ANALYSIS INTERNATIONAL JUSTICE: Half a Century after Nuremberg, World Criminal Court Opens ; the International Criminal Court Marks an Important Development in Human Rights but US Hostility May Compromise Its Effectiveness

By Castle, Stephen | The Independent (London, England), March 11, 2003 | Go to article overview
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ANALYSIS INTERNATIONAL JUSTICE: Half a Century after Nuremberg, World Criminal Court Opens ; the International Criminal Court Marks an Important Development in Human Rights but US Hostility May Compromise Its Effectiveness


Castle, Stephen, The Independent (London, England)


KOFI ANNAN, the UN secretary general, has more than a few calls on his time. Only an event as important as today's launch of the International Criminal Court in The Hague would keep him from New York as the Iraq crisis reaches a climax.

The opening, in the panelled splendour of the Binnenhof building's Old Hall, is being hailed as the most important human rights development in half a century. In front of Queen Beatrix and other dignitaries, 18 judges will be inaugurated into a court that is a direct descendent of the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals set up after the Second World War.

The birth of the ICC is taking place despite fierce opposition from the United States. And the timing of today's ceremony, just as the US and Britain prepare to launch military action of undetermined legality against Iraq, is lost on few in The Hague. Edmond Wellenstein, director general of the Dutch task force for the ICC, tried hard yesterday to sweep it aside, saying the ICC event was one "about hope, and fighting impunity. It is not about a cynical coincidence."

He is right in one respect; expectations of the court are high. Sir Adrian Fulford, the British High Court judge who will serve on the ICC, has described it as "an incredibly important development for international justice and world peace." Richard Dicker, director of the justice programme for Human Rights Watch, says: "We believe this to be the most important human rights institution to be created in the last 50 years."

Already, more than 200 potential cases are sitting in the court's sleek modern building in a suburb of The Hague. Each file is numbered and stored away, pending the appointment of a prosecutor to assess it.

But the ICC faces a formidable task in establishing its credibility. Its current home is temporary and does not even have a courtroom; local Dutch courts will have to be borrowed for pre- trial hearings. At present there is a staff of just 44, a budget of only EUR30m (pounds 20m) and no prospect of holding a full trial for years.

Moreover, the court's very existence is opposed bitterly by Washington, which fears that its soldiers and diplomats will be the object of politically motivated court cases. The US ambassador to The Hague was invited to join the 550 guests at the Binnenhof today (including Bill Rammell, a British Foreign Office minister), but declined. The fact that he replied at all is a positive step since, at one time, the US was threatening that any personnel taken to The Hague would be liberated by force if necessary.

After considerable diplomatic pressure, more than 20 countries signed immunity agreements with Washington, exempting all US citizens from the authority of the court. According to non- governmental organisations, US officials are claiming that the American Servicemembers' Protection Act will cut off assistance to states that have not signed an agreement by 1 July this year.

Whatever the objections from, much of the rest of the world has been waiting for decades for the ICC. To come into existence the court needed the backing of 60 states, a landmark achieved in April despite the best lobbying efforts of the US. Since then a further 29 nations have come on board.

It was during the Nuremberg trials that the idea of a world war crimes court surfaced. In December 1948, the UN General Assembly asked the International Law Commission to look into setting up an "international judicial organ for the trial of persons charged with genocide". There was little progress until the 1990s and the establishment of two ad hoc UN courts to try war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Meanwhile, there were controversial efforts to prosecute the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in Spain, and Ariel Sharon, the current Israeli Prime Minister, in Belgium.

The objective of the ICC and the other ad hoc courts is twofold: to provide justice for the victims of genocide and to deter future war criminals by illustrating that, however senior they are, those responsible for atrocities are not immune.

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ANALYSIS INTERNATIONAL JUSTICE: Half a Century after Nuremberg, World Criminal Court Opens ; the International Criminal Court Marks an Important Development in Human Rights but US Hostility May Compromise Its Effectiveness
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