Legal Opinion: International justice is on trial at The Hague

The International Criminal Court has the support of more than 100 countries. Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, considers the impact of its first case
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The Independent Online

The eyes of the world will be closely watching the progress of the trial of the Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, who faces life imprisonment over allegations that he recruited child soldiers to his sectarian army.

This week judges ordered Lubanga to be the first defendant to face war-crime charges under the new jurisdiction at the International Criminal Court.

The case is of course important to the millions of civilian victims of the bitter fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But the prosecution has a far wider resonance in that it serves as a warning to all those who believe they have nothing to fear when they carry out atrocities in the name of war. At a public hearing in The Hague, the presiding judge, Claude Jorda, announced that evidence presented by prosecutors was sufficient to "establish strong grounds to believe" that Lubanga was responsible "for war crimes consisting of enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15".

Lubanga, 46, who has a psychology degree, was arrested in Kinshasa in March 2005 and moved to a high-security detention facility near the Dutch North Sea coast the following year. He may be the only suspect in ICC custody but court prosecutors are confident he will not be alone for long. The ICC confirmed this week that the investigation is ongoing and will lead to other warrants' being sought against members of other armed groups active in the Ituri region of Congo.

But it is in another war-torn part of Africa that the jurisdiction of the court may have its greatest political impact. Next month the ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo is to submit evidence to the judges of some of the worst crimes committed in the Darfur region of Sudan. Over the past four years the international community has shown itself mostly ineffectual in its efforts to end the genocide in Darfur and two years ago the UN Security Council referred allegations of war crimes to the ICC.

Mr Moreno-Ocampo says that his investigations have gathered evidence which points to specific individuals who appear to bear the greatest responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity including persecution, torture, murder, and rape:

This Council [the UN Security Council] has recognised that justice for victims will contribute to enhancing security and will send an important warning - beyond the borders of Darfur - to those individuals who might otherwise resort to violence and the commission of crimes to achieve their aims.

He said the first case focuses on a series of incidents in 2003 and 2004, when the most serious crimes occurred in large numbers and reveals an "underlying operational system" at work. As Mr Moreno-Ocampo prepares to present the evidence to the judges, he says he is closely following allegations of current crimes reported to exacerbate the suffering of the vulnerable population in Darfur, including more than two million already displaced by the violence. Despite the Darfur Peace Agreement, there continue to be reports, almost daily, of grave criminal acts, including sexual assaults of women and children and attacks on villages, in addition to reports of attacks against humanitarian aid workers and African Union peacekeepers.

"The perpetrators are standing in the way of peace and security,"Mr Moreno-Ocampo recently told the United Nations.