Int'l Court Takes Case of Congo's Child Soldiers

The newly created International Criminal Court was set up to bring to justice some of the world's worst war criminals. The first case, expected to go to trial soon, involves a militia leader from the Ituri region of Congo and the use of child soldiers.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

A militia leader from eastern Congo is said to become the first defendant to go on trial at the new International Criminal Court in the Hague. That court was set up to bring justice to the world's worst war criminals.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has our report.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The conflicting Congo's Ituri region has been a particularly gruesome and complicated one, a battle among ethnic groups and militias fighting for the area's natural resources.

For now, the International Criminal Court has decided to focus on one man, Thomas Lubanga, and one crime, the use of child soldiers.

The main prosecutor in the case, Fatou Bensouda, came to NPR recently and explained why the court decided to deal with this issue initially.

Mr. FATOU BENSOUDA (Prosecutor): The idea is to lay the focus on this particular atrocity happening. We feel that this is one of the least reported crimes that is happening globally, and of course the least punished.

ELLIOTT: Aid groups suspect there are still some 3,000 children under the age of 15 being held by various rebel factions in Ituri, not just Lubanga's. Thousands of others have been released since the United Nations sent peacekeepers three years ago.

One local priest reached by phone in Ituri's capital questions the court's focus on this issue. Alfred Buju, who runs the Justice and Peace Commission, says the use of child soldiers is not unique to the conflict that has raged in his region of Congo.

Father ALFRED BUJU (Justice and Peace Commission): (Speaking foreign language)

ELLIOTT: But what makes the conflict in Ituri different, he says, are the war crimes, the rapes, the vandalism, even cannibalism, and just the number of people who have been killed: 50,000.

Prosecutor Ben Suda(ph) said the case against rebel leader Lubanga is just a starting point.

Ms. BEN SUTA (Prosecutor): This is the first case. This is not the last. We're investigating other groups. We will investigate other leaders. We're investigating other crimes. So we are there. We started with Lubanga. We are not ending with Lubanga.

KELEMEN: The court is hoping this case will prove to be a deterrent to others who might enlist children into the wars. An expert on child soldiers at the International Rescue Committee, Marie de la Sudiair(ph), says the international community would have to do much more to help children be accepted back into their communities. She recalls meeting girls in Ituri too scared to return after being raped repeatedly in captivity.

Ms. MARIE DE LA SUDIAIR (International Rescue Committee): Just to say, you know, no child soldiers, then they should all go home; what does it mean when the country has been devastated and there is absolutely nothing for the children? They will be ripe for volunteering for the next group that's going to come up. So this is really a reminder that after what has been done to the children, the humanitarian international community really has a duty to make things right.

KELEMEN: The child solider case is expected to go to trial in the coming weeks. The International Criminal Court is also investigating the use of child soldiers in Uganda and is looking into crimes in Darfur, Sudan. Ben Suta, a lawyer from West Africa, brushed off criticism that the Hague-based court has so far focused solely on Africa.

Ms. SUTA: We are in Africa because according to our assessment, the gravity assessment, the crimes happening today in the world, I think by far the gravest is happening in Africa.

KELEMEN: She says many African nations are part of the court and were a major force behind its creation.

Ms. SUTA: This is Africans saying that we want this court to happen. Okay, we are not in a position to investigate and prosecute these crimes, maybe because of capacity, maybe because of, you know, willingness. But we want impunity to end.

KELEMEN: The Bush administration doesn't support the court, fearing it could be used for politically charged cases against Americans. Ben Suta and her team are under pressure in their first case to show they can do what the court was meant to do, to focus on crimes against humanity that too often go unpunished. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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