The International Criminal Court (ICC) began the first prosecution of its short history yesterday, in the case of a Democratic Republic of the Congo militia leader, Thomas Lubanga. Lubanga, who once led the powerful and ruthless militia Union Congolese Patriots (UPC) , has been charged with "conscripting and enlisting children under the age of fifteen years and using them to participate actively in hostilities", essentially turning them into killers in the Congo's eastern Ituri region. Judges at the ICC are to decide whether Lubanga should stand trial for allegedly recruiting child soldiers.
Prosecutors said that at the height of the conflict, many of the child soldiers were themselves killed during the fighting. As many as 30,000 children, both boys and girls, were part of Mr. Lubanga's militia. The children served as fighters, cooks, carriers and sex slaves, some as young as ten years old. A estimate of four million people were killed during the four year war in DRC.
Lubanga was transferred to ICC custody on March 17, 2006 by Congolese authorities. The purpose of the hearing is to determine whether there is enough evidence to establish substantial grounds to believe that Lubanga committed the crimes with which he is charged. If the judges confirm the charges, the case will proceed to trial - marking the first time an individual is brought before an international court soley on the basis of these crimes. "The case is a landmark in the fight against impunity for these crimes affecting children in the DRC and worldwide," said Chief Prosecutor Luis Moren-Ocampo, an Argentinian who started his career in international human rights prosecuting top military commanders for mass killings and large-scale human rights abuses in his home country. Deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda of Gambia explained, "regardless of the outcome of the proceedings, this case exposes the destructiveness of forcing children to fight adult wars, a practice that puts their lives at risk and jeaopardizes entire communities." The hearings are expected to last until the end of the month.
The ICC was created as a permanent institution to end the need to continuously creat ad hoc war crimes tribunals, like those for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, both of which have been prosecuting war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide for the past ten years.
NYT reported, that some question whether the focus on child soliders is the "right" first case for the ICC. Rights groups, which strongly support the court, have criticized the charges against Lubanga, saying the focus on child soldiers overlooked the many grave crimes of his militia like ethnic massacres, murder, torture, rape and mutilation. "Recruiting children has been practiced in many places in Africa since the 1960s and many Congolese don't consider this as serious as massacres and other atrocities," said Geraldine Mattioli, a lawyer at Human Rights Watch who followed the Congolese war.