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World War Crimes Court to Open Monday Despite US

30 June 2002

The world's first permanent war crimes court starts work on Monday but faces opposition from Russia, China and the United States, which wants immunity for its overseas peacekeeping troops and other U.S. officials.

The Dutch-based International Criminal Court (ICC) will have authority over genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes as of July 1, 2002.

Human rights groups have hailed the court's creation as the biggest milestone for international justice since top Nazis were tried by an international military tribunal in Nuremberg after World War Two.

But the United States wants to keep its peacekeepers out of reach of the ICC and has threatened to stop the U.N. mission in Bosnia if it did not get its way.

The 15-nation U.N. Security Council faces a midnight Sunday (0400 GMT on Monday) deadline to renew the Bosnia mission, set up in 1995 to train a multi-ethnic police force after Bosnia's three-year war that gave rise to the term "ethnic cleansing."

Washington has threatened to veto the resolution unless its peacekeepers and U.S. officials are provided with immunity from the ICC.

Critics say Washington is trying to cripple the tribunal before it starts, saying its campaign is against the court itself, which has been ratified by 69 countries.

The United States says the court would infringe on national sovereignty and could lead to politically motivated prosecutions of its officials or soldiers working outside U.S. borders.

Court Starts Work

The row will not remove the symbolism of Monday's opening.

"I am delighted to see the progress that is being made to carry out the principles we articulated in Nuremberg so long ago," Benjamin Ferencz, a Nuremberg prosecutor, said on a visit to The Hague.

Anyone - from a head of state to an ordinary citizen - will be liable to ICC prosecution for human rights violations, including systematic murder, torture, rape and sexual slavery.

A handful of staff will start work at the ICC to pave the way for 18 judges and a chief prosecutor in early 2003.

The ICC is not expected to start investigating cases before the end of next year. Judges and a prosecutor are expected to be chosen next January by those countries backing the court.

The ICC, set up under a 1998 Rome Treaty, will not probe crimes committed before its inception and will not supersede national courts, interceding only when those courts are unable to investigate or prosecute serious crimes.

Cases can be referred by states that have ratified the Rome Treaty, the U.N. Security Council or the tribunal's prosecutor after approval from three judges.

The Security Council also has the power to suspend an ICC investigation or prosecution if it believes it could obstruct its efforts to maintain international peace and security.

The U.S., Russia and China are three of the five permanent members of the 15-seat Security Council.

War Crimes

The impetus to create the ICC came from the 1992-1995 Bosnia war and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which spawned two U.N. war crimes tribunals with localized scope.

But the idea for a global criminal court originated in the late 1940s.

The U.N. first recognized the need for a world court to deal with the kinds of atrocities witnessed during the Holocaust in Nazi Germany when it approved a convention to prevent and punish genocide in 1948.

The Cold War stymied progress for decades but in 1998 the U.N.-backed conference in Rome paved the way for the ICC. The Rome treaty won its crucial 60th ratification in April.

Paul Gallagher
Published by Reuters © 2002 Reuters Ltd

International Criminal Court


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