Dear readers – please find below a commentary written by Olivia Bueno at the International Refugee Rights Initiative in consultation with Congolese activists. The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the International Refugee Rights Initiative or of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) will announce its first verdict in the case of Thomas Lubanga, former leader of the Congolese rebel group, the Union des Patriots Congolais (UPC) tomorrow. In eastern DRC’s Ituri region, where Lubanga led the UPC and is accused of committing the crimes for which he is on trial, all eyes are on the Court. Speculation about the outcome is buoying the hopes of some and increasing the fears of others. In particular, rumors abound that Lubanga will be either acquitted or given a very light sentence, which, with time already served, might lead to an early release. As one Congolese activist put it, “Public opinion is preparing itself for only one eventuality, that of the liberation of Thomas Lubanga.”
On the ground, opinions are divided. Not surprisingly, supporters of Lubanga hope that he will be acquitted or given a short sentence and released. Supporters include members of Lubanga’s UPC, which continues to operate as a political party, and many from his ethnic group, the Hema, which makes up a significant of the population of Ituri and the majority in the region around Bunia. In the words of one such supporter, “It would be regrettable to condemn Thomas on the basis of unsubstantiated evidence.”
Recent events have given his supporters reason to be positive. According to research done by the Congolese NGO, Justice Plus, the recent decision by the Court not to confirm charges in the Callixte Mbarushimana case was seen by the Hema community as affirming the independence of the Court. Although, they have little interest specifically in Mbarushimana’s crimes, they see that the Chambers are acting as an effective check on the actions of the prosecution. This decision went a long way towards addressing the fears of some within the community who believe in Lubanga’s innocence, but who were concerned that he would be condemned by the lack of independence and impartiality of the Court. If Lubanga is released, this faith is likely to be reinforced. Some are reportedly already planning a homecoming celebration. With such expectations being fostered, what will the reaction be in the event that this is not the way that the decision comes down? What kind of backlash against those who have been prominent in supporting the work of the Court can be expected?
Those who have worked with the Court are concerned that victims and intermediaries (individuals who worked with the Court but were not formally staff) and others generally supportive of the Court may be at particular risk in the event of a conviction. There is concern that there might be temptation to strike out against the Court and those who have supported it in revenge. In the event that Lubanga is released, on the other hand, there would be less interest on the part of Lubanga supporters in attacking the Court and those viewed as associated with it.
Those who do not support Lubanga are deeply concerned about the prospect of his release. Although it is laudable that the independence of the Court appears to be viewed with greater credibility, attention needs to also be paid to the opinions and views of those that do not support Lubanga, particularly concern about the impact of an acquittal or light sentence on the promotion of justice in Ituri and conflict dynamics more generally.
An acquittal or light sentence is likely to cause concern among the Lendu community. Narratives that position the Lendu as victims of bias in the ICC process abound. For example, one member of the related Ngiti community said, “We have experienced a lot of suspicion on the part of communities that think we are a very bad ethnicity…we will see…if the ICC can demonstrate its competence.” Although rebel leaders were charged on both sides of the conflict, the fact that Thomas Lubanga (and his un-arrested colleague Bosco Ntaganda) are charged “only” with the recruitment of child soldiers, whereas leaders on the Lendu and Ngiti side (Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui) are charged at the ICC with a broader range of crimes, has created an impression of bias in the process. This perception has been reinforced by how victims have been allowed to participate in the trials. In the Lubanga case, those officially recognized by the Court as “victims” are members of the Hema and related groups, who were recruited from their own communities, by Lubanga’s UPC. The primary focus of the Katanga and Ngudjolo case is an attack on the primarily Hema village of Bogoro, meaning that again, the Hema are primary victims. All this has contributed to a sense among the Lendu that they are being excluded and that the Court is not taking their suffering seriously. Lendu interviewed by Justice Plus in the course of their research indicated that they would view an acquittal as an insult, as “spitting on the memory of victims in Ituri in general.”
If the decision is favorable to Mr. Lubanga, will it reinforce and harden narratives of ethnic persecution and fuel conflict rather than promote reconciliation and stability? Will Hema view their narratives justifying the fighting as legitimate defense of the community as affirmed? Will the Lendu see this as confirmation of biased treatment by the international community? If the decision does not go in Lubanga’s favor, would that be read in the reverse, as reinforcing a narrative of injustice against the Hema? How will the Lubanga decision interact with the decision of the Court in the Katanga and Ngudjolo case, which is expected in late 2012? Will the work of the Court be viewed as more equitable if they are acquitted? Would tensions then be reduced? If they are convicted, however, will the rhetoric that the Lendu community is being undermined and that the community must defend itself be reinforced?
For victims of the attacks of the UPC, a decision to acquit or give a light sentence to Thomas Lubanga is likely to result in indignation. In the words of one activist, “That would be unacceptable in light of the suffering of the thousands who were the objects [of Lubanga’s crimes].” Another activist noted, “For me, if Lubanga is released, it would be a grave error on the part of the Court because what these people have done in Ituri is something that even a blind man could see.” Faith in international justice, and in the international community by extension, is likely to be deflated. Victims will feel betrayed by the Court and frustrated with the outcome. Some fear that this frustration could well up into violence.
Others fear that the liberation of Thomas Lubanga and his potential return to Ituri might negatively impact the security situation on the ground because he may be a destabilizing figure. One man interviewed in Ituri before the verdict speculated that a liberated Lubanga would be a politically strengthened. It is unclear whether and how Lubanga might seek to leverage that political power, but some are concerned that Lubanga’s release will lead to “panic and disorder.” Some victims are asking that he be required to remain in The Hague or, at any rate, away from Ituri, if he were to be released. For some, as expressed by one activist, hearing Lubanga’s name makes them think of war.
However, some argue that other developments in the situation in Bunia have made it more difficult for Lubanga to mobilize violence, even if he is released. The security situation generally has improved and several important allies of Lubanga are no longer on the scene. One example is General Kisembo, who was killed by Congolese authorities. Bosco Ntaganda is no longer in Ituri and has been integrated into the Congolese army, although there is still fear about the potential that he might return.
In Ituri, all eyes are on the Court. After Wednesday’s judgment, however, the world’s eyes will turn back to Ituri to see what the impact will be on the ground.