Lubanga, child soldiering and the philosophy of international law




Journal Title

Journal ISSN



Volume Title


De Montfort University


Thesis or dissertation

Peer reviewed


International criminal law lacks a coherent theory suitable for its own context. This lacuna has left the International Criminal Court (ICC) – the most prominent global penal institution - without clear theoretical premise(s) to guide prosecution and punishment. In its current incarnation, international criminal draws on Western liberal modalities founded on dominant domestic penal rationales of retribution and deterrence. However, these principles appear incongruous to the crimes the ICC prosecutes. The theoretical rationales of ICC have barely been interrogated against an extant case. In 2012, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) rebel leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo became the first defendant to be convicted and jailed by the ICC for the conscription, enlistment and use of child soldiers. The use of child combatants for purposes of war is a pernicious global problem outlawed in international criminal law. However, of the crimes designated as ‘egregious,’ it has historically been under-enforced and inadequately articulated as a mass crime, and allocated lesser gravity. The seminal case of Lubanga provides us with a propitious opportunity, not only to locate child soldiering, but also inquire into the theoretical underpinnings of the ICC with regards to mass crime. Mass crimes are distinct from ordinary crimes. International courts charged with adjudicating them face constraints and can only prosecute a few of the suspected perpetrators. The overarching theoretical and analytic framework for this thesis is premised on the notion that international criminal law needs a plausible theory or rationale suitable for its context and crimes it prosecutes. It is important for the ICC to premise its work on a realistic rationale for it to be purposive. A more logical analysis of international penality would draw on the conceptual underpinnings of the whole project of international law and specific features of the ICC. A good starting point is to note that international criminal justice is largely symbolic. A more plausible penal rationale would consider the inhibitions the ICC faces and the role it can still perform with regards to mass crime. The ICC symbolises contemporary standards of an ‘international community.’ It is this concept from which we can extrapolate viable rationales for ICC penology. How do the trial, conviction and punishment of Lubanga for the ‘mass crime’ of child soldiering serve the collectivist ethos of international law and society? The project that follows proposes a penal rationale that accounts for the ICC’s sui generis character, the nature of crimes it adjudicates and what the court can realistically achieve. The ultimate value of international criminal law may rest not in its functions of retribution or deterrence, but in its role in identity construction, in particular in constructing a cosmopolitan community identity. The overall argument for the thesis is that while retribution and deterrence are valid, the most plausible rationale for ICC penality is the expressive function of law (expressivism). The few cases of mass crime the ICC can prosecute can achieve primarily more realistic aims of expression of global or ‘cosmopolitan’ norms, norm internalisation and the reinforcement of collectivism international law and society. Lubanga provides an illustrative exemplar for this argument.



Lubanga, child soldiers, expressivism, retribution, deterrenc



Research Institute