, THE HAGUE, Jan 23 – The trial of former Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga, the first before the International Criminal Court (ICC), will also be the first in history to focus exclusively on the use of child soldiers as a war crime.
"It is the first trial highly symbolic" of the drama of child soldiers, said Heloise Ruaudel, a specialist at the London-based Coalition to Stop the use of Child Soldiers, told AFP.
"It is a step in the right direction, but the fight against impunity remains a major challenge," she said.
More docile than adults, often drugged and under the influence of alcohol, the number of child soldiers in the world is estimated at 250,000 by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).
Most are in Africa and Asia — used as combatants, spies or carriers. Girls often become sex slaves.
In most cases, children are kidnapped and forced to join armed groups. Some are given up by their parents, others join militia groups just to have a regular meal.
The Geneva Convention that governs the protection of human rights in warfare, precludes the use of soldiers under the age of 15, while the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child draws the line at 18.
In 2007, the "Paris Principles" ratified by 76 countries, underscored the need to stop the use of minors in armed conflicts. The agreement has no binding effect.
The recruitment of child soldiers has been the subject of two judgments before the Special Court for Sierra Leone, alongside other serious violations of international law.
But the Rome Statute that created the ICC is the first "to clearly qualify this type of war crime," according to Luc Walleyn, a lawyer for Lubanga’s alleged victims.
The statute defines the crime as "conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into armed forces or groups or using them to participate actively in hostilities."
The term enlistment is used to imply the children joined willingly or with the consent of their parents.
Besides Lubanga, arrest warrants detailing the use of child soldiers as a war crime, have been issued by the ICC against three other Congolese and four Ugandan military men.
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, on trial before a different tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Sierra Leone, is also accused of having used child soldiers.