(RFE/RL) -- The first-ever trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), the world's first permanent war-crimes tribunal, has opened in The Hague.
Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga is in the dock on charges of recruiting children as young as 10 years old to become soldiers in his country's bloody internal conflicts.
Lubanga denies that he used underage fighters in the military arm of his Union of Congolese Patriots, and he says he was waging a violent campaign only to stop the plundering of Congo's rich natural resources.
But chief ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said in an opening statement that there is ample evidence that the warlord committed crimes against children, and that the underage soldiers were his victims.
"The children still suffer the consequences of Lubanga's crimes," Moreno-Ocampo said. "They cannot forget what they suffered, what they saw, what they did. They were 9, 11, 13 years old."
Human rights organizations see the case as vitally important as a means of discouraging armed groups throughout Africa from employing child soldiers. As a Human Rights Watch representative, Param-Preet Singh, puts it, the first ICC trial will make clear that the use of children in armed conflict "is a war crime that can and will be prosecuted at the international level."
The United Nations estimates that a quarter of a million children are combatants in conflicts around the world, mostly in Africa.
Although this is the first case to reach trial at the ICC, the court has not been inactive. It has four other Congolese warlords in detention, and has not shied away from accusing a head of state of war crimes.
The accused in question is Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who the court claims is guilty of genocide in the Darfur region. The Associated Press reports that judges are to decide soon whether or not to issue an arrest warrant for him.
Working Without Full Support
Founded almost seven years ago, the ICC has made a slow start, in that it is only now starting its first prosecution.
The court has the backing of more than 100 countries, but does not does not have universal support. Among the prominent nations which have declined to endorse it are the United States, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel.
Washington's position toward the court has been that considering its worldwide security commitments, the U.S. government would be vulnerable to harassment by opposition groups in numerous situations.
Former President Bill Clinton did sign the court's founding treaty in 2000, but the document was not presented to the Senate for ratification, as that body would have rejected it. It's not yet clear whether President Barack Obama will initiate a change of policy.
Neither Russia nor China is accustomed to allowing international oversight of their actions, and Russia has the added reason that its war in Chechnya against Muslim rebels is repeatedly cited for its alleged rights abuses.
India and Pakistan, both of which independently and secretly developed nuclear weapons, have a similar "hands off" approach to institutions like the ICC.
Those countries which have not signed the founding document do not fall within the court's competence. But the UN Security Council can ask the court to prosecute any country, whether it is a signatory or not.
Israel, so long embroiled in conflicts with its Palestinian neighbors, is another country which does not support the court.
The sensitivity of the issue was underlined by comments from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert about the recently ended offensive in the Gaza Strip. "The commanders and soldiers sent to Gaza should know they are safe from various tribunals, and the state of Israel will assist them on this front and will protect them as they protected us with their bodies during the military operation in Gaza," Olmert said.
Olmert's assurance comes amid reports that Israeli, Palestinian, and international rights groups are looking to raise war crimes charges against Israeli forces' actions in Gaza.
With material from agency reports