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
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. …