ICC finally convicts Lubanga – in silence

01 December 2014 by Benjamin Duerr, The Hague (The Netherlands)

Two years ago, the International Criminal Court (ICC) delivered its first-ever judgment in the case against Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga. On Monday, the court closed the case, with an appeals chamber confirming Lubanga's conviction. But in stark contrast to March 2012, only a few journalists and trial monitors were there to see it live.

The appeals chamber rejected each of Lubanga's grounds of appeal and confirmed both the verdict and the 14-year sentence handed down by the lower trial chamber.

When Lubanga was first sentenced, the world was watching closely and hopefully. He was the very first person convicted by the ICC. The judgment was hailed as a breakthrough for global justice and a milestone in international law. Lawyers, human rights activists and journalists flocked to The Hague to see history in the making.

On Monday afternoon, however, only half the seats in the public gallery were occupied. The ICC media centre remained relatively calm. Outside the court building, no protesters demanded to “free Lubanga”, a practice often seen during other ICC trials.

“It seems as if the world has forgotten about Thomas Lubanga,” noted Thijs Bouwknegt from the Center for War and Genocide Studies (NIOD) in Amsterdam, who has followed the proceedings since Lubanga was transferred from DRC to The Hague.

Lubanga was the leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) and its military wing. The ICC had found him guilty of war crimes consisting of the enlistment and conscription of child soldiers younger than 15. As UPC president and commander-in-chief, Lubanga influenced and directed the policies, the court found. He was regularly updated on implementation of the common plan. He provided “significant logistical support”. He personally used children under 15 as his bodyguards, charged the judges.

After having convicted Lubanga, the trial chamber, in a separate hearing, sentenced him to 14 years imprisonment. The judges had treated each charge separately: 13 years for conscripting child soldiers, 12 years for enlisting, 15 years for using them actively in hostilities. As a joint sentence, 14 years was deemed appropriate. The years Lubanga had so far spent in detention in The Hague were deducted; the period of time he was imprisoned in Congo, however, was not. 

On Monday, four of the five appeals judges confirmed Lubanga's conviction and the sentencing. The dissenting judge, Anita Usacka, argued that the evidence was not sufficient to establish his guilt "beyond reasonable doubt". 

With every ground of appeal that the judges dismissed, his lawyers seemed to grow more jaded. They rarely took notes anymore, their heads resting on their hands. Wearing an ornate blue-tinted dashiki, Lubanga looked on stoically.