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It's been more than a month since the International Criminal Court issued its first arrest warrant against a sitting head of state, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir was charged with war crimes in Darfur. He has defied the warrant and even traveled to other Arab countries. But the International Court is making headway in other cases and it's already holding its first trial, which focuses on child soldiers in Congo.
Jerome Socolovsky went to The Hague and sent this report.
JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: There was a moment of uncertainty in the first trial when a former child soldier from the Democratic Republic of Congo took the witness stand.
Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)
SOCOLOVSKY: His voice was scrambled to disguise him from the public, but he was in full view of the defendant, rebel militia leader, Thomas Lubanga. The boy got cold feet and retracted the testimony that the prosecutor was hoping he'd give.
Unidentified Man #1: I'm asking you to tell us now whether you attended a training camp or not.
Unidentified Child: (Through Translator) No.
SOCOLOVSKY: The session was adjourned, and when the witness took the stand again, the defendant had been put in another room to watch the proceeding on a monitor. The former child soldier no longer felt intimidated. He told how soldiers kidnapped him and forcibly trained him in warfare. With special protection measures for former child soldiers, the court seems to have ironed out the kinks of the trial's first days.
Since then, a succession of young witnesses have told harrowing tales of the conflict in the Ituri region of northwestern Congo. Antonia Pereira(ph) is one of the idealistic young staffers in the prosecutor's office. Over a drink at a cafe in The Hague, the 27-year-old Brazilian says she believes the first trial is already having a deterrent effect.
Ms. Antonia Pereira (Prosecutor Staff): Been having impact. I mean, we hear about this trial and the question of child soldiers, for instance, is now brought forth to the community. And it seems perpetrators or leaders of militia groups are also taking this into account, and they're looking at what's happening in The Hague.
SOCOLOVSKY: The ICC is the first permanent international court that can try individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. More than 100 countries have ratified its statute. And while the Bush administration opposed the ICC, the Obama administration supported the arrest warrant against Sudan's president. It's now considering whether to take a more positive overall stance on the Court.
The ICC's chief prosecutor is Luis Moreno-Ocampo. He made a name for himself prosecuting military commanders in Argentina. He says the International Court is at a juncture.
Mr. LUIS MORENO-OCAMPO (ICC Chief Prosecutor): Yes, it's a cross in road. Are we going to establish a community in the world that respects basic ideas, basic systems? Or we allow leaders to commit massive crimes and nothing will happen to them?
SOCOLOVSKY: Sudan's leader is wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. But after the arrest warrant was issued in March, al-Bashir responded by expelling aid groups. Critics argue that the victims are paying a high price for global justice. Ocampo rejects that argument.
Mr. MORENO-OCAMPO: It's like if we rediscovered Auschwitz, and we're saying, okay, but Goebbels will manage Auschwitz now, we discover. So, and he promise he will do it well. It's the same.
SOCOLOVSKY: Many of the Court's opponents in the U.S. have warned that it could be hijacked for political prosecutions against America. But abroad, its loudest critics have accused it of being pro-western. Some have even called it racist, because the Lubanga trial and the six other preliminary cases all deal with Africa. Ocampo says the real racists are the people he's trying to bring to justice.
Mr. MORENO-OCAMPO: They kill people, Arab people. They kill Muslim people. They kill black people. And they were saying we kill you Africans. And because we expose this crime, we are the (unintelligible) here. That's fascinating.
SOCOLOVSKY: The prosecutor says he's also looking into cases in Colombia, Georgia, Afghanistan, Kenya and Cote d'Ivoire. The Palestinian Authority has asked him to investigate Israeli actions during the war in Gaza. But he says it's not clear he has the jurisdiction to do so.
Human rights activists recently visited the Court and met with its staff. Justine Masika Bihamba is from a group that helps victims of sexual violence in the Congo.
Ms. JUSTINE MASIKA BIHAMBA (Founder, Women's Synergy for the Victims of Sexual Violence): (Through Translator) She says that African leaders have to understand that no one is above the law. And when over and above other crimes, there's a crime of sending away humanitarian organizations, she says that, no. They have to understand the law is applicable to everyone equally.
SOCOLOVSKY: International justice was once largely the preserve of haughty jurists in chandeliered palaces. Now there's a tribunal located in a Dutch industrial park that believes it's fulfilling the promise of global justice for all.
For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in The Hague.
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