In a small and relatively inconspicuous courtroom in Holland, not far from where I, as a child, spent countless hours building sandcastles on the beach, a landmark case unfolds. The International Criminal Court (ICC), the world's first war crimes tribunal, commenced its first trial Monday Jan 26, 2009 -- the first in history to focus exclusively on the use of child soldiers as a war crime.
I, like many in the human rights community, have been eagerly anticipating the start of the tribunal. As the Executive Director of WITNESS (the international human rights organization where I work), I am particularly, inspired by the myriad and unprecedented ways video and technology have been incorporated into the proceedings and the outreach around this trial to underscore the gravity of the issues, to make real the unimaginable, to bring a far away trial home to everyday citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and to show the world that perpetrators of horrific atrocities, like those that warlord Thomas Lubanga has been accused of, will not be tolerated.
The conflict in the DRC has been raging -- largely unnoticed by the US -- for over a decade and has been called Africa's World War, leaving more than 5 million dead. Over 30,000 children have been recruited and used as child soldiers in the DRC, some as young as eight years of age. As many as 30 to 40 per cent of them are girls. These children are used on the frontlines as cannon fodder but also as sex slaves and porters. This is a world that is hard for any of us living in the West to imagine. However, we also know, through our experiences of the photographs from Abu Ghraib, images have a way of making the most remote and unimaginable atrocities real and visceral.
My colleague, Bukeni Waruzi, founder of Ajedi-Ka/PES, was born and raised in the Eastern DRC. Through his work at Ajedi-Ka/PES, a child soldier demobilization and reintegration center he came into daily contact with children that experienced horrible abuses at the hands of militia leaders. His partnership with WITNESS, enabled him to learn how to use a video camera to document the traumatic experiences of the children he met, and bring the stories of the children he met in militia camps and at his center in the DRC to the ICC where he screened them to court officials. His video, A Duty to Protect became a key part of an international campaign pressing the ICC to prioritize the issue of child soldiers in the DRC as their first case.
The ICC, through this trial, is taking an important step in ending impunity in the DRC and signaling a growing determination to end the use of child soldiers globally. This is a court that understands the need for public support and it is keen to make itself accessible and available to the world (see the proceedings live from the ICC's site at) -- particularly to the communities directly affected by the trial. The hunger to see justice in action is apparent -- many people without access to televisions (the trial is being carried nationally on TV and radio in the DRC) traveled miles on foot or by bus to watch the proceedings on giant screens erected by the ICC's DRC office in the regional capital of Bunia, in the DRC.
In the opening remarks of the trial, the ICC's Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo cited and screened three pieces of video evidence against Mr. Lubanga to make clear the gravity and the undeniability of the charges against him.
This is a modern court using the tools of the modern age. The world is watching -- in ways that were unheard of during the Nuremberg trials.
Bukeni carried a camera at great personal risk, but now he's able to share his personal and professional perspectives on the proceedings from The Hague daily through his blog. The same tools permit a Congolese reporter to report from the Hague first-hand at www.LubangaTrial.org.
This trial is a critical test for international justice. Its outcome of monumental import to the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who are living through more than a decade of violence, and children around the world who remain caught up in conflicts they did not start.
Video and other technologies are enabling us to document, preserve and share ideas, events, and stories like never before. The Lubanga trial is proof positive. We can never say again that we didn't know.