Stopping military conscription of children

Published by rudy Date posted on January 31, 2009

CHIEF Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo of the International Criminal Court (ICC) stressed that he will bring to justice those who bear the greatest responsibility for serious crimes.

On trial today is Thomas Lubanga Dyilo for military enlistment and conscription of hundreds of children as young as seven years old to his militia, Union of Patriots of Congo (UPC). Ocampo denounced Lubanga for his inhumanity in recruiting “hundreds of children to kill, pillage and rape . . . Hundreds of children still suffer the consequences of Lubanga’s crimes. They cannot forget what they suffered, what they did, what they saw . . . They cannot forget the beatings they suffered, they cannot forget the terror they felt and the terror they inflicted…They cannot forget the sounds of the machine guns, they cannot forget that they killed…They cannot forget that they raped, that they were raped.” Param-Preet Singh of Human Rights Watch warns: “This first ICC trial makes it clear that the use of children in armed combat is a war crime that can and will be prosecuted at the international level . . . Lubanga’s UPC also slaughtered thousands, and those responsible should be held accountable for these crimes as well.’ The ongoing global judicial proceeding is a unique opportunity in communicating with the world’s people that justice, even for children who are often the least prioritized in both domestic and international governmental efforts, is achievable.

Thomas Lubanga was UPC president, a militia that purported to further the interests of the Hema ethnic community in the northeastern Ituri region of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They have been implicated in ethnic slaughter, torture, and rape during the Ituri conflict beginning in 1999 between Hema and Lendu ethnic groups, then exacerbated by Ugandan military forces and aggravated by a broader international armed conflict in the DRC. Major reason for the violent conflict is competition for the region’s lucrative gold mines and trading routes. Foreign armies and local militia groups, seeking control of the gold mines as a way to money, guns, and power, fight each other ruthlessly, often targeting civilians in the process. Lubanga is now charged with the war crimes of enlisting and conscripting children under 15 years old and using them in armed hostilities.

This is the first ICC trial in Congo and the first trial that exclusively focuses on the issue of enlistment and consciption of children for military purposes. It is extremely significant because it helps bring accountability to Congo, where perpetrators of the most heinous crimes known to mankind are rarely brought to justice. In focusing on child soldiers, ICC conveys the message that these are serious crimes with devastating consequences for its victims as recruited children are sent to the front lines or used as porters, guards, or sex slaves. By holding perpetrators criminally accountable, ICC sends the strong pronouncement that international criminals can no longer commit these crimes with impunity or without fear of punishment.

Unfortunately, use of child soldiers is nothing new: Laurent Kabila’s overthrow of former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1996 was largely carried out by “kadogas,” or child soldiers. UN estimated that as many as 30,000 children were participating as soldiers in Congo. Over 22,000 former child soldiers have been demobilized and provided with rehabilitation over the past four years. But many have been re-recruited because of continuing violence and insufficient assistance. Three other Congolese warlords have been indicted with crimes related to child soldiers: UPC’s Bosco Ntaganda, Germain Katanga of Ituri Patriotic Resistance Forces (FRPI), a Ngiti-based group, and Mathieu Ngudjolo, of the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI), a Lendu-based militia. Children are currently used in armed conflict in at least 15 countries: Afghanistan, Burma, Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), India, Iraq, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Philippines, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda.

As a result of ICC endeavors, some individual governments are now exerting efforts to underscore to military commanders who recruit and use child soldiers that there will be consequences. For example, in October 2003, the United States enacted a new law that allows it to prosecute individuals in its territory who have recruited and used child soldiers, even if the crime is committed in another country and the perpetrator is not a US citizen. For international criminal justice to make an effective contribution to improving respect for the rule of law, there must be a real threat of arrest and prosecution as well as fair trial proceedings. The “Achilles heel” of ICC is it does not have its own police force, thus it relies on states to enforce its orders and decisions.

As for our government, there has been an adamant refusal to transmit signed documents of the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court to Senate for final ratification while military generals accused of the gravest human rights violations, are assigned to top Cabinet posts.

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