Foreign Affairs December 2009

The Trial of Thomas Lubanga

For years, the Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga allegedly sanctioned massacres, pressed children into military service, and institutionalized mass rape. Now he is the first defendant being tried by the recently created International Criminal Court, seated in Holland. His trial is seen as a major landmark by Western human-rights activists, and it is being publicized extensively in Congo, where the fog of war still lingers. What do the Congolese make of Lubanga’s trial? Will it deter other would-be war criminals? Is justice even possible for the most heinous of crimes?

In the annals of justice, a high point of recent years came on October 16, 1998, when Scotland Yard detectives arrested General Augusto Pinochet of Chile near midnight at an exclusive private hospital in London. A judge in Spain had ordered the arrest of the former dictator, responsible for the torture and murder of thousands, and his seizure offered a tantalizing glimpse ahead to a world where a despot might be unsafe anywhere: crimes against humanity at home could get him indicted in another country and taken into custody in a third. The British held Pinochet under house arrest for months, until finally, on spurious grounds of ill health, they let him go. But the arrest disgraced him, inspired a string of lawsuits and indictments in Chile, and surely made many a dictator reconsider his travel plans. One law professor even wrote a book called The Pinochet Effect.

That same year, another landmark event promised to amplify the Pinochet Effect. One hundred twenty countries signed an agreement establishing the International Criminal Court, a body, it was hoped, that could try the Pinochets of the future—tyrants, torturers, and war criminals—when the country where they were accused of committing crimes was unwilling or unable to do so. The ICC officially came into being four years later, in 2002, when 60 nations had ratified their signatures. By now, 110 countries have ratified the treaty, including every member of the European Union but conspicuously not including Russia, China, or the United States. (The Bush administration fought hard to undermine the court, strong-arming a long list of countries into agreeing never to extradite an American citizen to the court’s custody.)

Like all too many international bodies, the ICC moves at a molasses pace: only this year, in a courtroom at The Hague, did it begin its first trial, that of Thomas Lubanga, a tall, somber-looking onetime psychology student and former warlord in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s brutal and complicated civil war. That conflict, the cause of several million deaths so far, is not yet over, and court prosecutors hope to make the leaders of groups still fighting fear that someday they, too, could face justice. Toward that end, and toward the broader goal of promoting the idea that the rule of law should know no national boundaries, the ICC produces a blizzard of pamphlets, press releases, audio recordings, YouTube videos, and more, in an attempt to publicize its proceedings. But of course peaceful, clockwork, wealthy Holland, with its canals and bicycle paths, is a long way from Congo, where the national government barely functions, people speak several hundred languages, and a majority of the population is functionally illiterate and has no electricity, much less a radio or TV. The choice of Lubanga as the court’s first defendant juxtaposes two worlds that, on the surface at least, could not be more different from each other.

What do Congolese people think about the Lubanga trial? Will it deter other warlords? Can it bring a sense of justice to a place where there has been none? These were questions I was curious to explore when, in June, I visited the part of northeastern Congo where Thomas Lubanga’s militia had recently operated.

The Ituri district, roughly the size of West Virginia, is where the equatorial rain forest that covers the center of the African continent meets the grassland savanna of East Africa. An exhausted Henry Morton Stanley and his long, half-starved train of porters marched out of the forest here in the late 1880s, during the last of his great militarized expeditions. Partly because this corner of the country is unusually rich in natural resources, especially gold, Ituri has seen some of the worst fighting of the Congo war, and it is strewn with the blackened shells of burned-out buildings.

Long-standing tension between the Lendu and Hema peoples has fueled the conflict. The Lendu are traditionally farmers; the better-off Hema are more likely to be cattle herders, landowners, and traders, and are resented by many for their wealth. The ICC picked warlords in Ituri for some of its first indictments in part to demonstrate that justice for war crimes can be impartial: Thomas Lubanga was the principal leader of the Hema, but two Lendu warlords were scheduled to go on trial before the court in late November.

The Ituri fighting raged from 1999 to 2003, and it still flickers. At least 60,000 people in the district were killed outright, many more died when the war limited their access to food and medical care, and half a million fled their homes, some permanently. Conscription of child soldiers was routine; Lubanga’s militia at one point reportedly invaded a school and took the entire fifth grade off for training. (Across eastern Congo, an estimated 30,000 children have been conscripted.) Hema and Lendu alike routinely burned each other’s villages to the ground; militiamen from each side further sowed terror by mutilating and cannibalizing corpses and by gang-raping thousands of women.

In Bunia, the region’s battered capital, before climbing out from under my mosquito net in the morning, I hear the bells of a Catholic church summoning the faithful to early Mass, the dawn call to prayer from a nearby mosque, roosters crowing, and a bugler at the barracks of the United Nations peacekeeping force now stationed here. Bunia was the epicenter of much of the fighting, and hundreds of the city’s civilians were slaughtered in their homes. A small, wrecked green tank still points its gun barrel skyward on a main street. Rebuilding efforts have been meager: on the outskirts of town sits a half-finished housing development, empty new cinder-block homes with no doors or glass in the windows. Congo President Joseph Kabila promised to build them during his 2006 election campaign, but the funds drained away into various officials’ pockets. On the city’s rutted streets, women with babies on their backs balance laundry bundles or buckets on their heads; men wheel bicycles piled with precarious loads of cabbages, charcoal, grass for thatching roofs, or yellow jerricans of kerosene. Because local dealers buy old clothing by the bale, some of the people wear American football jerseys, or T-shirts promoting an ice rink or a ski resort. Many are refugees from the fighting who’ve learned to make do with little: one man carries cargo in a wheelbarrow that, except for its iron wheel, is made entirely of interwoven tree branches. Decades ago, Bunia’s major streets were paved, but they have long since reverted to red dirt. White UN trucks kick up huge clouds of dust as they pass.

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