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.
Central African Republic: Jean-Pierre Bemba Goma, a Congolese rebel leader, stands accused of directing his militia to commit mass rape, torture and murder. Goma is in custody at The Hague and is awaiting trial.
Darfur, Sudan: Two warrants of arrest have been issued for Janjaweed leaders, largely responsible for driving the genocide in the country right now. But the big controversy is about whether the court will issue a warrant for Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir. The lead prosecutor has presented a case to court calling for Bashir to be charged with genocide. Both rebel leaders are still at large and Bashir has stated that Sudan does not recognize the court and will not be subject to its findings.
Sudan isn't the only country that doesn't recognize the court. Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Russia and the United States also have not ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, finalized in 2002, making a country a "state party," meaning it must abide by the court's rules and regulations. Many countries, including the United States, have cited a fear that their soldiers could be tried in an international court of which they have no jurisdiction. Indeed, only 108 countries have signed on and, out of those, 30 are African.
No Means of Enforcement for the Court
The U.N. and Western governments have threatened to have Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe charged under the international court, as well as politicians found responsible for Kenya's post-election violence last year, causing critics of the court to conclude that it is unfairly targeting Africans. Robla says its African countries that continue to call on the court.
"Of the Congo, Uganda, CAR [Central African Republican], Sudan, the first three have asked the court to investigate, and the U.N. Security Council asked the ICC [International Criminal Court] to investigate Sudan," the court's Robla said. "More than one-third of the countries that ratified the ICC are African countries, so it stands to reason that many of those being prosecuted would be African."
The international court, Robla said, is a "purely judiciary institution." It has no army or body to reinforce its warrants and relies on the "cooperation of the states, and all states parties must participate."
Sometimes, as is the case of Uganda's Kony, a country signed on and asked the court to investigate crimes committed but still has not handed over suspects.
His prosecution at The Hague has become one of the sticking points in the Ugandan government's working out a peace agreement with the resistance army. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has said that the government will not turn over Kony and his army to the court, causing an outcry from human rights organizations.
Robla said that governments are not supposed to use the international court for negotiation. Once the court has been asked to get involved and an investigation is opened, state parties are expected to follow the treaty.
"The country cannot negotiate anything," Robla said. "They will follow the normal judicial process once a case is in play."
The court is governed by its legislative body, the Assembly of States Parties, which consists of one representative from each state party. The member states contribute what they can toward the court's finances. As of September, the ICC's staff consisted of more than 500 people from more than 80 states.
But it's unclear how serious the repercussions will be for countries that have signed the treaty but do not abide by its regulations.
The Congolese government has so far shown the most willingness to utilize the court but, without any form of enforcement and limited funding, it remains to be seen how many other perpetrators of some of the world's worst crimes will face justice.