Lubanga is the first person to be arrested on an ICC warrant. He was handed over by authorities from Congo capital Kinshasa to the ICC Friday. He appeared before a pre-trial chamber of the court Monday at a public hearing where his identity was confirmed.

The Office of Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo is investigating crimes committed by a number of groups in the Ituri region where Lubanga, former leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) operated, a spokesman for Moreno-Ocampo said. "The Office intends to take a phased approach and this warrant is but the first in a series."

Violence continues in Congo, although peace agreements were signed in 2002. The Congo government referred the situation to the ICC in March 2004. At the outset of the investigation, Ituri was singled out as one of the most violent regions, and the military wing of the UPC identified as one of the most violent militias.

ICC repeatedly accused of inertia

The ICC was set up in 2001 to deal with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Critics repeatedly accused the controversial court of inertia in investigating cases and formulating indictments. Like the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague (a UN court established in 1993) the first years of the ICC passed by without any suspects being taken into custody.

Moreno-Ocampo has said that proceedings concerning Lubanga, who is charged with conscription and recruitment of child soldiers, will be shorter than those at the Yugoslav Tribunal. Former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic died after years of detention facing trial at this tribunal before it could approach a conclusion.

Child soldiers

Since 2001 the ICC has formally initiated three investigations — in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Northern Uganda and the Sudanese province Darfur. The court issued its only warrants last year for Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony and some of his commanders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Kony became notorious for recruiting and abusing child soldiers.

To start investigations and arrest war crime suspects, the court needs assistance from governments in the countries in question. Many believe it will be difficult to prosecute Kony even though the Ugandan government itself referred the case to the ICC. The Ugandan government faces the risk that its own role in the conflict may lead to charges.

High numbers of killings

In March 2005 the UN Security Council referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC. Moreno-Ocampo reported in December to the Security Council that his office had "collated a comprehensive picture of crimes allegedly committed in Darfur since 1 July 2002, including mass rapes and high numbers of killings."

Cooperation of the Sudanese authorities is necessary to develop a full understanding of the situation and the context in which crimes took place, Moreno-Ocampo said. The Sudanese defence ministry agreed to submit a comprehensive report to the ICC but little has been forthcoming from the Sudanese government.

Following the lack of much tangible progress in these cases, human rights groups have welcomed the extradition of Lubanga as a first step towards ending impunity in Congo.

"Thomas Lubanga’s arrest offers victims of the horrific crimes in Ituri some hope of seeing justice done at last," Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Programme at Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "Congolese civilians have already endured far too much terrible suffering. It is long past time to end the culture of impunity, and the ICC has taken its first step towards that goal."

Crimes will be punished

Forcing young children to participate in warfare is a serious crime, but the ICC prosecutor must also press additional charges against militia leaders for massacres, torture and rape, said Dicker. "The ICC must send a strong signal that these crimes will be punished."

The ICC was created by the Rome Statute, which was adopted in 1998 and entered into force in July 2002. Almost 140 countries have signed the statute, and 100 have ratified it.

The United States did not ratify the treaty because of worries that American troops might be prosecuted before the ICC.

The ICC has jurisdiction over crimes committed since July 2002. Either states that are parties to the ICC or the UN Security Council can refer cases. Evidence may be submitted by other sources.

The ICC differs from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), also located at The Hague in the Netherlands. The ICJ is a civil court that primarily addresses disputes between states. (END/2006)