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War Crimes Court Pits United States Against the World

11 April 2002

The United States will be put on a collision course with the rest of the world today when at least seven countries gather for a ceremony at the United Nations that will trigger the creation of the world's first permanent international criminal court.

After the statute of the new International Criminal Court was adopted in Rome in 1998, diplomats believed that it could take up to two decades to get the 60 ratifications needed for the new court to come into being.

However, with Washington isolated in its opposition to the proposed new permanent war crimes tribunal in The Hague, other countries have been stampeding to show their support.

Bosnia, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Ireland, Mongolia, Romania, and Slovakia have all signaled their intention to deposit articles of ratification today, which would push the Rome treaty over the threshold for the court to come into existence. Niger, Jordan and the Democratic Republic of Congo have also promised to ratify soon. Britain has ratified the treaty. From today Greece will be the only European Union nation not to have ratified.

"That is exceeding our expectations," Philippe Kirsch, the Canadian chairman of preparatory negotiations, said. "When we finished the conference in Rome, the pessimists were saying 20 years and the optimists were saying ten years. We will be under four years."

The result is that the Rome treaty will come into effect on July 1. After that date, war criminals will be subject to the jurisdiction of the court. The court itself is expected to be up and running in offices already set aside in The Hague in the first three months of next year.

"The court has the potential to be the most important human rights instrument created in the last 50 years," Richard Dicker, of Human Rights Watch, said. "Building on Nuremberg, building and carrying further the work of the Yugoslav and Rwanda tribunals, the court will limit the gross impunity of the Pinochets, Saddam Husseins and Pol Pots of the future."

In a significant rift with its European allies, the Bush Administration rejects the jurisdiction of the court and is actively considering withdrawing former President Clinton's signature from the Rome treaty.

Republican politicians have floated a variety of possible retaliatory measures in Congress, including one proposal that the United States be willing to use force to free any American held by the court.

Washington fears that the new court does not have adequate safeguards to prevent political prosecutions of American soldiers captured abroad. But US servicemen will still be subject to the court's jurisdiction if their alleged offenses take place on the territory of a nation that has ratified the treaty.

Iraq has not yet signed the treaty, but if it were to ratify it, US soldiers participating in any alleged war crimes on Iraqi soil could be liable to prosecution by the new court.

Israel, which followed the American lead in signing but not ratifying the treaty, could face similar risk in military actions against any Arab neighbors that ratify the treaty. Jordan is the only Arab country whose ratification is considered imminent and there is legal controversy about whether Palestinians could accede to it.

The court's proponents insist that it will act as a judicial, and not a political, body. Under the principle of complementarity, the court will act only when national legal systems are unwilling or unable to do so.

Prosecutions can be initiated only by the UN Security Council, by a state-party or by an elected prosecutor, who must vet all decisions with a pre-trial chamber.

James Bone, New York
Published in The Times © 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd

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