World War Crimes Court
Becomes Reality

By Heleen van Geest

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The first permanent world criminal court, dreamed of for decades, became a reality on Monday -- even as the United States fought tooth and nail to avoid its jurisdiction over humanity's most heinous crimes.
Without fuss or fanfare, the International Criminal Court's (ICC's) first four workers arrived at temporary quarters in an office block on the outskirts of The Hague to handle complaints of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes worldwide.
Human rights groups hail the ICC as global justice's biggest milestone since an international military tribunal in Nuremberg tried Nazi leaders after World War Two.
But the ICC has no courtroom, prosecutor or judges just yet.
Armed only with telephones and office equipment as they await construction of permanent premises, the skeleton staff will pave the way for 18 judges and a chief prosecutor expected to be chosen next January.
"It's a great challenge for us all," said Sam Muller, head of the so-called "advance team" that started work on Monday. The ICC team is set to double to eight members in coming weeks.
The court, backed by 74 nations, is not expected to begin operating properly until February and is unlikely to start investigations before the end of 2003.
No one -- from head of state to citizen on the street -- guilty of human rights violations, including systematic murder, torture and rape, would be immune from ICC prosecution.
But the court, born of a 1998 treaty, has powerful critics like China, Russia and the United States, which wants immunity for its overseas peacekeeping troops and other U.S. officials.
The United States has threatened to withdraw from all U.N.-authorized peacekeeping missions around the world if the 15-nation U.N. Security Council fails to grant it assurances that U.S. nationals are safe from the court's grasp.
Washington has backed off, for now, from a vow to kill off the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Bosnia over its ICC demands. But it renewed a threat to shut down the missions one by one to get its way, prompting NATO to call an emergency meeting.
The ICC cannot probe crimes committed before July 1, 2002, and will not supersede national courts, intervening only when they do not investigate or prosecute serious crimes.
Cases can be referred by states that have ratified the founding 1998 Rome Treaty, the U.N. Security Council or the tribunal's prosecutor after approval from three judges.
The Security Council also has the power to suspend an ICC investigation or prosecution if it believes it could obstruct its efforts to maintain international peace and security.
The United States, Russia and China are three of the five permanent members of the 15-seat Security Council.
New EU president Denmark said it regretted Washington's threat to shut down U.N.-authorized peacekeeping missions.
"Countries that support the International Criminal Court and are actively engaged in U.N. peacekeeping have been placed in a difficult dilemma," Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said in a statement.
Britain also expressed disappointment and said it would use its close transatlantic ties to try to change the U.S. position.
A permanent ICC headquarters is due to be built on the site of a military barracks in the Hague by the end of the decade.
Muller told Reuters the ICC advance team of security, technology, personnel and finance experts would do the groundwork to enable the court to start work after its first budget is adopted in September.
"We also have an important custodial function, which means that we put systems in place to allow us to take possession of evidence or any other material that is presented to the court," Muller said.
"As of today, we have put systems in place to register that material and we will store it in a safe place... and will give it to the prosecutor when he or she takes office."


This Site Served by TheHostPros