A step forward for international justice

Inaugural trial for a permanent war crimes court is latest move to rein in world's worst criminals.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As court appearances go, it was short - particularly considering the gravity of the defendant's alleged crimes. On Monday, Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga stood before the International Criminal Court for 30 minutes. He wore a dark suit and yellow tie, and gave his occupation as "politician."

Still, for the cause of international justice, this exchange may have been a big step. Mr. Lubanga is the first suspect to stand trial before The Hague-based permanent war crimes tribunal. Four years after its creation, the ICC is finally in business.

The ICC is controversial in the US, and some other big war crimes trials have struggled of late. But overall, the advent of the ICC may be emblematic of the world's increasing efforts to try and bring the worst tyrants to the dock.

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"There's no reversing the momentum at this point in time," says Louis Aucoin, a professor at the Institute for Human Security at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

According to the ICC, Lubanga was the founder and leader of one of the most dangerous militias in Congo's lawless northeastern district of Ituri. Militia violence in that region has caused tens of thousands of casualties in recent years.

He will be charged with recruiting children under the age of 15 for service as soldiers, and perhaps with other crimes, said ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

The ICC has issued warrants for the arrest of alleged war criminals from Uganda, but Lubanga is the first suspect to be captured and transferred to ICC custody. That's a major step for the tribunal, said Mr. Moreno-Ocampo this week.

"For 100 years, a permanent international tribunal was a dream. This dream is becoming reality," Moreno-Ocampo said.

To be sure, the news about other war tribunals hasn't been good in recent weeks.

At The Hague, last week's death of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic ended his trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavie prematurely, after four tumultuous years.

Victims of the violence unleashed by Milosevic may now feel cheated of justice. The late Serbian strongman's supporters may remain unconvinced of his guilt.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein has proved an adept fulminator as he tries to turn his trial into a referendum on the US, not his brutal regime. The Iraqi tribunal has switched judges, and gone in and out of executive session, as the Iraqi government tries to control proceedings.

However, Iraqi prosecutors may have learned from the mistakes of the Yugoslavia tribunal.

Saddam was not allowed to represent himself, as Milosevic was, denying him extra time in the spotlight. And he has been directly confronted with documents that appear to tie him to the crimes with which he has been charged.

But the problems of the Yugoslavia and Iraq tribunals may be exceptions to the rule. Gradually, the world may be getting more and more used to the idea of supra-national courts designed to judge the worst of the globe's worst.

The Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials pioneered this concept after World War II. More recently, they've been followed by ad hoc courts established after the end of bitter conflicts. For example, in the 1990s the UN Security Council established tribunals to prosecute perpetrators of genocide in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Then there are the so-called "hybrid tribunals," which combine local and international representation. The first of these was set up jointly by the UN and the Sierra Leonean government in 2002 to investigate atrocities. Based in Sierra Leone, it is financed by voluntary contributions from UN members, and operates with both local and international judges.

The International Criminal Court is separate from these. It was established, per a multinational treaty, in 2002.

Each new development in international justice generates euphoria among supporters, and each then has teething problems, notes Louis Aucoin of Tufts.

But seen in the sweep of decades the world is "steadily progressing" toward some sort of accepted justice regime, he says.

That said, the United States is not a participant in the International Criminal Court, and has serious reservations about its jurisdiction. The Bush administration took the unusual step of un-signing the treaty in 2002, after the US had signed it during the Clinton years.

The US wants ultimate control over whether or not its citizens would face ICC prosecution. It would accomplish this by giving the UN Security Council, where the US has a veto, power over ICC moves.

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