African Countries Appeal to ICC

The trial of accused Democratic Republic of Congo war criminal Thomas Lubanga, which began this week, will be like no other.

That's because he will be the first person tried in the International Criminal Court, an international court developed more than six years ago to try some of the world's worst criminals.

The court is based at The Hague, Netherlands, and is an independent international organization. Although it works closely with the United Nations, it is not a part of the group, which still has the power to establish tribunals at the end of conflicts as it did for Rwanda and Bosnia. The international court gives the world another tool to fight people who commit egregious crimes during war, spokeswoman Sonia Robla said.

"It's not a special court, it's not a tribunal," Robla told ABC News. "It's a permanent court, with universal principles. The idea is to have an institution where perpetrators of the most serious crimes can be tried."

Here's how it works: People who have committed "crimes against humanity" in conflict situations but whose country doesn't have the means (or the will) to try the person can now be tried at the court in The Hague.

And, unlike a U.N. tribunal, the conflict can be ongoing. These are not ordinary criminals; their crimes include allegations of genocide, mass rape, recruiting and using child soldiers, crimes that are considered violations of the Geneva Convention on Human Rights. A prosecutor will present a case, including testimony from some of the accusers, after which the accused's attorney will present the defense.

Lubanga, for example, stands accused of recruiting and kidnapping thousands of children, some as young as 8, to fight as part of his rebel force in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 2002 to 2003.

Young boys were allegedly given drugs and guns and forced to fight on the front lines. Young girls are alleged to have suffered a worse fate, being forced into sexual slavery, as well as fighting. Lubanga is accused of even using some of the child soldiers as his bodyguards.

Lubanga has pleaded not guilty, saying he was only protecting his tribe from other rival rebel groups, and his lawyer has called the court unfair and a mockery of justice.

Court Looks at Four African Countries

The international court is so far addressing cases involving conflicts in four countries, all of them African:

Democratic Republic of Congo: Three people, including Lubanga, have been arrested on charges of conscription of child soldiers, murder and rape and are in custody; another is still at large.

Uganda: Arrest warrants have been issued for four members of the Northern Ugandan Rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army, including its infamous leader, Joseph Kony. All have been charged with rape, mass murder, enslavement, sexual enslavement and forced enlisting of children. The international court warrants allege that Kony and his compatriots are responsible for more than 2,000 deaths and 3,000 abductions in the course of two years.

The army's policy of kidnapping children to be soldiers and sex slaves was so well-known that a culture of "night commuters" developed in Northern Uganda; children in the bush were sent by their parents to walk at night, sometimes for hours, to nearby towns, with the hope they would be safe from the resistance army. Kony and his compatriots are still at large.

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