Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Neighborhood Watch Goes Global ; No Corner Is Hidden from the New International Criminal Court Whose Jurisdiction Is Worldwide but Whose Support Is More Patchy

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Neighborhood Watch Goes Global ; No Corner Is Hidden from the New International Criminal Court Whose Jurisdiction Is Worldwide but Whose Support Is More Patchy

Article excerpt

It was an act that prompted cries of treason: A month ago, a left- wing Israeli group accused Israel of war crimes and threatened to forward its documentation to the new International Criminal Court (ICC). In addition to causing an uproar, the threat seemed to chasten some in the military.

At the same time, observers have suggested that Palestinian suicide bombers may be guilty of war crimes under the court's conventions, which outlaw intentional targeting of civilians.

Both developments underscore the grass-roots stirring spurred by a global governing body that convenes for the first time this week.

Just as an American "neighborhood watch" serves as the eyes and ears of the police, the ICC empowers an entire populace to be its watchdog, says John Washburn, an activist who coordinated the US grass-roots campaign to lobby for the court. While this virtual deputizing of ordinary citizens may cause some frivolous inquiries, Mr. Washburn says, the ICC's office in The Hague could become a sort of "citizens' hotline."

"Before World War II, a number of [nongovernmental organizations] had all this evidence about what was going on in Nazi Germany, but couldn't get anyone to pay attention." This occurred in Rwanda, too, Washburn says. "Now we have a well-respected international institution where organizations and individuals can go with hard evidence to get it reviewed, verified, and proclaimed to the world."

But the court has many limitations - as the Israel incident illustrates. Because Israel has not ratified the court, the UN Security Council would be required to order an investigation, which Israel's US ally would likely veto. It's all part of the push and pull that the ICC - which less than half the United Nations membership has signed onto - has generated in its short existence.

Court advocates know the ICC will be no panacea. Still, they call it the greatest achievement for universal human rights in half a century, a tool that may revolutionize how domestic courts around the globe conduct their business.

The ICC jurisdiction and its definitions of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide will compel signatory countries to adopt these statutes in their criminal codes, supporters say - and to prosecute violators or face the prospect of the ICC doing it for them. That is expected to embolden judges, prosecutors, and activists, particularly in the developing world.

"For those who feel utter helplessness that nothing is done about rogues who defy the international community and act as if they are above the law, the ICC extends the frontiers of justice," said Albie Sachs, an anti-apartheid activist who now serves on the Constitutional Court of South Africa. "The ICC emphasizes the universality of human rights and the universal responsibilities of all of humanity. The excuse of sovereignty can no longer be used in the face of human tragedy."

Hailing the court as "a victory for accountability" and "the end of impunity," the governing body of the ICC is meeting in the UN and now begins a three-month process of nominating the ICC prosecutor and its 18 judges. Elections are slated for February, with the court expected to begin investigating cases next summer.

A long time coming

Talk of a permanent international court surfaced after World War I but was routinely delayed by geopolitics. The campaign revived in the 1990s with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and creation of ad hoc tribunals for both conflicts.

But despite the opening of the court this week, compromises over jurisdiction have restricted the ICC's reach. The court will investigate no event that occurred before July 1 this year, which is when the Rome Statute - named for the court blueprint hammered out in Rome in 1998 - went into effect. The ICC also applies primarily to the countries that have ratified the court. …

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