On this early April day, there are two trials in session—both of Congolese former rebel leaders. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo stands accused of conscripting, enlisting, and using child soldiers in Congo. Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo was arrested for multiple war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape, torture, and pillaging in the Central African Republic. In the case of Lubanga, today's testimony is too sensitive to be opened to the public—maybe a witness who's in particular danger of retribution. But anyone can observe Bemba's trial (PDF). Between the two prosecutors on the right, two defense lawyers on the left, and three judges sitting center, there are a lot of black robes in the room. Observers listen to testimony via a UN-style translation system. Bemba's in a suit under guard in the corner; the witness chair is oriented so he can't look squarely at the person testifying. I know Bemba came to check out his troops, the witness is saying. He knew what his troops were doing. The witness is kind of worked up. The soldiers were raping and looting, he's saying. Bemba must have known what was happening. For his part, Bemba has got his cantaloupe head sunk into burly shoulders. He's looking impassive, sometimes taking notes, licking his fingers to turn the page, flicking his eyes again and again toward the observation gallery just a few feet away, but refusing to meet anyone's gaze.
A child soldier north of Goma, 2008 Marcus Bleasdale/VUpstairs, Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has his sleeves rolled up behind the desk of his expansive office on the 11th floor. In the '80s, he prosecuted mass-murdering military commanders in his native Argentina. In the late '90s, he was the star of an Argentine show very much like Judge Judy. He's grayer now, but still brash and deep-voiced and having an answer for everything. And, for a guy who spends all of his time thinking about war crimes, he has some very happy things to say.
"We are building a new global system," he informs me. He says the idea that so many countries came together to build this court is insane. The fact that they managed to arrest someone is ridiculous. That they had a first trial was "impossible." And now, the world is getting smaller. Technology is bringing us closer. Facebook, goddammit. "Cambodia was ignored. Nothing happened. Darfur was not ignored, but took two years to react. Libya? Ten days. Ten days. Bam. And the Security Council, immediately, without hesitation: 'Refer the case to the ICC.' Now we're normal." He tells me about an Australian fighter pilot who wouldn't drop a bomb in Iraq because he was afraid of someday being prosecuted. He says a legal adviser told NATO commanders to watch the orders they sign so they don't end up retiring on the beach only to be surrounded by cops ready to drag them to The Hague. Nepal, he says, demobilized 3,000 child soldiers because of the ICC.
"The court's existence is important. The message is pretty strong: You cannot commit massive atrocities to remain in power or to gain power," Moreno-Ocampo says. In the case of Bemba, his arrest probably did teach warlords a lesson about whether they can retire or vacay in Europe, as he was snatched by Belgian authorities while comfortably ensconced in Brussels. Although 44 UN member states have still not signed the Rome Statute, the ICC has 700 staff members from 75 countries. The more countries that are on board, the more the world manages to "create one community called humanity," the more effective the court can be. "Everything is changing in the world. We can do it."
"It's the best job in the world," says ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo. Because "I love this mission, to save the world." Also: "It suits my megalomania."
Moreno-Ocampo has sunk 10 years of his life into the ICC, separated from his home and his own life and his family. Because "it's the best job in the world." Because "I love this mission, to save the world." Also: "It suits my megalomania."
That makes him well suited to weather scathing criticism, and does the ICC ever have its share. Those who say that issuing arrest warrants for war criminals still in the throes of warmongering—as in the case of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir—complicates the peace process and could even incite more violence. Those who complain that the court only goes after Africans, which so far has been true. That the first trial, Lubanga's, has had disastrous flaws, including the prosecution's failing to share key documents with the defense. That as an independent court, accountable to no other body, the ICC operates with impunity.
But the issue that could most undermine the very purpose of the court's existence is its difficulty executing arrest warrants. As a court representative will explain if you sign up for an ICC visitor's tour, "We don't have a police force. So when it comes to enforcing our warrants, we rely on state parties." That means countries that have ratified the treaty, like Congo; all of them are technically obligated to arrest indicted criminals on their soil. Yet out of 26 people for whom warrants and summonses have been issued, 10 of the alleged criminals remain at large. None of the three outstanding warrants (PDF) against Ugandans have been enforced, even though Uganda is an ICC party—but that's because, the tour guide offers as explanation, the guys are hiding in the no man's land near the border between Congo and the Central African Republic. When Sudanese President Bashir flew from (non-member-party) Sudan to (member-party) Kenya, he should have been arrested; if he goes into international airspace again, the rep asserts, he will be.
I ask Moreno-Ocampo if it's only a matter of time for Bosco Ntaganda, too. "Yeah," he says. "In fact, it is difficult to arrest Bashir, I understand, but it's not difficult to arrest Bosco. There is no excuse not to arrest Bosco. And he's committing massive crimes in the DRC."
The World's 6 Most Feared War CriminalsThis is the part of a paragraph that would usually contain a description of a room, in a (adjective here) building on (this kind of) a street. But I can't write about any of that. Nor could I bring any Congolese translators along to this interview—the risks to them and the witnesses would have been too great. So I've dragged a 22-year-old Columbia University student and fluent French speaker named Joey from the United States.
Joey and I are at the indescribable place to hear a story. It's about Lt. Colonel Antoine Balibuno, a colleague of Lt. Colonel Innocent Zimurinda, a terrifying Bosco crony who's been sanctioned by the UN for raping "a large number" of women and girls and murdering a lot of refugees and his own child soldiers. In 2009, Balibuno and Zimurinda were together in Masisi, a few hours from Goma, under Bosco's command. But Balibuno and Zimurinda had also been integrated into the national army, deployed to the region officially. Not so lucrative a position, working for the broke army of a failed state. Masisi had a lot of trees. Balibuno told friends that Zimurinda enslaved the locals, making them cut down trees, morning and night, to make boards the ex-CNDP could sell. Balibuno said those who resisted were immediately killed. Balibuno said Zimurinda, a Tutsi, was also killing random Hutus. After a while, Balibuno returned to Goma, claiming he didn't want to be associated with any Bosco-related carnage and corruption in case Bosco took his colonels down with him if he ever did get arrested.