Jim Freedman joins JiC for this post examining the core issues covered in his new book on the trial of Thomas Dyilo Lubanga. Jim is a Professor Emeritus and a faculty member at the Centre for Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction at Western University. His book, A Conviction in Question: The First Trial at the International Criminal Court was published by the University of Toronto Press.
As they reflect on the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) on-going challenges, it may be some solace to ardent supporters of the ICC to recall the plague of disquieting matters in the Court’s first trial and how the institution has diligently addressed them in the ensuing five years. This first case involved the notorious warlord Thomas Dyilo Lubanga from northeastern Democratic Republic Congo who committed multiple war crimes and who, in March 2012, was convicted of the single crime of conscripting and using children less than 15 years as soldiers.
Certainly the first trial was something of a circus and the book — A Conviction in Question, the First Trial at the International Criminal Court — chronicles the legal histrionics, the cast of characters, the interminable delays and the awkward, ultimately vain, efforts to hold Lubanga responsible for all that he had done. The adversarial atmosphere in the courtroom was intensified by the ever-present media and the fact that the world was watching. The trial had a perverse quality. The length of time the trial took to arrive at a conclusion, six years in total, was one thing. The judge’s decision to stop the proceedings on the grounds that the prosecution had violated Lubanga’s right to a fair trial and send him home, not once but twice, was equally curious.
The discord in the Chamber was worthy of a lurid television series. The main actors in the Chamber turned even the most innocent of evidence into something hotly contested, generating a cacophony of opposing voices that drowned out much of what the Court needed to know to make an informed decision. The Chamber often saw fit to allow factual and moral matters to be trumped by other matters. Some of this could be discounted as the growing pains of an international court making its way through a first trial and, in truth, some of these unsavoury features were more colourful than anything. But the persistent discord in the Chamber did have some serious consequences.
A number of principled matters were shoved aside or dismissed altogether because they were thought to be making an already long and complicated case even more long and complicated. The status of the victims was one of these. During the trial, the Chamber preferred to keep the victims on the margins of proceedings since none of the actors in the trial wanted to compromise their own stakes in the trial by admitting yet another voice that might arouse an unpredictable element into the proceedings. This in itself might not have been so serious a matter except that, when the trial was over, the Court’s general dismissal of the importance of victims in the Chamber gave rise to a decision which limited the scope of reparations. This was a serious flaw.
Another was the Chamber’s embargo on sexual violence. The matter of sexual violence loomed large in the trial not by its presence but by its absence. It became the trial’s trademark shame, a conspicuous token of the Chamber’s failure to place the substance of the Ituri province’s tragedy above the Chamber’s perpetual legal jousting. For most of the trial the Chamber did what it could to hear as little as possible about how frequently young women were raped and enslaved.
Yet another shortcoming was the practice of gathering evidence, especially getting it by using individuals — or intermediaries as they were called — to identify key witnesses and prepare key witnesses for their appearance at the court. The Defense’s repeated claim that the Prosecution had conspired with intermediaries to introduce false information ended up consuming an inordinate amount of the trial’s time and consideration. The discordant atmosphere inflated this issue beyond all proportion. Continue reading