By Corrie Hulse
It is safe to say that on March 14, 2012, history was made in the realm of international justice. On this day, Thomas Lubanga, former head of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UCP) and its former military wing, the Patriotic Forces of the Liberation of Congo, was convicted in the International Criminal Court (ICC). Charged with war crimes, including conscripting and enslaving child soldiers, Lubanga will now face sentencing in the court.
After ten years in existence, this marks the first verdict and conviction for the ICC. It will hopefully stand as the first of many for the court, which is arguably in need of a few more convictions under its belt. Initially established on July 17, 1998 when 120 countries signed onto the Rome Statute, the ICC was then truly launched on July 1, 2002 with 60 states ratifying the statute. (The United States is noticeably absent from this list.)
To date, there have been 15 cases and 7 situations brought before the court. This includes the case against Joseph Kony, who has been the focus of much attention recently as a result of the Invisible Children Campaign: Kony 2012. He, like most of the others wanted by the court, remains at large as warrants for his arrest hang in the balance. Currently all of the cases before the court are focused on crimes committed in African countries; however, cases under preliminary investigation reach beyond the African continent, including countries such as Honduras, North Korea, Afghanistan and Georgia.
This is a bittersweet win for the International Criminal Court, as it establishes two different precedents. First, it proves that the ICC can indeed bring forth a conviction for war criminals. Lubanga will most likely spend the rest of his life behind bars for the crimes he has committed. This is an accomplishment that ought to be celebrated by the international community. It chips away at our long history of impunity for war criminals. In response to his conviction, Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy was quoted as saying, “Today, impunity ends for Thomas Lubanga and those who recruit and use children in armed conflict…In this age of global media, today’s verdict will reach warlords and commanders across the world and serves as a strong deterrent."
While in spirit I desire to agree with Mrs. Coomaraswamy's statement, I am hesitant to see this one conviction as a deterrent to war criminals. It is perhaps merely a blip in their long era of impunity. This leads me to the second precedent set by Lubanga's conviction, which is the minimal likelihood of any war criminal completing the trial process and receiving a conviction. In our excitement over this accomplishment, we should be keenly aware of the timeline. First arrested in March 2005 for crimes committed in 2002/2003, Lubanga was not transferred to the Hague until March 2006. From there, Lubanga waited three years until his trial finally started in January 2009. It then took another three years for the court to convict him. At this point, his sentencing trial has yet to begin.
I find it hard to believe this timeline would deter any war criminal. Combined with the ICC's struggles to implement their warrants and arrest those accused of war crimes, Lubanga's conviction may actually serve to highlight the great potential for impunity. Sudan's president Omar Al-Bashir is the perfect example of someone undaunted by the ICC. With multiple warrants issued for his arrest, Bashir travels freely under the assumption no one would dare arrest him. At this point, he's right. His blatant disregard for the validity of the court shows that the ICC still has work to do in establishing itself.
Yet, there is good news here. While one conviction in ten years may not scare the warlords and criminal leaders of the world, it is the essential first step toward creating a court that does scare them. It shows progress toward the ICC establishing itself as a global authority, and creating an environment where impunity will not stand. Lubanga's conviction should be lauded as a great accomplishment and first step for the court. The ICC should enjoy the victory, but know it merely marks the beginning of their quest for justice. It is time to take the lessons learned from Lubanga and use them to improve the process.
Follow Corrie on Twitter @corrie_hulse