From a legal stand-point, UN sponsored “ad-hoc” war crimes tribunals in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and the former Yugoslavia have been valuable tools for testing and codifying the limits of laws that govern armed conflict. Through sheer necessity and much effort, these courts, for the past decade or so, have defined what constitutes a “war crime” punishable under international law.
Yesterday, a new category of war crime was given sound legal footing when the Special Court for Sierra Leone handed down the world’s first conviction of military commanders accused of recruiting child soldiers. The court (which tries cases stemming from Sierra Leone’s brutal 11-year civil war) convicted three men of recruiting and using child soldiers under the age of 16.
It’s worth noting that the ruling comes near the 11-year anniversary of a similarly landmark moment: on June 28, 1996 prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia issued ground-breaking indictments in which rape was treated as a crime of war. Prosecutors won that case in early 2001, with a ruling establishing rape as a crime against humanity.
With yesterday’s ruling on child soldiers, the progression of international humanitarian law steadily marches on.