/ January 27, 2009

The Hague’s First Trial Begins After Much Controversy

Although it’s been open for six years, the International Criminal Court in The Hague began its first trial on Monday. On trial is Thomas Lubanga, a former Congolese warlord.  Mr. Lubanga, 48, once the leader of a powerful and violent militia, is accused of war crimes, including commandeering children under the age of 15 and sending them into war to maim and kill. He pleaded not guilty to the crimes, which prosecutors said occurred in 2002-2003 during ethnic fighting in the Ituri region of Eastern Congo.
Supporters of the court have hailed the long-awaited trial as a momentous step for the tribunal, created to try large-scale human rights violations; the critics contend it has been far too long in coming. Both sides see the trial as a test case that will be closely watched by lawyers and human rights activists.
Last July, as the trial was about to start, judges put a halt to the proceedings, citing legal and strategic errors by the prosecution. The judges said the prosecution’s handling of evidence amounted to “wholesale and serious abuse” and ruled that at that point a fair trial was not possible.
Now that the errors have been redressed, Mr. Lubanga will be tried by three international judges — from Britain, Costa Rica and Bolivia — in a process that is expected to last until the end of this year.
One question now being asked in The Hague is whether the Obama administration will re-establish links with the court. The Clinton administration signed the 1998 treaty establishing the court, but the Bush administration withdrew its endorsement, leaving the United States as the only major Western power not to recognize the court’s authority.
Operating independently from the United Nations, the court now has 108 member countries, many of whom have signed but not yet ratified the founding treaty. The court’s mission is to try large-scale war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in countries that are unwilling or unable to punish perpetrators themselves.
Unlike the temporary tribunals set up to try crimes in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Cambodia, the International Criminal Court is permanent.
The case is making use of a new step for international law, namely allowing victims to participate in the trial and be represented by their own lawyers, who can make statements, bring witnesses and ask questions in court. A group of 93 victims is participating in this case. This new role for the victims and their representatives has set off much debate and also caused delay in pre-trial proceedings.
Prosecutors will start their case against Mr. Lubanga by calling on more than 30 witnesses, nine of them young men and women who were themselves former child soldiers. At the height of the conflict in Ituri in 2003, as many as 30,000 young boys and girls were believed to be part of the militia forces, prosecutors say. Many were abducted, while others joined in exchange for food, drugs and weapons.

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