THE HAGUE, Netherlands, March 14 (UPI) -- The International Criminal Court at The Hague, Netherlands, in its first verdict, found Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga guilty of using children in war.
In a unanimous decision issued Wednesday, judges said Lubanga conscripted children and used them "to participate actively in hostilities" in internal armed conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the ICC said in a release.
"A common plan was agreed by [Lubanga] and his co-perpetrators to build an army for the purpose of establishing and maintaining political and military control over Ituri [the Democratic Republic of the Congo]," the release said.
The court said Lubanga also used children as bodyguards.
Lubanga has 30 days to appeal. The court said it would hold a separate sentencing hearing, which hasn't been scheduled. Judges also said principles would be established regarding victim reparations.
Lubanga was the first person tried by the permanent war crimes tribunal, established in 2002. The trial began in 2009, three years after he was arrest.
Observers told The New York Times the decision was important because it established the use of children in war as an international crime. Human rights groups estimate more than 250,000 children are being used as messengers, bodyguards, soldiers or sex slaves in hostilities in more than 30 countries.
A watchdog of the tribunal said the International Criminal Court must assess why it its first trial took a decade.
"The court needs to conduct a lessons-learned exercise to assess why the case took as long as it did," Sunil Pal, the Coalition for the International Criminal Court's top legal officer, told the Financial Times before the court delivered its verdict against Lubanga.
Backed by 120 countries -- but not the United States, Russia or China, among others -- the court opened July 1, 2002, to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed on or after that opening date.
It was established as a permanent institution independent of the United Nations, intended to replace ad hoc panels such as the Nuremberg military tribunals that prosecuted German Nazis after World War II, or the more-recent U.N. courts that have dealt with Rwanda and Yugoslavia. A 1998 Rome treaty establishing the court removed head-of-state immunity for atrocity crimes.
Beginning in 2017 it can prosecute "crimes of aggression," or military conflicts waged without the justification of self-defense.