By Anthony Deutsch
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The world's first permanent war crimes court opened nearly a decade ago, promising accountability for brutal tyrants, justice for victims and swift trials for perpetrators.
On Wednesday, the International Criminal Court will hand down its first ever verdict, a ruling in the case of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, who was detained six years ago and faces two war crimes charges.
Lubanga's case may be a milestone, but he is a low-ranking player. The court has yet to go after key individuals responsible for the crimes against humanity and genocide included in its mandate.
Courts are judged by the cases they take on and the legal precedents they set. Lubanga's verdict is years later than planned. The court's slow progress is a source of disappointment in countries where crimes still go unpunished.
"The prosecutor is woefully behind schedule. We are all relieved we got to this point," said William A. Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University.
"But the big legal judgments of the kind we had at the Yugoslav and Rwanda, Sierra Leone tribunals we are still waiting for from the ICC right now. The ICC has not yet done that," he said referring to the temporary U.N. courts that preceded the ICC.
Prosecutors accused Lubanga, 51, of conscripting child soldiers under the age of 15 to fight for Congolese rebel forces during a five-year war that killed tens of thousands of people.
With the backing of 120 countries, the International Criminal Court has launched investigations in seven conflict regions, all of them African, since it opened in The Hague, Netherlands, in 2003.
The court's jurisdiction is limited to nations that ratified its statute, or so-called referrals, when governments or the U.N. Security Council authorizes it to intervene, such as in Libya last year.
Schabas was critical of lead prosecutor Moreno Ocampo for focusing on a confined group of African countries. "He avoided situations where he would be likely to step on the toes of permanent members of the Security Council, from Afghanistan to Gaza, to Iraq to Colombia," Schabas added.
NO POLICE FORCE
The court has no police force and relies on the support of states to deliver suspects for trial so needs friendly ties with countries to execute arrest warrants.
Three of the permanent U.N. Security Council members - China, the United States and Russia - have not signed up to the court. This means cases cannot be pursued that upset those major powers.
The ICC has also been hampered by legal bureaucracy and political opposition that sidelined it during some of the worst bloodshed since World War Two.
In the past decade, fallen strongmen have often faced mob justice, rather than courtroom proceedings.
Saddam Hussein's videotaped hanging went viral on the internet after his U.S.-led trial in wartime Baghdad was marred by the assassination of judges and lawyers.
Libya's Muammar Gaddafi was killed on the street by rebel fighters.
The court has not intervened in Syria, which is not a member, even though the U.N. says thousands of civilians were killed by forces under the command of President Bashar al-Assad.
Still, the court had important achievements, most notably the U. N. Security Council referral of Libya's case and arrest warrant for Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the country's late leader.
It also issued warrants for several members of the Sudanese government, including President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and Defense Minister Abdel Raheem Muhammad Hussein.
Lubanga's verdict will be a small development in the slow emergence of international justice, which stood still for about half a century from the Nuremberg trials of Nazi Germany in the 1940s until the a U.N. court tried the late former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic.
If nothing else, the verdict against Lubanga will remind the public the court is active and free its docket for new cases.
"It will be really important for the ICC's credibility as an institution," said Lorraine Smith van Lin, of the International Bar Association in The Hague. "This is the first, and it's important we see them deliver."
(Additional reporting by Sara Webb)