Justice often comes in baby steps and that was clearly the case Wednesday when the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague handed down its first verdict – against African warlord Thomas Lubanga.
Ten years after the ICC was created, a three-judge panel found Mr. Lubanga guilty of forcing children to fight in the 1998-2003 conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite the many flaws in its process, the ICC was still able to set an important precedent – one that could extend to notorious Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, who is still at large.
For the first time, a global legal body went beyond mere words and took action to enforce the ideal that the inherent innocence of children is so precious as to bring punishment on someone who had conscripted them to kill.
The court’s affirmation of this humane standard – likely to result in a life sentence for the Congolese warlord – was well timed. Since March 5, more than 80 million people, many of them teenagers, have watched the “Kony 2012” video on the Internet about the Ugandan leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
The half-hour documentary by the nonprofit group Invisible Children details the atrocities of the cultist Mr. Kony, especially his use of thousands of child soldiers. This worldwide interest in the welfare of children in war zones – spread through social media – only confirms the ICC’s role in bringing justice to “the worst crimes in the world where no one is investigating,” as lead prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo says.
Kony and the ICC’s historic first verdict have another connection.
The court lacks direct enforcement authority to bring the accused to the Netherlands for trial. It must rely on the willingness of countries to help. In Kony’s case, President Obama sent 130 US Marines to central Africa last year to help capture the LRA leader.
The ICC was set up in 2002 to bring uniformity to the world’s attempts to apply universal values by punishing those who commit war crimes. Past use of temporary tribunals for specific situations like those in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and Cambodia was not seen as strong enough to prevent future atrocities on a global scale.
The ICC has a long way to go to prove itself. It does not honor certain rights, such as being tried by one’s peers or the right to a speedy trial. Lubanga, for example, had to wait six years after being captured to be found guilty.
The ICC’s work may be hindered by the appearance that it is too focused on Africa, which worries many developing countries. The court also ignores alternatives to Western-style justice, such as truth commissions or village methods of confronting guilty people in ways that achieve reconciliation.
Adding to the ICC’s credibility woes is the fact that the United States, China, and Russia refuse to join the treaty that created it. The US is uncertain if court prosecutors might someday deem an American soldier’s actions in a foreign country as a war crime. And starting in 2017, the court will start prosecuting leaders who engage in wars of “aggression,” even though the term remains too loosely defined.
Thus, Wednesday’s verdict is a baby step for the ICC. But with each new verdict, the court can help more of humanity accept the life-affirming values in bringing war criminals to justice.