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"Those who commit war crimes, genocide or other crimes against humanity will no longer be beyond the reach of justice."

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Supporters applaud ratification of the Rome treaty, which establishes the International Criminal Court. United Nations, New York, April 11, 2002. Osamu Honda

International Criminal Court Is Born

by Toby Eglund

APRIL 12, 2002. The world's first permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) came to life with a rousing ovation at a U.N. ceremony on Thursday, despite hardline opposition from the United States. Ratification by Ireland, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Mongolia, Bosnia, and others put approvals over the 60-country mark, enough to activate the 1998 Rome treaty.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a video statement from Rome, declared, "Those who commit war crimes, genocide or other crimes against humanity will no longer be beyond the reach of justice. Humanity will be able to defend itself — responding to the worst of human nature with one of the greatest human achievements: the rule of law."

The treaty officially comes into force on July 1 to investigate and prosecute war crimes, genocide, and other gross human rights violations committed by individuals, not nations or armies. The ICC's list of crimes are based on solid law, and also on precedent from the Nuremberg tribunal in 1945-1946. Nothing hard to define, like aggression or terrorism is included in the list.

The concept gained backing after the Holocaust and Japanese war crimes of World War II. It was the crimes in Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s that finally compelled states to act. The new court will take the place of current ad hoc tribunals dealing with these extreme crimes. Based in The Hague, the court is expected to be functioning in 2003.

Not every country is celebrating. Those that never signed it include China, India, Turkey, and Japan. Those that signed, but haven't ratified, include Russia, the United States, and Israel.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton signed the treaty to have some say on how the court was shaped, but never submitted it to Congress for ratification. Rhetoric about protecting American soldiers from biased prosecution was the main stumbling block. That was then. George W. Bush is now considering the drastic move of rescinding Clinton's signature. At the very least, the Republican administration will refuse to allow any of its UN funds to be spent on any court-related expense.

It seems to be largely irrelevant to U.S. leadership that the treaty excludes crimes committed before July 1, as well as nationals of countries with a functioning judicial system. American servicemembers, for example, would not be subject to the court's jurisdiction unless they are accused of war crimes on the territory of a state that has ratified the treaty and the United States fails to investigate or prosecute.

Ironically, the ceremony comes just a day after Amnesty International's announcement that at least 150 suspected torturers from other countries are living in the United States, despite a U.S. law that allows for prosecution for committing torture anywhere in the world.

Amnesty USA's executive director, William Schulz, said, "Those who tortured and murdered in other countries should not be able to evade justice and live in the United States without fear of arrest and prosecution."

He added, "The US government is adept at taking people into custody as it has shown by its detention of some 1,200 individuals following the attacks of September 11, the vast majority of whom have been charged only with visa violations. How ironic, then, that we have been unwilling to move against at least 150 people living in this country who, there is good reason to believe, are responsible for far more serious crimes... The US must fulfill its obligation under the law and make it clear that we are not a safe haven for torturers."

Related links:

For Unsigning the ICC, betraying American democracy, in The Nation.

For the International Criminal Court. Includes overview and related sites.

For USA: Amnesty International Report Charges US is 'Safe Haven' for Torturers Fleeing Justice.

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