The first break came last month when the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague decided to arrest Thomas Lubanga, a founder and leader of the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC), on charges of conscripting children in the current insurgency against the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

A second breakthrough came Wednesday with the arrest of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who will be prosecuted by a U.N.-sponsored tribunal on Sierra Leone, on charges of committing war crimes, including the recruitment of child soldiers. The tribunal has reportedly asked the ICC to host the trial in the Netherlands.

Asked about Taylor’s arrest in the aftermath of an attempt to escape from Nigeria where he was living in exile, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters: "It sends a message, not only to the people of Liberia, but all around the sub-region and around the continent that impunity will not be allowed to stand."

Brutal leaders

He also said that "brutal leaders who brutalise their people, who get engaged in organising wars, recruiting boys and girls and turning them into child soldiers, will pay a price".

"This is the second time in a relatively short period that the United Nations has been able to arrest two men with that record," he noted.

"I think it’s a warning to all would-be warlords that they will be held to account and that impunity will not be allowed to stand. Those days are gone and they should really think before they engage in any such adventure," Annan added.

Ann M. Veneman, executive director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, said that Lubanga’s arrest "shows the high priority the international community gives to combating crimes against children".

Up to 300,000 children

She said it was important to protect children from being recruited and used in armed conflict.

"Wars must never be fought by children. Whether children are forcibly recruited, join armed groups in order to escape poverty or hunger, or enlist to actively support a cause, the first loss is their childhood," added Veneman, whose agency has taken a strong stand against the recruitment of child soldiers,

UNICEF has estimated that up to 300,000 children globally are being used by armed rebel groups and military forces in a variety of roles, including as combatants, cooks, porters, messengers, spies and for sexual purposes.

Lubanga is the first person to be arrested and transferred to the ICC since it was created by the Rome Statute, which went into force in July 2002.

The Statute makes the conscription, enlistment or use of children under 15 in hostilities by national armed forces or armed groups a "war crime".

Extremely significant

Enrique Restoy of the London-based Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers told IPS that the ICC decision is "extremely significant" because virtually all of the charges against Lubanga are actually related to the recruitment and use of children, under 15 years of age, as soldiers.

"This is the first time somebody has been indicted only for the use of child soldiers (although Lubanga is reportedly responsible for a long list of other war crimes)," he added.

Restoy also said this particular indictment highlights the importance that international tribunals (like the Special Court in Sierra Leone) give to child recruitment as a war crime, and helps strengthen the idea that this crime is not necessarily linked to other war crimes to attract the attention of prosecutors.

"This arrest is bound to have an impact on the many militias that still operate in eastern DRC and which still recruit children within their ranks," he said.

Since Lubanga will be the first person to be tried by the ICC for child recruitment-related crimes, "It will be important to see what kind of sentence he gets if he is found guilty," Restoy said.

Thomas Lubanga is the first person to be arrested and transferred to the ICC since it was created by the Rome Statute.

How to protect witnesses

The main challenge for the ICC in Congo after Lubanga’s arrest is how to protect witnesses, communities and children, especially in the district of Ituri, where the situation is volatile, with possibilities of reprisals, intimidation and other threats, he added.

"Given that all charges against Lubanga are for child recruitment, it is clear that children will be central for the prosecutor’s case, and it will be extremely necessary that the participation of these children (be considered) for their best interest, both physically and psychologically," he added.

Julia Freedson, director of the New York-based Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, said Lubanga’s arrest is an important step in ending impunity for crimes against children in DRC and in armed conflicts across the globe.

"We hope that the court’s actions against Mr. Lubanga will result in justice for all the children who have been horrifically used and abused by his armed group, the Union des Patriotes Congolais," Freedson told IPS.

However, the recruitment and use of children by many other armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been extremely widespread and well-documented, she added.

The court should investigate and take actions against all those armed groups that have committed egregious crimes against children and other civilians, said Freedson, whose organisation represents a network of human rights and humanitarian agencies working to protect the security and rights of children in armed conflicts.

Two lists of violators

She said that in 2005, Annan reported to the U.N. Security Council the names of nine armed groups in DRC known to illegally recruit and use children.

"We urge the court to immediately investigate and take appropriate action against the leaders of each of these groups," she added.

In his report, Annan compiled two lists of violators: first, countries whose conflicts are on the Security Council agenda, namely Afghanistan, Burundi, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Somalia.

A second list included the Republic of Chechnya of the Russian Federation, Colombia, Myanmar, Nepal, Northern Ireland, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Uganda.

In most of the countries named by Annan, child soldiers are used by armed groups, not national governments.

In Sri Lanka, for example, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which has been fighting a separatist war in the northeast of that country, has had a long record of using child soldiers as well as a record of breaking commitments, according to the Sri Lankan government.

The armed groups listed by Annan include Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), the Juba Valley Alliance and Rahanwein Resistance Army in Somalia, Mai-Mai and the Union des Patriotes Congolais in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Front pour la defense de la democratie of Burundi and several factions associated with the former Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.

In a list of recommendations to the Security Council, the coalition "strongly urges" all 191 member states to end immediately all sales of arms and military assistance to parties in violation of international law in recruiting child soldiers.

The 1990 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) set the legal minimum age for recruitment at 15. But an "Optional Protocol" to the CRC, which came into force in February 2003, outlaws the involvement of children under 18 in any hostilities and sets strict standards for the recruitment of those under 18.