it confirmed for both leaders of countries and rebel groups that child soldiering was now a crime that could “put them in the international dock”.
Renzo Pomi, Representative of Amnesty International at the United Nations, said the decision was critical to the work of the Organization. Indeed, the United Nations worked in or had peacekeeping missions deployed in several countries where war crimes had allegedly been committed by Government officials or former combatants, and Lubanga’s conviction should spur more international action against impunity. The United Nations should also step up its work to bolster national judicial systems to deal with cases that fell outside the scope of crimes covered by the Court, he added.
He said that in a few weeks, the Court would hold a sentencing hearing and consider reparations for those Mr. Lubanga had conscripted to fight for his rebel militia in the resource-rich Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo between September 2002 and August 2003. Spotlighting another first, he said the Court had allowed some 129 victims to participate in the three-year trial. Of those, 24 had applied for reparations, and many more were waiting for their applications to be processed.
“Amnesty International hopes that the Court will proceed swiftly to the reparations phase by conducting outreach to inform other eligible victims about the process and encouraging them to apply,” he said, adding that, considering the delays in processing applications, the Court should make every effort to ensure that adequate resources were allocated to facilitate that exercise. In addition, as the Court had decided to examine each case individually rather than set the terms ahead of the trial, Amnesty International also urged the Trial Chamber to follow international guidelines regarding reparations for war crimes when it took its final decisions.
While he praised the Court’s proceedings overall, Mr. Pomi said his organization was “a bit disappointed” that the Prosecutor had decided not to pursue the broader range of crimes allegedly committed by Mr. Lubanga, including sexual violence against girl soldiers and other crimes against civilians. The Prosecutor’s narrow focus could be construed as a missed opportunity to promote international justice and might also dissuade victims from coming forward to report other crimes or participate in subsequent trials.
Similarly, he was very concerned that Bosco Ntaganda, Mr. Lubanga’s alleged Deputy and co-indictee, was still evading arrest. Mr. Ntaganda was not only wanted by the Court, but in 2005, a Security Council sanctions committee had imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on him for violating an arms embargo. Mr. Pomi lamented those troubling developments and called for the arrest warrant against Mr. Ntaganda to be executed, as well as other outstanding warrants for fugitives of the Court, such as Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
Picking up that thread, Param-Preet Singh, Senior Counsel, International Justice Program, Human Rights Watch, said that what was more disturbing about Mr. Ntaganda’s case was that, rather than being arrested, he had actually been promoted to a deputy commander of the Congolese national armed forces. “Everybody knows where he lives in Goma and he is regularly seen out and about — at the finest restaurants and on the tennis courts,” she said, adding that Mr. Lubanga’s conviction made it “that much harder” to tolerate Mr. Ntaganda’s freedom.
Touching on anther issue raised by Mr. Pomi, she said that Human Rights Watch had long been critical of the narrow scope of the Lubanga case, especially since he had allegedly committed a raft of grave crimes and had even been implicated in the killing of United Nations peacekeepers. “The charges did not reflect the gravity and range of crimes troops allegedly under his command committed,” she continued, but underscored the Prosecutor still had an opportunity, provided there was enough solid evidence, to expand the similarly narrow scope of the charges against Mr. Ntaganda, whose violence was alleged to have spread beyond Ituri into the restive North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Moreover, she said that even with Mr. Lubanga’s arrest, the Court’s work in Ituri was far from complete. Human Rights Watch believed that the Mr. Lubanga had not acted alone and that the Court, therefore, must go after those that had financed, armed or otherwise supported rebel militias operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which might include officials in Kinshasa, as well as in Kigali, Rwanda, and Kampala, Uganda.
Alison Cole, Legal Officer, International Justice, Open Society Justice Initiative, welcomed the judgement as an “important milestone on the road to justice and accountability”. It had set a clear precedent that such crimes were not beyond the reach of the law. “The age of impunity for grave crimes is over; and the Court’s decision had shown that the mechanisms of international justice were up and running and fully functional,” she declared, adding that the global support that had led to the verdict must be recognized and fostered.
As for the Court’s call in its decision for better oversight of intermediaries working on international war crimes cases, she said that those third-party actors helped the Court connect with persons who could facilitate its work far from The Hague. It made sense for tribunals based outside the countries in which crimes had been committed to work with local actors.
The International Criminal Court had investigations open in seven countries, but its budget had been slashed, making it even more essential to cooperate with intermediaries, she said. Most were volunteers, but some still needed financial assistance. The Lubanga case had been a “teething process” regarding the Court’s use of intermediaries, and the Coalition urged the States parties to the Rome Statute to adopt draft guidelines on interaction with intermediaries at their next meeting.
Asked what follow through Human Rights Watch and other groups had carried out regarding Peter Karim — a former commander of the Front for Nationalism and Integration (FNI), who the correspondent said was a suspected war criminal who had been made an official in the Congolese national army — Mr. Pomi said that the process of integrating warlords into the national army has been “a bit chaotic and not very appropriate”. As such, that might mean that people with not very good human rights records had entered into the national army. “Now, organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say the FARDC is one of the worst perpetrators of human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” he said, adding that “for us, the vetting of armed forces is a very important issue, for the prevention of future violations.”
The same correspondent also asked about the “controversy” surrounding Sri Lankan General Shavendra Silva’s appointment to the Senior Advisory Group on Peacekeeping Operations. The army division that official headed up had been cited in the report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka as having committed war crimes, he said. Mr. Pomi said that while he was unable to answer specific questions about the matter, he believed that the question of vetting was very important. “There are guidelines on that and the United Nations should apply them so that perpetrators do not enter the ranks of national army,” he said.
As for the “difficult” issue of screening out persons who would serve in the United Nations ranks — in peacekeeping or in other roles — he said, “What we would like to see is coherent and consistent policy by the United Nations to vet those applying for United Nations positions, especially in peacekeeping, because they work closely with local populations and with weapons.”
* *** *