Cornerstone Global Associates


What does the Lubanga conviction mean to the world?!

Posted by: simona on: March 20, 2012

Simona Maria Ross, Cornerstone

On March 4, the fight for children's rights celebrated a small victory. The conviction of Thomas Lubanga at the International Criminal Court (ICC), has not only been the first successful trial at the ICC, it is also the first time that someone accused of recruiting child soldiers has been convicted.

Thomas Lubanga is a Congolese warlord and the leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC). The UPC had a stronghold in the gold-rich Ituri region and were fighting for greater influence in this ethnically divided region. The rebel groups are accused of torture, rape and the abduction of children. Children were not only forced to fight, but especially in the case of young girls they have also been used as sex slaves. In 2005, Lubanga was arrested by Congolese authorities and in 2006 the ICC issued an arrest warrant.i

The final conviction of Lubanga is important for the victims in many ways. For many victims the conviction sends a strong message because it shows that what they experienced is wrong. It delivers a sense of justice and accountability to the victims.

‘For the first time in the history of international criminal justice, victims had the opportunity to present evidence as well as their views and concerns before the ICC in their own name and not only as witnesses for the prosecution.’ii The strong participation of witnesses helped victims to feel recognized and to increase the legitimacy of the verdict. However, there have been many concerns about the security of witnesses. Some fear reprisal attacks on victims and witnesses on the ground, since rebels have been known to attack individuals suspected of cooperating with investigators. Moreover, relatives of those suspected are also targeted. For these reasons, the investigation was transferred to non-governmental organizations that were operating on the ground. As a result, the quality of the investigation in the field faced heavy criticism. Thus, the ICC has to enhance witness protection and care. And while preparation was assured to the victims, there is no clarity about who will be held accountable to deliver these promises. After all, how will anybody be able to measure such unbearable harm?

Another very critical issue, especially in the eyes of victims, is that the charges against Lubanga are very narrow. The strong focus on the topic of child soldiers may have been an essential advantage for the investigation but all those that have been affected by other crimes committed by Lubanga feel forgotten in their pursuit of justice. A great number of young girls have been the center of horrifying stories about sexual abuse. However, those girls will never feel the satisfaction of justice being done.

Nonetheless, the case constitutes a great step for all those individuals, organizations and public institutions that have been involved in the prosecution of Lubanga. The ICC could celebrate a huge milestone in its short history. The ICC is governed by the Rome Statute and is the first international criminal court that investigates serious crimes of concern to the international community. The ICC started its work in 2002.iii

Yet, the ICC lacks full recognition in the world. Because the ICC is a treaty-based institution, and because the most powerful and influential countries have yet to sign, some people question its representation as a global court. With the United States, Russia, China and India excluded from its mandate, the ICC has legal authority in neither the most influential nor the most populous countries.

Still, some argue that the Lubanga case bestows on the ICC more credibility. In fact, it may encourage missing countries not only to ratify the Rome Statute, but also to ratify the UN Convention on the Right of the Child and other resolutions that fight the violation of human rights. Moreover, the ICC is said to be an African court, because so far all eight cases the ICC is working on are focused on war crimes committed in Africa. This leads to the assumption that the ICC is a ‘Western institution’ which operates in ‘Western interests’.

Besides the need for political recognition in the world, the ICC also has to face heavy criticism concerning the quality of the proceeding. Considering that many organizations and individuals have contributed to solving the case and that it has a limited focus on the use of child soldiers, the process should have gone a lot quicker than it did.

On the other hand, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who is the chief prosecutor, states: "An international court investigated the suffering of some of the most vulnerable members of humanity – children in war zones. (…) The court provided a fair trial to the suspect and convicted him. It is a victory for humanity."iv

Another essential aspect of this case is its symbolic meaning. It sends a clear message to those still abusing children to fight their own wars. To recruit child soldiers is a war crime and criminals ought to be held accountable. Even though the conviction of Lubanga is a great step in the global development towards a full recognition of human rights, the fight for justice seems to be too complex to find a solution through a single institution. Based on the verdict, many warlords in the Democratic Republic of Congo have retreated in fear. They threaten to stop the peace negotiations if the government cannot guarantee impunity to them. This lowers the ICC’s ability to bring justice. Furthermore, many warlords may see the ICC as a distant institution in The Hague with limited outreach. They calculated their risk of being caught as very low, and value the benefit of having child soldiers over the cost of having to deal with any consequences.

Then again, it is important to see the ICC as part of the ‘bigger’ picture. The justice system also includes the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda as well as legal institutions on the national level. The Lubanga case will act as a role model for similar cases, but it will also encourage domestic institutions to enhance their legal system, to further set a focus on war crimes in their own countries, and to charge individuals who violated human rights.

Although the conviction of Lubanga has generated much criticism, it is an important case for the international community. Firstly, it is a meaningful first step toward achieving justice for victims of violence caused by Lubanga and his followers, as well as for all other people affected by war crimes. It can lead to a reversal in the trend of using child soldiers because military leaders are aware of possible consequences. And while it may not lead to immediate change, this conviction represents progress in the right direction. To shed a light on such atrocities and to show that the world is ready to do something about these inequalities is always the first step towards a peaceful and just future.



Al Jazzera, (Profile: DRC’s Thomas Lubanga, 2012), URL:

Internatinal Criminal Court, (About the Court), URL:

Ridgwell, Henry. (Lubanga Conviction Boosts ICC – But Weaknesses Remain, 2012), Voice of Africa, URL:—But-Weaknesses-Remain-142819925.html

Sanchis, Eva. (Lubanga’s verdict only first step towards justice for victims, 2012), Redress, London.

i Al Jazzera, (Profile: DRC’s Thomas Lubanga, 2012), w.p.

ii Sanchis, E. (Lubanga’s verdict, 2012), p. 2

iii ICC (About the Court), w.p.

iv Ridgwell, H. (Lubanga Conviction Boosts ICC, 2012), w.p.