World War crimes tribunal to be established by July

Despite vehement American opposition, the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal will become a reality on July 1, with support from US allies and nations from every continent.

Despite vehement American opposition, the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal will become a reality on July 1, with support from US allies and nations from every continent.

The treaty establishing the International Criminal Court was receiving the crucial 60th United Nations ratification today, which means it will come into force in less than three months.

Ten nations will deposit their ratifications at the United Nations headquarters in New York. This will bring the number of ratifications from 56 to 66, but all 10 nations will go down as number 60 in order to spread the honour.

For many countries and organisations, the establishment of the court is a historic milestone, the culmination of years of campaigning to ensure that the perpetrators of the worst crimes committed by individuals are brought to justice.

For US president George Bush’s administration, however, the court is an unwelcome addition to the international legal establishment.

Even though then-US president Bill Clinton signed the treaty, the United States has refused to ratify it, fearing its citizens would be subject to frivolous or politically-motivated prosecutions.

Washington has campaigned unsuccessfully to exempt US soldiers and officials, and two weeks ago the Bush administration said it was considering ‘‘unsigning’’ the treaty to stress that it would not be bound by its provisions. It is the only vocal opponent of the court.

The 1998 treaty establishing the court has been signed by 139 countries - and supporters have pledged to keep campaigning to make it universal. Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Programme at Human Rights Watch, said ‘‘signs are good’’ that between 90 and 100 countries would have ratified the treaty by early next year.

‘‘The International Criminal Court is potentially the most important human rights institution created in 50 years. It will be the court where the Saddam Husseins, Pol Pots and Agosto Pinochets of the future are held to account,’’ Dicker said, referring to Iraq’s president, Cambodia’s late Khmer Rouge leader, and the former Chilean dictator.

Philippe Kirsch, chairman of the commission preparing for the court’s operation and Canada’s ambassador to Sweden, says he expects the court to become operational soon after the states that have ratified the treaty meet in early 2003 to select a prosecutor and judges.

The court will step in only when countries are unwilling or unable to dispense justice themselves for the most serious crimes committed by individuals: genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. It will have jurisdiction only over crimes committed after the treaty enters into force.

Cases can come to the court through a state that has ratified the treaty, the UN Security Council, or the court’s prosecutor, who must get the approval of a three-judge panel.

Kirsch says he believes that, once the court shows it will act in ‘‘a very judicial and non-political way’’, there will be less opposition.

‘‘In my view, given the United States’ tradition of commitment to international justice, it is a matter of time before there is some form of cooperation developing between the United States and an institution of this importance,’’ he said.

The court will fill a gap first recognised by the UN General Assembly in 1948 following the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials for German and Japanese war criminals, respectively.

Since then, laws and treaties have outlawed genocide, poison gas and chemical weapons, among other things, but no mechanism has held individuals criminally responsible.

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