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ICC Convicts Rebel For Recruiting Child Soldiers


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, she's been called China's Elizabeth Taylor and the honors keep on coming. Joan Chen is being recognized at the International Asian-American Film Festival, which wraps up this weekend in San Francisco. We'll speak with her in just a few minutes.

But first, more about war and justice on the world stage. The International Criminal Court reached its first verdict yesterday, convicting former Congolese rebel fighter Thomas Lubanga of forcibly recruiting child soldiers under 15 years old. Lubanga was a key player in the Congolese Civil War that is believed to have claimed more than three million lives. Rebel fighters under his command were accused of human rights violations, including torture, rape and genocide. He faces 30 years in prison.

We wanted to talk about the significance of this verdict and so we've called Shelly Whitman. She is the director of the Child Soldiers Initiative. That's an organization that works to spread awareness about the plight of child soldiers around the world.

Shelly, welcome to the program. Thank you for speaking with us.

SHELLY WHITMAN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And, of course, the issue of child soldiers is back in the news recently because of this video highlighting the alleged crimes of the Ugandan rebel fighter Joseph Kony, who's also wanted by the International Criminal Court. I'm going to ask you to tell us a little bit about that in just a few minutes, but that's not what we're talking about immediately.

Thomas Lubanga was arrested back in 2005. Why was this verdict so long in coming?

WHITMAN: Well, there were a lot of difficulties with this particular case and part of it is the teething problems of the International Criminal Court itself. Other difficulties related, certainly, to the gathering of evidence and one of the criticisms that has been leveled at the International Criminal Court is certainly that being able to use a Western system of justice in an armed conflict in an area of the world where there is certainly a lot of underdevelopment may not always be the most appropriate, and certainly, as we have seen, not the most expedient way to address some of these really important issues that are ongoing.

MARTIN: Well, you said that there were evidentiary issues, so why don't we stick to what we do know, what we feel very confident has been confirmed? How did he make these children fight for him and what exactly did he do?

WHITMAN: Yeah. Well, as many of the armed groups around the world who use children do, there are typical tactics that they use. They do things like abducting children from villages and from homes. They also do things as - and these are all things that Thomas Lubanga has been accused of. They do things, as well as promise the children that they would give them education or give them money and in areas of the world where poverty is endemic, that is a huge factor for many of these children.

Also, in addition to that, Mr. Lubanga, in the areas that he operated, also told families within that region that they had to give up one child towards his fighting force, the UPC.

MARTIN: And if they didn't?

WHITMAN: And if they didn't, then their families could be targeted for killings or other acts, such as mass rape and things that he would unleash on particular areas.

MARTIN: How was he eventually apprehended?

WHITMAN: Well, he was eventually apprehended after an ICC indictment had been delivered and then he was actually brought to the International Criminal Court through, you know, MONUSCO - well, at the time, would have been MONUC, is a United Nations peace keeping force that exists in the area and he was brought to the Hague at that time.

MARTIN: Shelly Whitman is the director of the Child Soldiers Initiative and we're talking about the International Criminal Court conviction of a Congolese rebel fighter for recruiting child soldiers. That was the first verdict by the International Criminal Court.

So, Shelly, a decade ago, as I understand it, you were involved in peacekeeping talks in the Congo and you believe that this verdict could become influential around the world in negotiating an end to conflicts that use child soldiers. Why so?

WHITMAN: Yeah. I believe that it is important. Two years ago, when I was last in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that very conversation was a key aspect of many of the research interviews that I was conducting at that time because there was a potential at that time that Thomas Lubanga - the case might get thrown out and he might be freed. So a lot of people had commented that that would really be a step backwards on this particular issue.

Why I feel it's important is because it does set a precedent and, even though the International Criminal Court isn't perfect, this is a really important precedent that it sets to those who are using and recruiting child soldiers, that the very possibility that you could be arrested and brought to an International Criminal Court to face justice is huge.

Lastly, I would also say that, as part of our work, what we do is we also train police and military around the world on the importance of ending the use of child soldiers globally. And soldiers that we have trained in the Democratic Republic of Congo on this particular issue have stated to us many times in sessions that we've held with them that they do feel that the use of child soldiers could end if we ended impunity on this matter.

MARTIN: What do we know about those children who were pressed into service those years ago? If the children were 15 then - and there are reports that children were much younger than that - then they're at least teenagers. Yeah. Some of them are young men. What's happened to them?

WHITMAN: Yeah. You know, this is a really difficult issue because, certainly, the lingering, long term impacts of being a member of an armed group as a child has a lot of impacts, not only on you as an individual, but it also has impacts in terms of community because a lot of these children get shunned when they want to return back to communities.

And, certainly, what we see is there are a lot of young men - and I also want to point out that, you know, something that we don't talk about a lot is the use of girl soldiers, also - that one of the real difficulties is that they have difficulty reintegrating back into societies, of course, because many of them are forced to commit atrocities against their communities, against their families. And so there's a lot of psychosocial long term impacts of that.

But also, in terms of how do they make a living? There are not a lot of resources for them to be able to get educated, etc., so...

MARTIN: So, before we let you go, as we mentioned, the case of Joseph Kony has kind of burst back onto the scene, in part because of this video that has circulated and has gotten, you know, many millions of views by now. We're not going to get into all of the - sort of the details of that, very complicated story. But I did want to ask. He's also wanted by the International Criminal Court to stand trial on a number of charges, including the enlisting of child soldiers, and I'm wondering whether you think that yesterday's verdict will be helpful in apprehending him, who still is at large.

WHITMAN: Yeah. I don't think that actually that verdict is necessarily going to help to apprehend Joseph Kony. I think that there are a lot of different situations in terms of the background to the conflicts in northern Uganda and to now. We know that Joseph Kony is in other areas, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan.

So I think that there are some different circumstances that highlight the problems with Joseph Kony. And if I could just mention that, you know, a good example here is - look at the case of Bosco Ntaganda, another gentleman who's also accused of war crimes, and sits free.

MARTIN: Well, very complicated stories and, Shelly, hopefully you'll come back and tell us more about all of them. Shelly Whitman is the director of the Child Soldiers Initiative. That's an organization that works to spread awareness about the plight of child soldiers around the world. And she joined us from the CBC studios in Toronto, Canada. Shelly, thank you.

WHITMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.