In ICC, Congo warlord pleads not guilty to recruiting child soldiers

In the International Criminal Court (ICC) today, Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga pleaded not guilty today to charges of training child soldiers to kill ethnic rivals in his country’s 1998-2003 war.

Mr. Lubanga faced a blistering assault from chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo on the opening day of his trial.

"Lubanga's armed group recruited and trained hundreds of children to kill, pillage, and rape. Hundreds of children still suffer the consequences of Lubanga's crimes," said Mr. Moreno-Ocampo.

"They cannot forget the beatings they suffered, they cannot forget the terror they felt and the terror they inflicted. They cannot forget the sounds of the machine guns, they cannot forget that they killed. They cannot forget that they raped, that they were raped."

Lubanga’s trial is a landmark of sorts – for the court, and for Africa. He was the first defendant charged and arrested by the court, which was created in 2002 by a multinational treaty. His initial appearance, in 2006, raised hopes in the international justice community that the world’s tyrants could no longer operate with impunity.

It’s also significant for Africa, where presidents, dictators, and warlords have gone largely unpunished for decades. Lubanga’s arrest, along with that of Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor, signals a possible end to that “era of impunity,” as former Monitor correspondent Abe McLaughlin dubbed it in a 2006 story.

But the philosophical victory is far removed from the practical demands of achieving that victory. For a nitty-gritty view of the challenges involved in executing international justice, read correspondent Stephanie Haneschronicle from Bunia, Congo, where Lubanga allegedly recruited children for his militia.

Not only is it difficult to collect evidence on Lubanga in his native, war-ravaged Congo, but there are times when the ICC's moves to bring African warlords to justice may hinder efforts for peace. For instance, many in Sudan are very worried that the ICC's expected move to issue an arrest warrant for sitting President Omar al-Bashir for alleged war crimes in Darfur could jeopardize the tenous peace between the country's Arab-dominated north and its Christian and animist south.

The Monitor's Africa Bureau Chief, Scott Baldauf, reported last year that fear of international prosecution is seen as a major stumbling block to getting Zimbabwean officials in Robert Mugabe's government to agree to step down and pave the way for a political settlement to that country's crisis.

That same justice-vs.-peace argument has been used most, however, in Uganda, where victims of that country's brutal war with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) insist that the ICC efforts to bring LRA rebel leaders to justice are preventing their communities from moving beyond war. The LRA has refused to sign a peace deal unless ICC indictments against them for war crimes are dropped. As the Monitor reported in 2007, Ugandan authorities have been considering setting up their own tribunals.

The ICC is controversial in the US, which supported the court under Clinton but revoked its support under Bush. For a provocative take on why the US should join the ICC, here’s an OpEd piece by Alex Little, a US lawyer and former consultant to the ICC.

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