DR Congo child soldiers awarded $10 mn in damages

The Hague (AFP) –


International war crimes judges on Friday awarded $10 million in landmark reparations to "hundreds or thousands" of former child soldiers, left brutalised and stigmatised after being conscripted into a ruthless Congolese militia.

Warlord Thomas Lubanga, 56, was jailed for 14 years after being convicted in 2012 at the International Criminal Court (ICC) of abducting boys and girls and press-ganging them into his Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) in the eastern Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The judges said on Friday that Lubanga, who is serving his sentence in a Congolese prison, was also liable for compensation to 425 victims, identified by the court. At the time of the crimes in 2002-2003 all were under 15.

They stressed, however, that it was difficult to determine the exact number of child soldiers drawn into the ranks of Lubanga's militia -- many of whom were used as personal bodyguards or sex slaves by the adults -- saying there were "hundreds or even thousands of additional victims".

Each of the 425 named victims had suffered harm amounting to $8,000, giving a total of $3.4 million, presiding judge Marc Perrin de Brichambaut said.

But in a surprise move, the judges then awarded a further $6.6 million to help any others who may now come forward.

The award is collective, and will be used in projects to help victims -- many of whom have been shunned by their family and friends -- rebuild their lives and integrate back into society.

- Lost childhoods -

The question of how to calculate the value of a lost childhood, which descended into a fog of violence, bloodshed and chaos, had dragged for five years through the court.

With the passage of time, many of the victims are now in their 30s and have children of their own.

The award, equivalent to 8.5 million euros, will be administered by the independent Trust Fund for Victims, which has already drawn up a three-year project to help Lubanga's victims, and set aside a million euros for the case.

Fund director Pieter de Baan told AFP the $10 million award had been a surprise, and was a victory for the victims.

"It is really important that this is an acknowledgement that if harm is suffered on a mass scale by victims, you need to take it seriously, you need to recognise that and you need to put an amount to it," he said.

But the fund, which is solely supported by donations from ICC member states, would find it "challenging" to come up with the money, after the court also declared Lubanga penniless.

"We don't have 10 million dollars. We didn't know what was coming, we had no idea. We have in our reserves 5.5 million euros," he said.

It would be the fund's "headache" to turn the award into "reality for the victims. We can't do it alone, we need the support of the state parties."

The fund will assess the needs of each victim, and provide medical and psychological treatment. Other forms of help will also be available such as educational and vocational training.

The nongovernmental organisation Child Soldiers International, which works to stop children being used in conflicts, welcomed Friday's award as the "recognition of the great suffering experienced by the children exploited and abused" by Lubanga.

- Child soldiers still used -

They hoped it would "act as a catalyst in showing that those who recruit and exploit children in conflict will be held accountable for their crimes," said programme manager, Sandra Olsson.

Ituri remained "a highly militarised province" and the use of child recruits was still prevalent, she warned, urging the Congolese government and international bodies "to ramp up their efforts to help release these children and bring those guilty to justice."

Lubanga can appeal the decision. His lawyer, Jean-Marie Biju-Duval, argued in October 2016 hearings that his client should pay nothing, as he risked becoming "a scapegoat" for all those who use child soldiers.

Lubanga's is ICC's third reparations award. In March, judges awarded $250 each to 297 victims of another Congolese warlord, Germain Katanga.

And in August, the court ruled a Malian jihadist caused 2.7 million euros in damage when he destroyed several Timbuktu shrines in 2012.