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Opinion: Why should we care about the first man on trial at the ICC?

The trial of Thomas Lubanga, former Congolese warlord, signals to others that wartime atrocities won't go unaccounted for.

Thomas Lubanga, leader of Congo's Union of Congolese Patriots rebel group (UPC) talks to villagers on his way to a rally in Barriere village in the Democratic Republic of Congo, June 5, 2003. (Antony Njuguna/Reuters)

THE HAGUE, The Netherlands — Who is the first man on trial at the ICC, and why does it matter?

The silence of the public gallery is interrupted only by the slow rise of the blinds. We are about to watch history in the making. Behind bulletproof glass a courtroom appears; the heart of the International Criminal Court. On the right, the prosecution. On the left, the defense, their somber robes contrasting starkly with the courtroom’s pale wood furnishings.

In their midst — dapper, calm, attentive — sits the eye of this storm: Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, defendant in the ICC's first trial, which began nearly one year ago in January 2009 and is due to resume early this year after a more than five-month hiatus.

Who is this man, and what has he done to earn his dubious distinction and face a potential 30-year jail sentence? Now quietly jotting notes, now leaning over to consult with one of his lawyers, take away the setting and he could be a businessman as unremarkable as any you encounter on the streets of London, Brussels or New York every day of the week. Hardly a Radovan Karadzic or a Pol Pot. Hardly a Josef Mengele, whose experiments on children left the few survivors scarred for life.

When World War II ended, nobody expected that we would ever again allow destruction on such a scale. Five decades later, so inured had we become to wholesale slaughter that 5 million people could die in a new Great War, the Second Congo War, and their untold sufferings would remain just that — untold.

Until now. Because in the course of this landmark trial, not just experts but children who became the victims of this war are taking the stand to speak to the charges that as President of the Union des Patriots Congolais (UPC), between September 2002 and August 2003, Thomas Lubanga recruited, trained and used hundreds of young children to pillage, rape and kill.

Lubanga is a member of the Hema ethnic group from Ituri, a district in the northeast corner of the Congo which has about the same land area and population size as the Republic of Ireland. Born in 1960, he secured a degree in psychology from the University of Kisangani. Married, with seven children, by the late 1990s there was no particular indication that this family man would ever become a feared warlord. In fact, well into the Second Congo War he was still working as a trader, selling beans in the market of Bunia, Ituri’s capital. However, the war would set him on a path to power and notoriety, not so much for any personal military feats as for his dedication to an inherently ethnic view of politics in which the Hema as a group must either eliminate all threats or be eliminated.

From the late 1990s, Ituri had become a particular focal point for violence as different factions involved in the wider war battled for control of its mineral wealth. Decades of mistrust between Ituri’s ethnic groups, particularly between the Hema and the Lendu, were manipulated for political ends with deadly consequences.

In June 2000, hundreds of Hema soldiers in the Rassemblement Congolais, the movement then in control of Ituri, went to Uganda for two months’ military training. When they returned, tradesman Lubanga became their spokesman. It didn’t matter to them that he had no previous political experience. He was educated, an intellectual, and he would speak on behalf of his ethnic group. The seeds of the UPC had been planted.