The first-ever individual convicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) has asked judges at The Hague-based Court to grant him early release so that he can pursue a PhD. The former warlord and rebel leader Thomas Dyilo Lubanga, a man sentenced to fourteen years for conscripting child soldiers to fight in a brutal war in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, wants to attend Kisangani University to study “the sociology of ethnic harmony”. In Lubanga’s own words: “I hope to help identify a new form of sociology that will help the tribal groups to live together in harmony”.
Most observers appear to be oscillating between a sense of incredulity and simply being incensed. How could a convicted war criminal be granted early release in order to study how to prevent precisely the types of crimes he himself is ultimately responsible for? The mere suggestion smacks of some kind of cruel and unusual joke. As one tongue-in-cheek comment had it, perhaps Lubanga could insist his crimes were simply a result of “participant observation”, the popular research method of imbedding oneself in the very social and political setting under examination.
Whether he is released now or at the conclusion of his sentence in two years, the issue of Lubanga’s interest in pursuing higher education isn’t, in fact, anything new for alleged war criminals and raises important yet insufficiently answered questions within the realm of international criminal law and justice. Let’s take a look at two other examples: Libya’s Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and northern Uganda’s Sam Kolo.
The case of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi
Unlike Lubanga, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi managed to fit in his higher PhD studies before emerging as a central figure in the ICC’s investigation of war crimes and crimes against humanity during Libya’s 2011 uprising and civil war. Gaddafi infamously attended the London School of Economics where he submitted a PhD on democratisation and global civil society. The full name of Gaddafi’s thesis was “The Role of Civil Society in the Democratization of Global Governance Institutions: From ‘Soft Power’ to Collective Decision-Making?”. Remarkably, the thesis often spoke to precisely the kind of world that those who support international criminal justice seek. In one passage, Saif writes: “The international order has a responsibility to protect the basic rights of those citizens who live under non-liberal governments”. Of course, not everyone was fooled into believing Saif would emerge as some pro-democracy, pro-human rights, pro-justice alternative to his despotic father. But most turned a blind eye to the whole fiasco…
…That is until Libya descended into civil war, and it emerged that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi ardently supported his father’s crackdown on civilians in Libya. At the time, it was also revealed that Gaddafi’s academic achievements had been doctored (excuse the pun). Rather, a nefarious network of primarily British political and business connections concocted to promote Saif as the future ‘liberal’ leader of Libya, secure Western interests in the oil-rich nation, rehabilitate the Gaddafi regime, and, as an aside, write Saif’s PhD for him. For a while at least, though, Mr. Gaddafi was Dr. Gaddafi – and very few people had an issue with it.
The case of Sam Kolo
Not long after the 2011 civil war came to an end, another alleged perpetrator of mass atrocities received a degree in northern Uganda. In January 2012, Sam Kolo, a former senior commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) “completed a remarkable journey from the life of a rebel to a graduate” and was rewarded with a degree in business administration from Gulu University. Kolo, who led an LRA delegation during peace talks in 2004, had previously received an amnesty under Uganda’s 2000 Amnesty Law and, according to one observer, following his defection from the LRA, the former rebel commander “provided valuable intelligence to the Ugandan army in their hunt for Joseph Kony, the long-time leader of LRA”. Kolo was eventually supported in his pursuit of a degree by the Ugandan government’s scholarship scheme. Notably, Kolo has regularly expressed regret over his membership in the LRA, stating on the day of his graduation that it prevented him from pursuing his dream of becoming a university lecturer.
So what should we make of all this? Each of these stories is undoubtedly unique and this piece shouldn’t be read as suggesting there is (im)moral equivalency between Lubanga, Kolo, and Gaddafi. Where Kolo had sought to broker peace, Gaddafi and Lubanga were responsible for fomenting violence. Where northern Uganda has an amnesty for perpetrators of mass atrocities and is far more open to re-integrating former combatants, doing so is much more difficult in Libya and, to a lesser extent, the DRC. Where Kolo has expressed regret for his actions and involvement in the LRA, Lubanga and Gaddafi have not.
No easy answers
Still, these stories raise important questions: should convicted and alleged war criminals be allowed – perhaps even encouraged – to pursue higher education? Is there, as many believe, something curative in the pursuit of education that might help to deter relapses into criminality? Is there something morally egregious when former perpetrators of mass atrocities are afforded educational opportunities that they have – by their very actions – denied thousands of others? Is the best alternative to prevent them from pursuing any education and thus letting them ‘rot in prison’ or turning a blind eye and sending them back into the world without any support? What would be the risks in doing so? Do tribunals have any responsibilities for supporting released convicts? Should the tribunals and the international community consider the strategies of domestic prison systems, where education is often encouraged as a means of healing and skills development?
As the world of international criminal justice plods along and matures, new and uncomfortable questions will undoubtedly emerge, including what the post-incarceration life of war criminals should look like. There are no easy answers. The pursuit of higher education may leave a bitter taste in the mouths of some. But given all of the options and the ever-present risk of war criminals returning to their old habits, encouraging them to pursue an education may be a least-worst option.
Courtside Justice is a bi-monthly column by Mark Kersten, the creator of Justice in Conflict, looking into the politics and dilemmas of international justice.
Justice Hub is an online platform connecting conversations about international justice.
Justice Hub is an online platform aimed at a worldwide audience of 18-35 year olds, especially in countries where people are looking for sustainable and innovative solutions to problems of justice, peace and security. Justice can feel too abstract, too often owned by experts. We make the conversations lively and accessible.
You may republish this article online or in print under our Creative Commons license. You may not edit or shorten the text, you must attribute the article to Aeon and you must include the author’s name in your republication.