The International Criminal Court delivered its first ever verdict in The Hague this morning in the case of Thomas Lubanga. Lubanga, who became the political leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots in 2002, had been charged with recruiting and using child soldiers in armed hostilities in the north-eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He pleaded not guilty to the charges and contended during trial that he did not take any part in the hostilities. Lubanga also argued that he was only the political leader of the UCP and was not the commander of the party’s armed wing. However, the Prosecution accused Lubanga of using boys and girls under the age of 15 as bodyguards, sex slaves and soldiers.
During the proceedings video footage was admitted into evidence which appeared to depict Lubanga inciting child soldiers to actively participate in tribal warfare in the north-eastern region of the DRC. In a unanimous decision, the three trial judges held that the evidence proved that as the leader of the UCP and its armed faction, Lubanga was responsible for the recruitment of child soldiers who took part in inter-tribal warfare in the region. This is landmark decision for a number of reasons. First of all, it is the first verdict to be handed down by the International Criminal Court after it was established more than ten years ago. It is also the first ever trial to focus specifically on the use of child soldiers in an armed conflict situation and therefore could set a precedent for individuals such as Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, who still remains at large.
At the same time, the trial of Thomas Lubanga was not without controversy. In June 2008, the proceedings were halted after the court ruled that the refusal by the Prosecutor to disclose exculpatory evidence, from sources such as the United Nations, had infringed the accused’s right to a fair trial. Even though the Prosecutor had acquired the evidence on the condition of confidentiality the trial chamber held that the Prosecutor had wrongly applied the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. As a consequence, the International Criminal Court ordered the release of Lubanga on the grounds that a fair trial of the accused was not possible because there was no longer any justification for his continued detention. However an Appeal Chamber agreed to keep Lubanga in custody while the Prosecutor appealed the trial chamber’s decision. In November 2008, the Prosecutor agreed to make all confidential information available to the trial chamber. As a result, the trial chamber overturned its ruling and ordered the resumption of the trial. Although the Prosecutor was widely criticised for his conduct the International Criminal Court was commended for its efforts to ensure the fair trial of Lubanga.
Nevertheless, the International Criminal Court can be criticised for a number of reasons. States such as China, Russia and the United States who are permanent veto-holding members of the UN Security Council have not signed the Rome treaty establishing the Court. This in turn has arguably undermined the authority and influence of the court in the international arena. The Court is also impeded in carrying out its functions by not having its own police force to execute arrest warrants and as a consequence relies on the goodwill and support of the international community to capture and detain suspects. However, the most contentious issue is that despite the fact that theInternational Criminal Court has nearly 700 employees and had a budget of nearly 900 million dollars during the first decade of its existence it still took almost seven years to initiate the trial of Thomas Lubanga.
International legal experts, such as Professor Schabas at Middlesex University, have also criticised the outgoing Prosecutor of the ICC, Moreno Ocampo, for only investigating and initiating proceedings against the losing parties in armed conflict situations. In particular, Professor Schabas has argued that the prosecutor has “avoided situations where he would be likely to step on the toes of the permanent members of the Security Council, from Afghanistan to Gaza, to Iraq, to Columbia.” In conclusion, a persuasive argument can be made that the International Criminal Court may not be fulfilling the actual purpose for which it was established; to bring individuals suspected of committing international crimes to justice.