THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The international war crimes court at The Hague found Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo guilty on Wednesday in its first ever ruling after a decade of work limited largely to Africa while major cases elsewhere remain beyond its reach.
Governments and rights groups level war crimes accusations at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for cracking down on protesters. But the International Criminal Court (ICC) cannot act because of deadlock among world powers at the United Nations Security Council, the only body that could order a prosecution.
Lubanga, 51, who will be sentenced later, was found guilty of recruiting and deploying child soldiers during a five-year conflict until 2003. An estimated 60,000 people were killed in the violence, part of much wider bloodshed in central Africa.
He sat impassively in court in white robes and cap, having denied all charges. That one of his co-accused remains a serving army general in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo is, however, a source of disappointment to campaigners for justice - and an indication of the political limitations on the court.
It was set up to provide a permanent forum after ad hoc tribunals, inspired by the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders, were used to prosecute those responsible for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and for the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s.
But the ICC can work only with the assent of political leaders: "Is it going to give pause to Bashar al-Assad?" asked Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch, of the conviction of a man he called a "small fish" in Africa. "I don't think so."
"Have we seen atrocities fall off in the world? We only have to look at Syria to know it's not the case," he told Reuters, noting how Russia and China vetoed efforts at the United Nations Security Council to refer Syrian leaders to the ICC.
That is the only way to initiate a prosecution, since Syria, like Russia and China but also the United States, is not a party to the Rome Statute, which created the court in July 2002.
"It's not the fault of the ICC," said Brody, who established a reputation as a scourge of dictators during efforts to bring Chile's Augusto Pinochet to trial. "It's the fault of the Security Council and of the world order ... the international justice system does not operate in a vacuum."
While welcoming the verdict against Lubanga, which may help set a precedent for other cases involving the recruitment of child soldiers, he added: "Those countries with political power and their allies have been shielded from the court."
Among those accused by the court is Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has dismissed his 2009 indictment as a Western conspiracy and has both continued in office unhindered and been able on occasion to travel to sympathetic countries.
At The Hague on Wednesday, ICC Presiding Judge Adrian Fulford said in reading the court's historic first judgment: "The chamber concludes that the prosecution has proved beyond reasonable doubt that Mr. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo is guilty of conscripting and enlisting children under the age of 15 years."
Thomas Lubanga "was essential to a common plan to conscript and enlist girls and boys below the age of 15", Fulford said.
Lubanga was detained six years ago and faced three counts of war crimes. He could face up to life imprisonment, although a sentence will not be passed immediately. An appeal can be filed within 30 days.
The three-judge panel said children were forced into camps in the Ituri region, where they were placed under harsh training regimes and brutally punished. Soldiers and army commanders under Lubanga's authority used girls as domestic workers and subjected them to rape and sexual violence, they said.
"The accused and his co-perpetrators agreed to, and participated in, a common plan to build an army for the purpose of establishing and maintaining political and military control over Ituri," they said. "This resulted in the conscription and enlistment of boys and girls under the age of 15."
A conviction could now help lend momentum to other prominent cases, such as that against former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo. Gbagbo is charged with individual responsibility on counts of crimes against humanity - murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence and persecution.
The prosecutor's focus on Africa was initially praised for focusing world attention on a region often overlooked, even though millions of people were killed in conflicts in recent decades. But more lately, prosecutors have been criticised for failing to pursue important cases elsewhere because they are politically challenging, such as Afghanistan, Iraq or Sri Lanka.
At Bottom Mango Junction in Freetown, Sierra Leone, people with memories of the savage civil war in their country - for which some are being tried in an internationally-backed local court - welcomed the ICC's concern for Africans, who have suffered more than most from the depredations of warlords.
"The ICC is treating Africa fairly," said Brian Ansumana who sells diesel oil. "Because these warlords, they are using children in war, giving them guns, drugs. The ICC is in place to see that those crimes are not committed in Africa."
But in Dakar, capital of Senegal, businessman Papis Fall said: "We shouldn't use child soldiers for personal gain, so I personally approve of the court's decision. However, I must say that the court is not fair. We're getting the impression that it focuses solely on African criminals. It should look for criminals everywhere, including America, Europe."
George Mukundi of the South Africa-based Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, said of the Lubanga verdict: "What we Africans are saying is, yes, it's useful and good ... But we would also like to see justice done, and being seen to be done, in other cases around the world."
The United Nations estimates that some 8,000 Syrians have died in violence since an uprising against Assad began a year ago. Many are civilians and U.N. officials and independent rights groups have amassed evidence from refugees of deliberate killings of demonstrators by Syrian forces and of mass torture.
The United States and its allies have said Assad looks like a war criminal. But political deadlock among the great powers in the Security Council has tied the hands of ICC prosecutors.
In the Congolese capital Kinshasa, Sharanjeet Parmar of the human rights group the International Center for Transitional Justice, said: "The result is important for the ICC as Lubanga is its first trial. But more importantly for the DRC in terms of fighting the culture of impunity, because very few people who're accused of war crimes are brought to justice."
Local people, he added, were eager now to see some form of reparation made for their suffering - as well as Bosco Ntaganda, a general indicted along with Lubanga, handed over to the ICC.
"His continued liberty is actually a threat to peace," Parmar said. "It's important that he's handed over in light of the fact he is still implicated in ongoing violations."
Mukundi in South Africa voiced concern that the ICC was taking sides in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Uganda, by targeting some warlords but not other leaders in complex national and regional conflicts: "The ICC seems to be looking at only one side of the coin," Mukundi told Reuters.
And he added that it should be careful not to target only the losers in conflicts where abuses were committed on both sides. He cited Ivory Coast and Libya as recent examples.
Amnesty International, another group which strongly supports the aims of the court, said: "Today's verdict will give pause to those around the world who commit the horrific crime of using and abusing children both on and off the battlefield."
Amnesty's Michael Bochenek added: "It will help to strip away the impunity they have enjoyed for crimes under international law because national authorities have consistently failed to investigate these crimes. This guilty verdict demonstrates that the ICC can step in to bring them to justice."
However, it noted that the use of child soldiers continued.
Among those sought by the ICC is Uganda's Joseph Kony, whose Lord's Resistance Army led a 20-year reign of terror, employing child soldiers and hacking limbs off victims. Now believed to be in hiding in a neighbouring state, he made headlines this month after a YouTube video by an American filmmaker became a social media sensation, winning celebrity endorsements for Uganda and its U.S. ally to do more to capture the elusive Kony.
Amnesty International said it was disappointed the ICC did not pursue allegations of other crimes committed under Lubanga, including rape. It said that could discourage some victims coming forward in future and make it hard for them to get any reparation. The group also urged speedier trials at The Hague.
Additional reporting by Jonny Hogg in Kinshasa, Simon Akam in Freetown, Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg and Diadie Ba in Dakar; Editing by Alastair Macdonald/Janet McBride