Saturday, 26 December 2009

Critical Words from Adam Hochschild on Outreach and the Lubanga Trial

Adam Hochschild has written a number of important books on mass violations of human rights, especially in the distant past. Probably his best-known work is King Leopold’s Ghost, about the brutal colonization of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Hochschild has been to the Congo to look at the impact of the Lubanga trial. His interesting account appears in the latest issue of The Atlantic: Although his pen is gentle enough, this may be a case of damning with faint praise. Hochschild’s interest is with the outreach activities of the Court, and how the trial is perceived on the ground. He writes:

Next door to UN headquarters, 40 teenagers are sitting on rickety wooden chairs in a Catholic-mission library, where paint is peeling from the walls. According to the nonprofit group that has been working with the teens and has gathered them here today so they can learn about the ICC, all are former child soldiers. Next to their names on this morning’s roster appears an alphabet soup of different armed groups. Some have listed themselves as ex-combatants in Lubanga’s private army, others in the militias it fought.
Nicolas Kuyaku, the cheerful, energetic Congolese who runs the ICC’s ‘outreach’ office in Bunia, begins today’s session by showing 20 minutes of videos sent from The Hague. We see a brightly lit courtroom full of some two dozen people: solemn judges and lawyers in black robes and white jabots, an impassive Lubanga in a suit and tie in the dock, witnesses who testify about his use of child soldiers, plus a prosecutor, a defense attorney, and—an ICC feature loosely modeled after some European justice systems—a lawyer making statements on behalf of a group of victims...

The videos are in French, the language of Congo’s government, although few of the teenagers in the room speak it well. Furthermore, Kuyaku, who comes from another
part of the country, does not speak Swahili, eastern Congo’s lingua franca. After showing the videos, he talks animatedly in a mixture of French and another Congolese language, Lingala, which a sprinkling of those in the audience know, while an assistant intermittently translates a few sentences into Swahili…
When the Q&A period begins, however, most of the teenagers who speak up are anything but enthusiastic. Why is Lubanga on trial, one asks, when ‘others who did the same thing are working within the government?’ And indeed this is true, for in a series of half-effective peace accords, many former warlords have been absorbed into the corrupt and inept Congolese national army. ‘Lubanga did not conscript forcibly’, another boy says. ‘We went voluntarily. I myself went voluntarily. It was to defend my community. Why is he being judged for this?’ A comrade adds: ‘I also was not forced to enter [Lubanga’s army]. All our houses were burned. We had nowhere to go—and Lubanga accepted me.’

‘What about those who killed Saddam Hussein?’ another boy asks. ‘Why are they not at The Hague?’…
At another session where Nicolas Kuyaku shows his videos, this time to Bunia municipal officials, I find myself wondering about the sheer visuals on the screen. We see the court’s headquarters in Holland, in two high-rise towers with an all-glass sky bridge between them. We see, in the spacious, wood-paneled courtroom itself, every official or attorney sitting in a comfortable rolling chair in front of a computer screen.
But computers are a luxury here in Bunia, and the few that can be found are hostage to erratic electricity. And when Kuyaku explains some of the features that to Western eyes seem hallmarks of a humane and enlightened judiciary—such as the court’s provision of funds for Lubanga’s lawyers and for visits by his wife and family—these things surely appear even more extravagant. Africans are so desperate to migrate to Europe that thousands have drowned at sea trying, yet an accused war criminal’s wife and kids get a free trip? What’s more, all three judges who are deciding Lubanga’s fate, from Britain, Bolivia, and Costa Rica, are white. The trial is ‘justice à l’occidentale’, one of the local officials says, shaking his head at the screen…

Briefly, Trial Chamber I had entertained the idea of holding hearings in Bunia, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is allowed by the Statute. However, there was no enthusiasm from the Congolese government, which seems happy to have unloaded Lubanga on the International Criminal Court, and the idea was dropped.
Hochschild's article is not very long, and everyone interested in the Court should read it. Perhaps there is a brighter spin to be placed on what Hochschild witnessed, and maybe he saw the outreach of the Court on a bad day. But he’s a credible critic, and I doubt that there is any hostile agenda at work. Rather, this should be taken as friendly criticism. Hopefully, the Court will pay his disturbing account some attention.


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