Human rights groups are praising the International Criminal Court for its guilty ruling in a landmark case on child soldiers today, the first verdict issued by the court in the 10 years of its controversial existence.
Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga has been found guilty of conscripting children as young as 11 as fighters, bodyguards and sex slaves. He will face a sentence of up to life in prison.
Mr. Lubanga's militia, the Union of Congolese Patriots, was one of the combatants in a vicious war in northeastern Congo, where an estimated 60,000 people were killed in 2002 and 2003.
Videos played at the three-year trial showed him rallying child soldiers to fight in the war. "The defendant stole the childhood of the victims by forcing them to kill and rape," said the court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo.
It was the first international criminal case to focus on the use of child soldiers, and it could lend momentum to the fight to prosecute others for similar crimes – including Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, the target of a wildly popular video that has gone viral on the Internet with more than 100 million views.
"The chamber reached its decision unanimously that the prosecution has proved Thomas Lubanga guilty of crimes of conscription and enlisting children under the age of 15 and used them to participate in hostilities," presiding judge Adrian Fulford told the Hague-based court today.
"The evidence demonstrated that children endured harsh training regiments and were subjected to hard punishment," he said. "The evidence demonstrated that the children were deployed … and took part in the fighting."
The international court has been criticized for being too slow and bureaucratic, and for focusing exclusively on African conflicts so far. It has not been supported by the United States, China and Russia, and this lack of support has made it difficult for the court to prosecute war crimes in the Middle East or Asia, where suspects are protected by the major superpowers.
Human rights activists hailed the verdict today. "This verdict will contribute to consolidating the legitimacy of the Court, which is essential for the exercise of real, preventive authority," said Dismas Kitenge, vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights.
He said the verdict will benefit the Democratic Republic of Congo, torn by a series of bloody wars over the past two decades. "The Lubanga trial and the verdict should have a preventive effect on the commission of international crimes in the country, and especially the use of child soldiers," Mr. Kitenge said in a statement today.
More than 120 victims participated in the trial. "For the first time, the victims expressed their views and concerns at various stages of the proceedings and, in particular, were able to contest the limited range of charges against Lubanga and request that crimes of sexual violence against the child soldiers be addressed," said Paul Nsapu, secretary general of the International Federation for Human Rights.
Another group, Human Rights Watch, also praised the verdict today. "The verdict against Lubanga is a victory for the thousands of children forced to fight in Congo's brutal wars," said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
"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," she said in a statement.
Actress and activist Angelina Jolie watched the hearing from the public gallery in The Hague today. She said the verdict was a victory for the former child soldiers and will demonstrate that there is no impunity for those who recruit them.
Critics, however, allege that the international court is too expensive and cumbersome, with 700 employees and a budget of nearly $1.2-billion over the past decade. One legal expert, William Schabas, said the court's prosecutor is "woefully behind schedule."
Mr. Kony was the first person to be indicted by the court, but he remains on the run with about 200 followers in Congo or the Central African Republic. In total, the court has 15 cases before it, involving 20 suspects – all in Africa.