Legal history was made today in The Hague, the Netherlands, when the International Criminal Court (ICC), which was mandated to try war crimes beginning in 2002, put its first suspect taken into custody, a Congolese warlord accused of recruiting child soldiers, on trial.
The case of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo represents not only the debut proceedings of the ICC but also the first trial in the history of international law to see the active participation of victims in the proceedings, among which will number child combatants.
In today’s proceedings, a plea of not guilty was entered by Mr. Lubanga, the founder and leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots in the Ituri region of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
He is accused of a series of war crimes, including conscripting and enlisting child soldiers into the military wing of his group and then using them to participate in hostilities between September 2002 and August 2003.
In June 2008, the Court decided to impose a stay of proceedings in the case because of non-disclosure of documents on the part of prosecutors but it reversed that decision this past November because the reasons for the stay had “fallen away.”
The hearings will be held before the Court’s Trial Chamber I, before Presiding Judge Adrian Fulford of the United Kingdom and Judges Elisabeth Odio Benito of Costa Rica and René Blattmann of Bolivia, according to an ICC press release.
The ICC added that during the hearings, the Office of the Prosecutor, whose lead counsel is Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, will present a large number of the 1,671 documents which it has compiled in the case, as well as videos allegedly showing Mr. Lubanga in training camps in the company of recruits whose age seems to be below 15.
Established by the Rome Statute of 1998, the ICC can try cases involving individuals charged with war crimes committed since July 2002. The UN Security Council, the ICC Prosecutor or a State Party to the Court can initiate any proceedings, and the ICC only acts when countries themselves are unwilling or unable to investigate or prosecute.
Also today, Alan Doss, the Special Representative of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the DRC, launched an appeal to armed groups in the central African country to demobilize the child soldiers that they have continued to recruit and deploy.
Children’s protection organizations estimate that around 3,000 children are still among the ranks of those groups, mostly in the eastern Kivu provinces.