THE HAGUE — The International Criminal Court on Wednesday convicted a Congolese warlord of using child soldiers, a verdict hailed as a legal landmark in the fight against impunity for the world’s most serious crimes.
Human rights advocates said the guilty verdicts against Thomas Lubanga - the first judgment in the court’s 10-year history - should stand as a clear deterrent to armies around the world not to conscript children.
Lubanga will be sentenced after a hearing that will be scheduled later this year. He faces a maximum of life imprisonment.
The judgment came at a time when the court is under scrutiny for its inability to arrest key war-crimes suspects and its impotence in not being able to intervene in the bloody conflict raging in Syria.
The court was catapulted into the limelight last week by a viral video highlighting how it still has not arrested Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony nearly seven years after indicting him for crimes, including using child soldiers, murder and torture.
The court has no police force of its own and has to rely on states to enforce its arrest warrants.
It also can only open investigations in the 120 countries that have recognized its jurisdiction or at the request of the U.N. Security Council. Nations including the United States, China, Russia and Syria are not members.
That means it can’t launch a probe into widespread allegations that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad are systematically committing atrocities to put down an anti-government revolt.
So far, all seven of the investigations launched by the court are in Africa.
The highest profile suspects among five in custody are former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo and ex-Congo Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted for genocide in Darfur but refuses to surrender to the court.
It took six years from the time Congo handed over Lubanga to his convictions, but ultimately the three-judge panel was unanimous in finding him guilty.
“The prosecution has proved beyond reasonable doubt that Mr. Thomas Lubanga is guilty of the crimes of conscripting and enlisting children under the age of 15 years and using them to participate actively in hostilities,” said Presiding Judge Adrian Fulford.
Lubanga, wearing an ivory-colored robe and skull cap, sat with his hands clasped in front of him listening to the verdict and showed no emotion as Judge Fulford declared him guilty.
As he left court flanked by guards, Lubanga nodded and smiled to supporters in the public gallery.