WATAMU, Kenya — Nearly 10 years after opening its doors as a bold attempt at a global justice system, the International Criminal Court has reached its first verdict, finding a Congolese rebel leader guilty Wednesday of using child soldiers in violation of international law.
The ruling against Thomas Lubanga, a rebel leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo who was arrested in 2005 by the Congolese government and handed over to the international court for action, gives the court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, his first conviction before his 10-year term ends later this year.
The completion of the Lubanga case is a milestone for a court that was envisioned as the anchor of an international justice system but that has been better known during its first decade for chronic delays and political controversies than for its swift action against accused war criminals.
"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.
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The ICC was set up in the wake of atrocities in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s as a way to punish those responsible for the world's gravest mass crimes. It is mandated to prosecute only genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
But the court's operations have been hampered by its political limitations: nations can choose whether to sign up with the court, and the ICC, which is based in The Hague, Netherlands, has no police force of its own to make arrests.
While 120 countries have signed the treaty joining the court, the U.S. has refused, partially out of fear that American soldiers could be prosecuted for actions abroad.
The ICC's weaknesses have been obvious in the court's first decade: Two of its highest profile targets — Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, and Omar al Bashir, the president of Sudan — remain free. Bashir has defiantly traveled to several countries that signed the court's founding treaty without being arrested.
Last year, Ocampo brought indictments against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and his son, Saif al Islam Gadhafi, for crimes against humanity. The elder Gadhafi was executed by rebels who captured him, while Saif Gadhafi remains a prisoner in Libya and has yet to be brought to trial.
Some critics have blasted Ocampo for having brought cases only for crimes committed in Africa, while others say that the court's heavy-handed pursuit of justice often tramples on the very peace initiatives that have the best chance of ending conflicts.
The Lubanga case highlighted the court's other, more technical, growing pains. The case was referred to the ICC for investigation in 2004 by the Congolese government, and Lubanga was handed over in 2006. But the trial did not begin until 2009, and advocates for victim justice expressed dismay at the jolting start-and-stop nature of the case, often caused by procedural hiccups.
In its judgment Wednesday, the ICC chided the prosecutor for sloppy investigations that resulted in some evidence being thrown out and prolonging the trial.
Lubanga's sentence will be decided at a later date. The Congolese warlord can appeal the ruling.
While critics accuse outgoing prosecutor Ocampo of focusing heavily on Africa, he is not the only one who seems entranced by the continent's bloody conflicts and unruly warlords. Celebrities, doubling as human rights activists, are taking an increasingly public profile in speaking out about African affairs.
On the same day that actor George Clooney was testifying before Congress in Washington about his recent trip to Sudan and South Sudan, actress Angelina Jolie, who has funded a project that distributed news of the Lubanga trial in the Democratic Republic of Congo, attended the announcement of the ICC's verdict at The Hague.
"Perhaps today's verdict of guilty provides some measure of comfort for the victims of Mr. Lubanga's actions. Most of all it sends a strong message against the use of child soldiers," Jolie said in a statement issued by the ICC prosecutor's office.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is supported in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.)
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