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The Lubanga Trial at the International Criminal Court

July, 2010

Who is Thomas Lubanga Dyilo?

Thomas Lubanga Dyilo is a Congolese rebel militia leader accused of conscripting child soldiers to further the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during 2002 and 2003. If proven, this constitutes a war crime, one of the most serious international crimes.

In the DRC, Lubanga was allegedly the president of the Union of Congolese Patriots from 2000, and from 2002 was alleged to have served as commander-in-chief of its former military wing, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo. The Union of Congolese Patriots’ goal was to establish dominance of the Hema ethnic group through violence against non-Hema people—especially Lendu militias and civilians.

Because he was suspected of committing war crimes during the conflict, Lubanga was arrested in March 2005 and transferred from the DRC to the ICC a year later, in March 2006. After long delays, his trial started at the ICC on January 26, 2009.

What was the DRC conflict about and when did it happen?

The conflict in the Ituri region of northeastern DRC, along the border with Uganda (the focal area of the Lubanga trial) involved the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups. Tension and fighting between the groups has occurred for many years because of competition for land. But in 1996, this long-standing competition became embroiled within a larger, complicated set of conflicts that escalated the violence.

Following the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, Rwandan Hutu fighters who had participated in the 1994 slaughter of Tutsis fled to eastern Zaire (now the DRC), and some of these fighters went to refugee camps. From eastern Zaire, these Hutu fighters launched attacks on Rwanda and received support from Zaire’s president, Mobutu Sese Seko.

In 1996, troops from Rwanda and Uganda entered eastern Zaire and made Laurent Kabila the head of their allied Congolese rebels. These troops swept across the vast country, killing not only Hutu fighters, but also 200,000-300,000 Hutu civilians as they went.  In May 1997, the Rwandan and Ugandan forces and Kabila’s rebels defeated Mobutu’s forces and allied Angolan rebels. This put an end to Mobutu’s 32-year dictatorship.  Laurent Kabila made himself president and changed the country’s name from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Wanting to prove his independence, in 1998 Kabila turned against the Rwandans who had helped him get to power.  Rwanda immediately tried to remove Kabila, but Angola’s military beat back Rwandan troops in the capital, Kinshasa. Zimbabwe and Namibia joined the side of Kabila, while Rwanda was joined by Uganda and Burundi in opposing Kabila. Congolese Tutsis, called Banyamulenge, allied with Rwanda and its troops. Uganda backed different militias. Anti-Tutsi Congolese militias called received the support of Kabila.

The conflict, which was most intense in the east of the DRC, became known as Africa’s First World War. In addition to ethnic divisions, the conflict was complicated by the DRC’s rich natural resources. The combatant forces sought to control land and exploit mineral wealth and timber. Conflict over the diamond center of Kisangani caused allied troops from Rwanda and Uganda to fight against each other. During the conflict, many fighting factions divided and formed complicated rivalries. Without any accountability, many atrocities were committed against civilians on all sides, including many killings and horrific levels of sexual violence. By 2004, around four million people had died as a result of the conflict, through disease, starvation, and directly through killings.

In 2000, the United Nations began a peacekeeping mission in the DRC. However, fighting continued. Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001, and his son Joseph Kabila became president. Peace negotiations advanced, and in April 2003 all neighboring countries agreed to withdraw their forces from the DRC. Congolese rebel representatives from many factions joined a government led by Joseph Kabila. With more international peacekeepers in the DRC, parliamentary and presidential elections were held in 2006. Joseph Kabila defeated Jean-Pierre Bemba  in the final round of presidential voting and stayed as president.  Bemba’s supporters clashed with government troops in Kinshasa before peacekeepers could end the violence.

Throughout the course of this extended conflict, pre-existing tensions between Lendu and Hema peoples became much more deadly. As the Lendu began to identify more with the Hutu, and the Hema more with the Tutsi, the wider war became linked to, and helped fuel, the Lendu-Hema regional conflict in the east.

Early in the DRC war, Uganda backed a Congolese militia that contained both Hema and Lendu. However, this militia split along ethnic lines and Lendu began to see Uganda as supporters of Hema. Six different militias ended up fighting over Ituri province, and Uganda remained deeply involved.  Ituri is rich in minerals, especially gold, and the militias, along with the Ugandan army, fought to control the mining. The conflict made commanders rich and gave them a reason to keep fighting. They rallied their forces and people with ethnic hatred in order to continue the profitable war. There were horrific massacres of civilians in 2002.

French peacekeepers intervened in 2003 and UN peacekeepers increased their numbers in Ituri beginning in 2004. The UN mission arrested several militia leaders in March 2005, including Hema militia leader Thomas Lubanga.  The ICC has since issued an arrest warrant for one other Hema commander, Bosco Ntaganda, who remains at large. It has brought charges against two Lendu militia commanders, Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui.

Violence in Ituri has continued, most recently in late 2008. That conflict is believed to have caused at least 50,000 deaths and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.

What is Lubanga charged with?

Thomas Lubanga is charged with committing three war crimes between July 2002 and December 2003:

- conscripting children under the age of 15 years into armed groups;

- enlisting children into armed groups, and

- using children to participate actively in armed conflict.

Lubanga is charged with responsibility for these crimes because of his alleged position leading both the political group the Union of Congolese Patriots and its former military wing, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo. The prosecutor charges that Lubanga exercised power and authority over these organizations, including the adoption and implementation of their policies (among which were the conscription, enlistment, and use of child soldiers).

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