Arusha, March 15, 2012(FH) -The United States and senior officials with European Union and United Nations have hailed the conviction of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for enlisting and using child soldiers to fight in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2002 and 2003.

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"It is an historic moment and an important step in providing justice and accountability to the Congolese people," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.

The spokesman for the White House National Security Council, Tommy Vietor, also said, "This decision illustrates, the international community is united in its determination to end the repugnant practice of using child soldiers."  He added that Wednesday decision was a reminder that those who prey upon children, forcing them to become soldiers and sex slaves were committing a despicable crime for which they would be held accountable.

On her part, the European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton declared that the verdict on Lubanga was a landmark for international criminal justice and offered an opportunity for the ICC to reflect on the proceedings and analyze lessons learnt.

"This judgment constitutes a significant achievement for the Court in its task of ensuring respect for, and enforcement of, international justice," she said.  According to her, the verdict demonstrates that perpetrators could not act with impunity and resonates far beyond the DRC, as Lubanga's trial has risen awareness about the plight of child soldiers and the fact that recruiting and using children under 15 years in combat was a war crime.

Officials with United Nations said the ICC decision was a "milestone" warning to all states which use child soldiers. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the ICC ruling as "an important step forward" in making sure that "perpetrators of crimes against children in situations of armed conflict are brought to justice."

He is quoted in a statement issued on Wednesday by UN News Centre as calling for greater international effort "holding accountable those who commit genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes."

On Wednesday, the day the verdict was released, the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, announced an agreement in South Sudan to keep youths under 15 out of the army and allied militias.

She is quoted as saying, "In this age of global media, today's (Wednesday) verdict will reach warlords and commanders across the world and serve as a strong deterrent."

The UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, executive director Anthony Lake termed the ruling "a pivotal victory for the protection of children in conflict," adding that the conviction of Lubanga "sends a clear message to all armed groups that enslave and brutalize children: impunity will not be tolerated."

A minister in DRC said his government wanted the ICC to impose an "exemplary" sentence on Lubanga. "The government is hoping for an exemplary punishment as a deterrent to all of those who have chosen war and murder, so that all these people know that genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity will always be tried", Justice Minister Emmanuel Luzolo Bambi said

The Hague-based ICC found Lubanga (51) guilty of enlisting child soldiers into his militia and using them to fight in a gold-rich region during the bloody four-year war in Ituri, a district in the eastern part of DRC from September 1, 2002 to August 13, 2003.

Three judges unanimously found that Lubanga had participated in a "common plan to build an army" and control Ituri politically and militarily.

This plan, they concluded, led to the conscription of children under 15 into the troops of the Union des patriotes congolais (UPC) and its armed wing the Forces Patriotiques de libération du Congo (FPLC). Lubanga was president of the UPC at the time. Lubanga will receive his sentence on April 18, 2012.


© Hirondelle News Agency