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Human rights

Global justice presses on

by Claudia Isabel Rittel
Establishing international rule of law is a laborious process. But progress is being made, as recent events prove. The International Criminal Court (ICC) opened the principal proceedings of its first trial. Among other things, former Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga is accused of recruiting child soldiers. The Special Tribunal for Cambodia also launched its first trial for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. And in the proceedings against Liberian ex-dictator Charles Taylor, the prosecution wound up its presentation of evidence.

In February, Thomas Lubanga became the first defendant to stand trial before the permanent International Criminal Court (ICC). The Congolese warlord is charged in The Hague with conscripting and enlisting children under the age of 15 and deploying them actively in hostilities between September 2002 and August 2003. From 2000 to 2003, in the Ituri region of northeastern Congo, repeated conflicts over land and mineral resources occurred between members of the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups. Close to 100,000 people died in the violent clashes and massacres that took place there during that time. Lubanga was president of the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC), an armed militia in Ituri composed mostly of Hema fighters.

“The defendant stole his victims' childhood,” ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said in his opening address at the trial. “They were forced to kill and rape.” Lubanga has pleaded not guilty.

The case of Lubanga is significant for several reasons.
– It matters to the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) that Lubanga is held accountable.
– This trial is one of the first to focus primarily on the recruitment of child soldiers.
– This is the first trial conducted by the ICC.

Established by the Rome Statute in 1998, the ICC started work in 2002. So far, more than a hundred countries have joined the Court but key states like the United States and Israel still refuse to participate. The ICC’s present jurisdiction encompasses three groups of crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed since 2002.

The Congo is the ICC’s main focus at present. In addition to Lubanga, other Congolese warlords are facing ICC charges. Since January, the Court has been investigating whether it can mount a trial against the former vice-president and opposition politician Jean-Pierre Bemba. Also awaiting trial are Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, both of whom were senior commanders in the Forces de Résistance Patriotique en Ituri (FRPI). All three have already been remanded to The Hague. Still at liberty, however, is Bosco Ntaganda, who has been leader of the Tutsi rebel group Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) since the arrest of Laurent Nkunda. Altogether, the International Criminal Court has so far issued 12 public arrest warrants; four suspects are in custody in The Hague.

The idea of creating an international judicial authority has been around a long time. It was first translated into action after the Second World War, when war crime tribunals were set up in Nuremberg and Tokyo. During the Cold War years that followed, the idea of establishing an international court was abandoned; the debate did not resume until the 1990s. The first signs of progress were a series of ad hoc tribunals: in 1993, the
United Nations resolved to set up a tribunal to try war crimes in former Yugoslavia. Just one year later, the Security Council created a similar institution for Rwanda. More special tribunals followed for prosecuting crimes in Sierra Leone, Timor Leste and Cambodia. The Tribunal dealing with the Balkans sentenced four Serbian leaders to long prison terms in February, but did not find enough evidence against former Vice President Milan Miutinovic for doing so.

In late February, the special court in Sierra Leone found Augustine Gbao, Morris Kallon and Issa Sesay guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. During the civil war, they had been commanders of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). In the trial against former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, who is said to have supported the RUF in Sierra Leone and is currently being held in detention in The Hague for safety reasons, the prosecution has finished presenting its evidence. The special court’s verdict is expected at the end of the year. If sentenced, Taylor would be the first former African head of state to be convicted of war crimes by an international court.

Taylor’s son of the same name, who has US nationality, was recently given a 97-year jail sentence in Miami for participation in torture and mass executions. It is the first time an American court has ruled on crimes committed abroad.

Unlike the atrocities in the Balkans and West Africa, the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia date back more than 30 years, and their prosecution has been moving slowly. Kaing Guek, who ran the S-21 security centre – one of the worst torture and execution facilities of the Khmer Rouge regime, became the first to face trial at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal that has been active since February 2009. The prosecution claims that more than 12,300 detainees were murdered at the centre under Guek’s supervision. Kaing Guek, also known as “Duch”, has already confessed.

A quarter of Cambodians died in the reign of terror from 1975 to 1979. The Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, who imposed a brutal rural communism, gave orders for teachers, doctors and intellectuals, in particular, to be arrested and executed. Many people died of starvation or untreated disease. The crimes have gone unpunished until now. Pol Pot died in detention because it took so long to set up the special tribunal. Critics fear that the same could happen to other top-level defendants.

So far only five Khmer Rouge leaders have been arrested – far too few, says Human Rights Watch. At present, investigations are under way against former President Khieu Samphan, Pol Pot’s chief ideologue Nouon Che, former Foreign Minister Ieng Saray and former Social-Affairs Minister Ieng Thirit. They are all around 80 years old. Yet the trials are not expected to start before the end of the year.

Critics, including Human Rights Watch, accuse the Cambodian government under Prime Minister Hun Sen of trying to obstruct the work of the tribunal and prevent the crimes being prosecuted. Unlike other ad hoc tribunals, most of which are associated with the United Nations, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is an extra chamber within the Cambodian judiciary. National and international prosecutors and judges cooperate.

Claudia Isabel Rittel

Editor's note: After D+C went to press, the ICC passed an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir because of war crimes in the Darfur region of his country.