In its first verdict since its establishment in 2002, the International Criminal Court in The Hague has convicted a Congolese war lord of enlisting and conscripting children and using them to participate actively in hostilities there. The ruling on Thomas Lubanga Dyilo is an historic step in providing justice and accountability for the Congolese people and a milestone in the fight against impunity.
Lubanga led a rebel militia, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo, which conscripted children under the age of 15 to take part in fighting aimed at controlling the gold-rich Ituri region in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Court testimony alleged that boys as young as nine were conscripted and trained to kill, pillage, and rape. The worst of the fighting in Ituri raged from 2002 to 2003, during which thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes. Lubanga was arrested in 2005 and transferred to The Hague a year later. A sentencing hearing will take place in the coming months, and the judges will also decide on possible reparations for Lubanga’s victims.
As the ICC’s first conviction, the ruling sends an important message to those who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity that they cannot expect to evade a reckoning for their illegal acts. It also highlights an issue of paramount international concern: the forcible use of children in hostilities as fighters, porters, guards or sex slaves. Their conscription reverberates throughout entire communities.
In addition to the ICC, Congolese institutions have a critical role to play in ending impunity in the DRC. The government has taken some recent positive steps toward this end, and the United States encourages Congolese leaders to continue to arrest human rights violators and abusers still at large.