World Court Issues First Verdict, Convicting Ex-Congolese Warlord

Article excerpt

JOHANNESBURG -- The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, on Wednesday found former Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga guilty of using children as soldiers, the first verdict in the panel's 10-year history. He could face life imprisonment.

After a three-year trial, the court convicted Mr. Lubanga of recruiting boys and girls under 15 as soldiers during a civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002 and 2003. Although his militia was accused of massacres, rapes, torture and ethnic killings by human rights activists and witnesses, the court only charged him over the recruitment and use of children to fight.

Amnesty International expressed disappointment that the court failed to prosecute other crimes that Mr. Lubanga was alleged to have committed and called upon the ICC to widen its prosecutions in the future. It also urged the court to ensure that trials proceeded more swiftly.

The verdict was seen as a major breakthrough in forcing warlords and politicians to be accountable for atrocities and crimes against humanity, sending a message that international justice eventually would catch up with them.

The ICC was established in 2002 to prosecute cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in cases where local courts are unable to do so, or when local authorities are unwilling to act.

Three victims gave evidence during Mr. Lubanga's trial, while others participated indirectly, such as by making submissions to the court. The evidence said girls forcibly recruited by the warlord were used as sex slaves, while videos aired in court showed Mr. Lubanga surrounded by child combatants.

The verdict sent a clear message that recruiting and using children as combatants or sex slaves is a crime against humanity, including in cases where children joined militias voluntarily. Tens of thousands of children continue to be used in wars across the continent, according to human rights agencies.

Human Rights Watch said the verdict was a first step to bringing justice to those children. "The verdict against Lubanga is a victory for the thousands of children forced to fight in Congo's brutal wars," Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, the organization's justice advocacy director, said in a statement. "Military commanders in Congo and elsewhere should take notice of the ICC's powerful message: Using children as a weapon of war is a serious crime that can lead them to the dock. …