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US Pushes for African Court to Try Darfur War Crimes

The U.S. government is opposing a plan to bring alleged Sudanese war criminals before the International Criminal Court in The Hague for atrocities committed in Darfur. Instead, the Bush Administration says a permanent African Court of Justice based in East Africa should be created. The human-rights community fears the debate over who will prosecute the atrocities in Darfur is hindering efforts to stop the killing.

While the U.N. Security Council considers a U.S. sponsored draft resolution that would impose sanctions on Sudan for the ongoing atrocities in Darfur, another debate is taking place over where those accused of such crimes should be tried.

U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour argues that the International Criminal Court is the best option for bringing those accused of war crimes to justice.

"With an already existing set of well-defined rules of procedure and evidence, the Court is the best-suited institution for ensuring speedy investigations leading to arrests and demonstrably fair trials," she said.

The United States opposes the International Criminal Court for a variety of reasons, among them concern the court could be used to bring frivolous charges against U.S. troops or political leaders.

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, Pierre-Richard Prosper, says the United States would like instead to see the creation of a joint African Union, United Nations type of tribunal, where the African Union plays the lead role in achieving justice and accountability for events on the African continent.

"Now our concern philosophically with the ICC in this particular area is the fact that the ICC is far away,” he said. “It is based in The Hague. The people of Africa will not be there to see justice as its being administered. There will not be a strong African presence in the process. While the ICC does have some African personnel, it is not the same as having an African Union institution involved fundamentally in the aspects of justice, making some of the key decisions, and being responsible for the effective administration of justice."

According to Ambassador Prosper the new court could be based in East Africa, building off the existing infrastructure and experience of the ad-hoc Rwanda Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania.

European nations, many of whom strongly backed the creation of the ICC, have not been very receptive to the U.S. proposal.

A Sudan researcher with Human Rights Watch, Jemera Rone, says the atrocities in Darfur are occurring now and need to be prosecuted as soon as possible. Establishing an African Union-led tribunal will take months, if not years. Meanwhile, the ICC is already up and running.

"International prosecution is a real deterrent,” said Ms. Rone. “It really does work. The fact is that now in Khartoum people are worried. They are talking about La Hague, they might have to go to The Hague."

The Washington director of Human Rights First, Elisa Massimino says the Bush Administration's opposition to the ICC is undermining its leadership on Darfur and hampering efforts to pass a tough U.N. Security Council resolution.

"I really feel like if what we are talking about here is the risk that the U.S. might be proven wrong about the ICC, if that is really what we are talking about, that the victims in Darfur should not have to pay the price for that gamble," said Ms. Massimino.

The United States has played an important role in the ad-hoc tribunals prosecuting war crimes in Rwanda and Yugoslavia. But if the International Criminal Court is given jurisdiction over Darfur, Ambassador Prosper says the United States will not aid in the prosecution.

"One thing the ICC will not have if it goes down that road is the United States,” said Mr. Prosper. “It will not have the political support of the United States. It will not have the financial support of the United States. It will not have the evidentiary support of the United States."

Ambassador Prosper says the United States does not agree to the proposition that "justice in Africa has to be exported to the Hague." He asks whether that is an appropriate message to send to the African continent whenever there is a problem.