DR Congo

DR Congo: Use of child soldiers 'particularly abusive,' UN expert testifies

Children cannot consent to their own exploitation, making the use of children in warfare "particularly abusive," a top United Nations official said today at the trial of a Congolese warlord accused of enlisting child soldiers.

Children have an "underdeveloped notion of death," Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, told the International Criminal Court (ICC). "The lack of the concept of death makes them fearless in battle."

She was serving as an expert witness in the case against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, the first suspect to be arrested by The Hague-based ICC.

He faces two counts of war crimes: conscripting and enlisting child soldiers into the military wing of his group and then using them to participate in hostilities between September 2002 and August 2003.

Ms. Coomaraswamy testified today that many child soldiers she has met joined armed forces because it was the only way they could escape or survive abuse at home, while in some cases, children were indirectly coerced into becoming soldiers.

Her testimony also touched on the multiple roles played by girls who are recruited to fight, including combat, scouting, portering and sexual slavery.

The prosecution wrapped up its case against Mr. Lubanga last July, and the defence is shortly to begin presenting exculpatory evidence over the coming months, with some 30 witnesses - most of whom have not asked for extra protection from the Court - expected to testify.

The Prosecution's case was presented over 22 weeks and 30 witnesses took the stand. Nearly all of the prosecution's witnesses were granted protective measures, including voice and facial distortion and the use of pseudonyms. A psychologist sat in during the proceedings to support and monitor witnesses.

Mr. Lubanga, who surrendered to the ICC in March 2006, and his defence team were able to see all of the witnesses as they gave their testimony, but some required further special measures to avoid direct eye contact with the accused.

More than 100 victims have been authorized to take part in the trial, which began last January, to date.

Established by the Rome Statute of 1998, the ICC can try cases involving individuals charged with war crimes committed since July 2002. The UN Security Council, the ICC Prosecutor or a State Party to the Court can initiate any proceedings, and the ICC only acts when countries themselves are unwilling or unable to investigate or prosecute.

The ICC began its second trial in regard to the situation in the DRC last November, in which two former Congolese rebel leaders are being tried for crimes allegedly committed by their militias in eastern DRC in 2003.

Germain Katanga, a senior commander from the group known as the Force de Résistance Patriotique en Ituri (FRPI), faces three counts of crimes against humanity and six counts of war crimes for a deadly assault on the village of Bogoro, in the province of Ituri. Hundreds of people were killed and many women forced into sexual slavery in that February 2003 attack.

Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui is a former commander of the rebel National Integrationalist Front (FNI). He faces three counts of crimes against humanity and six of war crimes, and is alleged to have played a key role in designing and carrying out the Bogoro attack.

Among the crimes the two men are accused of is using children under the age of 15 in active hostilities, including as bodyguards and combatants, during the deadly assault on Bogoro.

Ten child soldiers will be among the 345 people authorized to take part in the trial.