Irrespective of how Thomas Lubanga’s trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) concludes, it has indisputably helped to catapult into the global limelight the phenomenon and plight of child soldiers.
By taking former child soldiers to The Hague to recount how they were conscripted, the grueling training they endured, the battles they fought, and how they saw their fellow children kill and get killed in battle, the trial has given the world a vivid picture of the horrors of using child soldiers.
Besides the ten former child soldiers who testified, there were also expert witnesses that gave testimony on the use of child soldiers at the invitation of judges and prosecutors. The high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder among former child soldiers, why many armed groups took to using underage fighters, and the reason some families in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) shunned their children who abandoned the military were some of the issues experts described to the court.
The Rome Statute which formed the ICC describes a child soldier as a child under the age of 15 years and disallows the recruitment or conscription of such a child into the military.
In her testimony on January 7, 2010, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, pointed out that the Lubanga trial was the first in history at the international level to define the framework of the crime relating to conscripting, enlisting, and using children in armed conflict. She stressed that leaders of armed groups could not hide behind the excuse of a child having joined their groups voluntarily.
Ms. Coomaraswamy told the judges that it was important that their ruling did not ignore what girls did when they were in armed groups regardless of whether or not they took part in direct combat in armed conflict. She said girl child soldiers played multiple roles such as combat, scouting, portering, and sexual slavery.
As expert witness Elisabeth Schauer testified, child soldiers had been used in several recent conflicts. Ms. Schauer, a clinical psychologist, told the trial that child soldiers were cheaper to recruit and maintain compared to adults. Besides, children were considered fearless and were easily indoctrinated because of their limited ability to appreciate danger.
However, other experts testified that children sometimes volunteered to join armed forces. It could be due to poverty, to escape abuse, or to help defend their community once it was under attack. Still, experts argued, a child’s choice to join an armed group could not be considered “voluntary” from a psychological point of view.
In the DRC, militia groups have used thousands of children in armed conflict since the coming into force of the ICC in July 2002. Mr. Lubanga – the fist person to be tried by the ICC – faces charges of using child soldiers in armed conflict during 2002 and 2003. At the time, prosecutors argue, he headed the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) rebel group.
Also on trial at the ICC over the use of child soldiers (among several other charges) are Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, whose groups fought ethnic-motivated battles against the UPC.
Mr. Lubanga’s defense has claimed several children volunteered to join the UPC. In fact, the defense has not contested the charge that there were child soldiers in UPC. Instead, it has contested the prosecution’s account of how children became fighters in the group. Equally, the defense has dismissed claims that Mr. Lubanga played a role in recruiting minors. The defense has contended that the UPC had no policy to recruit minors, and instead stated that Mr. Lubanga steadfastly strove to demobilize child fighters from the group.
On taking the witness stand, former child soldiers told a different story from that which Mr. Lubanga’s defense was telling. They spoke of being abducted by UPC militia while on their way from school and being subjected to harsh training routines in UPC camps where punishment for disobeying orders ranged from being detained in waterlogged pits to flogging. They said those who were found guilty of deserting the frontline were killed by firing squad.
Moreover, they recounted how they took several weeks without having a bath, being forced by their superiors to extort money from civilians, and how commanders routinely raped female child soldiers. Many of them testified to being forced to smoke cannabis before going to battle, as their commanders believed the drugs made the minors fearless.
Many of the former child fighters described how they killed and saw their peers get killed. One such former child soldier, who is both a witness and a participating victim in the trial, testified on January 14, 2010. Recalling a battle he took part in early in 2003 as a UPC fighter, he said, “That day people were killed. I saw people dying beside me. They were like flies. Even the friends we were with they were dead. The commanders were dying too.”
These accounts presented some of the most intimate first-hand accounts of child soldiering that have been heard at a world court.
However, the use of child soldiers remains widespread, although some observers have reported that armed groups in countries such as Columbia and Nepal had stopped using child fighters as a result of Mr. Lubanga’s trial.
In her annual report to the UN Security Council on Children and Armed Conflict in May 2010, Ms. Coomaraswamy noted that while Burundi, Nepal, and Sudan – among others – had moved close to ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers, there were still many persistent violators of children in armed conflict. These included various armed groups in Mr. Lubanga’s home country, DRC.
In addition, the Lubanga trial has also presented the intricacies of proving the ages of witnesses who were presented as former child soldiers. While experts conceded that age-determination techniques were not foolproof, they nonetheless said studies of x-rays of the hands, wrists, and mandibles of these individuals indicated some were as young as 10 or 11 years old at the time the UPC allegedly used child soldiers.
Furthermore, because most of these witnesses did not have birth certificates, and school records in DRC were missing or unreliable, it was not always possible to establish the actual ages of the witnesses who claimed to have been child soldiers in the group Mr. Lubanga is alleged to have commanded.
It is also to be noted that Mr. Lubanga’s defense has dismissed as bogus all witnesses who claimed to have been former child soldiers in UPC, charging that they were coached by agents of prosecution investigators to give false testimony against Mr. Lubanga.
Nonetheless, regardless of how Mr. Lubanga’s trial concludes, it is widely acknowledged that his trial has helped to bring into international focus the crime of using child soldiers.