A photograph taken on February 8, 2011 shows former Liberian President Charles Taylor waiting for the start of the prosecution's closing arguments during his trial at the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone in Leidschendam. (Jerry Lampen/Getty Images)

For the thousands of young men whose limbs were hacked off, the verdict will come way too late. Too late as well for the teenage boys sent into battle high on dope. And for the pubescent girls turned into rebel warriors’ sex slaves, who will harbor unspeakable memories until they die, no matter what the court decides.

But on Thursday morning, a full decade after the vicious Sierra Leone war was quelled, the U.N. Special Court for Sierra Leone will hand down a verdict on the responsibility of former Liberian president Charles Taylor in promoting and financing the butchery in West Africa.

The decision handed down by the court in a leafy suburb of The Hague will mark a milestone in an accelerating and sometimes controversial effort to create an international justice system.

Taylor will become the first sitting or former head of state to be judged for conduct in a war that was considered — by still-emerging international standards — so treacherous as to be illegal. Prosecutors allege that he used his power as president of neighboring Liberia to advise and provide resources and weapons to Sierra Leone’s rebels, whose uprising he viewed as similar to the guerrilla movement he had led in his own country.

Some critics say such courts have become an impediment to ridding the world of some unsavory leaders, who cling to power for their own protection. But international justice activists counter that the goal is to make atrocities dangerous for wartime leaders, so that they will think twice before ordering or committing them.

“We have the International Criminal Court, permanent, increasingly powerful, casting a long shadow,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said recently. “There is no going back. In this new age of accountability, those who commit the worst of human crimes will be held responsible.”

As soon as the recent war in Libya wound down, for instance, Moammar Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam and his intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi, were charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) here for their roles in supervising the killing of civilians during the uprising against Gaddafi’s rule. The rebels have refused to hand over Saif al-Islam, however, and Senussi is being held in Mauritania while the government there figures out what to do with him.

Gaddafi also was charged, but he was killed soon after his capture by rebel forces.

The pace of the proceedings in The Hague’s tranquil international courtrooms has been cited as one of the major problems with the half-dozen international courts headquartered here. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, for instance, has been grinding away for nearly two decades, at a cost of more than $120 million a year financed mostly by taxpayers from U.N. member countries.

In addition, international justice has pursued only war leaders whose prosecution is politically acceptable, such as despised African warlords or the losing side in the former Yugoslavia. Moreover, the United States has refused to ratify the 1998 treaty founding the ICC, fearing that U.S. troops or officials could get dragged into uncontrollable proceedings by victims of U.S. foreign wars.

“The greatest challenge, in my view, facing international justice at this point is whether it is capable of taking on cases which powerful states consider undesirable,” said Guenael Mettraux, a veteran defense lawyer at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Elise Keppler, a Human Rights Watch lawyer specializing in international justice, said international prosecutions remain a form of victor’s justice, because powerful countries, including the United States, refuse to extend the international court’s authority beyond certain limits.

In the 1980s, when the International Court of Justice ruled against the United States for mining a harbor in Nicaragua, the Reagan administration used its sway in the U.N. Security Council to block compensation to the Sandinista government.

“Why Bashir and not Bush?” Keppler asked, referring to Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, charged with war crimes in the Darfur conflict, and the U.S. president who launched the Iraq war. “The reason is the U.N. Security Council. The court’s jurisdiction is limited.”

A slow process

In addition to Taylor, several other senior leaders are facing possible prosecution for their purported roles in atrocities. But the wheels of justice seem particularly slow in the international courtrooms of The Hague, where witnesses come from afar and marshalling evidence is difficult and expensive.

“So far, I do not think that states have quite decided to trust international justice unequivocally and endow it with the resources and capability necessary to make it most effective,” Mettraux said.

The best-known case was that of former president Slobodan Milosevic, who directed Serbian forces from Belgrade during Yugoslavia’s violent breakup in the 1990s. Milosevic stood trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia here. But he died in prison in 2006 before a verdict was handed down.

In addition, Radovan Karadzic, a psychiatrist who was president of the Bosnian Serbs during the war in Bosnia, was arrested in 2008 after a decade as a fugitive and is being tried by the Yugoslavia tribunal. His military chief, Gen. Ratko Mladic, was taken into custody in May, after 15 years on the run. Although apparently in ill health, he also was brought to The Hague to stand trial.

Elsewhere, former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo was jailed by the ICC last year on charges of crimes against humanity and is in a Dutch jail awaiting trial. The ICC also issued an arrest warrant in 2009 against Sudan’s Bashir, the only sitting head of state to be indicted. But he has ignored the summons and continues to run Sudan as it heads toward war with the breakaway state of South Sudan.

The court in action

A number of lesser figures, including militia leaders and lower-ranking military officers, have been convicted and are serving time in U.N. prison facilities here. Others have been charged but are still at large.

Among the most notorious of those at large, charged with war crimes in 2005 by the ICC, is Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who proclaims himself a divine envoy and has terrorized people in areas that have fallen under his control in Uganda, the Central African Republic and Congo.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, meanwhile, has issued warrants against four Lebanese accused of participating in the 2005 car-bomb assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. But the Lebanese government refused to hand the suspects over because of resistance from the powerful Hezbollah movement. The court decided in February to try them in absentia.