Jan 27, 2009

World - Child soldiers trial opens at The Hague

Chris McGreal

The International Criminal Court began its first full trial on Monday of a Congolese militia leader, Thomas Lubanga, over the forced recruitment of child soldiers who were part of a rebel army responsible for mass killings, rape and torture of civilians.

Human rights groups say that the trial at the ICC of the former leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) militia is an important step in putting an end to the use of child soldiers.

Mr. Lubanga is charged with conscripting children under 15 and sending them into combat. But the trial will also be significant as The Hague court tries to establish its credibility after a series of upsets, including the charges against Mr. Lubanga at one point being thrown out.

The political controversy over the very first indictment handed down — against the Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony and the international dispute over the charging of Sudan’s leaders for killings in Darfur — has also damaged the ICC’s credibility.

Human rights groups have criticised the prosecutors for limiting charges against Mr. Lubanga to the recruitment of child soldiers when his UPC was responsible for a host of other crimes, including mass killings, rape and torture of civilians in the Ituri region of north-east Congo.

Ituri was the battleground for fighting between Congolese forces and militias and armies from Rwanda and Uganda after the neighbouring states invaded in 1998.

Nonetheless, Human Rights Watch described the trial as “an important stage” in the efforts to establish responsibility for the use of children in military operations.

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