In the news this week, Democratic Republic of Congo’s Thomas Lubanga, accused of war crimes including the recruitment of child soldiers, was found guilty in The International Criminal Court. This is a victory not only for the victims of Lubanga’s crimes but for victims of similar crimes the world over.
Part of what makes prosecuting a criminal like Lubanga so difficult is the intercultural red tape. Governments are wary of intervening in civil conflicts and victims are afraid to speak out on an international stage. Often during inter-ethnic conflicts, humanity and human suffering are lost concerns as killing, fear, hunger, and military strategy overwhelm the leaders and the led. In Africa in particular, civil unrest has led to countless genocides of ethnic groups, perhaps most famously in the Western consciousness, the Rwandan Hutu/Tutsi war in the 1990s.
International aid groups work to bring public attention to acts of violence overseas, but it takes a collaborative effort between NGOs, governments, and legal bodies to bring an individual to trial, and to agree on a verdict. The fact that the Lubanga verdict rested so heavily on his use of child soldiers sets a strong legal precedent for the protection of underage victims of wars worldwide. They paid particular attention to the definition of the phrase “child soldier,” including children who have an indirect role in the conflict such as performing domestic chores.
Of morbid interest is the fact that the prosecution did not involve charges of sexual violence towards the girl soldiers. It is clear from testimony that many female children were tortured and used as sex slaves for older soldiers. This seems to be a common practice during periods of extreme civil unrest, yet it was not pursued as a crime. Lubango was convicted, and those female children abused at his hands are now safe, but it is clear more needs to be done to prosecute for every offense, not just the most extreme or brutal.
Angelina Jolie attended the trial and spoke about the large numbers of witnesses who came to testify before the court. She, alongside Human Rights Watch, called for more extensive prosecutions of officials in positions of command under Lubanga. Setting a precedent here, prosecuting all those associated with these heinous war crimes against children and families, will send a message to other violent groups around the world. The less the international community tolerates these behaviors, the less often they will occur.