Effective Monday, any person who commits a war crime, crime against humanity or genocide could face prosecution in a new world court. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has gone into effect, with the power to try people accused of the world's worst crimes. The treaty setting up this first permanent international war crimes court has so far been ratified by 74 countries. But the new court is not without its critics.
The idea of a permanent world criminal court has been talked about for the better part of a century. But it was not until 1998 that the international community approved a treaty setting up the court. Since then, it has taken just four years for the court to be ratified into existence by the necessary 60 nations.
Now, says William Pace, the head of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, thousands of years of impunity are about to come to an end. "The International Criminal Court won't be a panacea, won't end terrorism in the world and won't end war," he said. "But it will be a powerful step towards saying, not only are these crimes unacceptable, but now for first time in history, we are really going to bring those who commit these crimes to justice."
For now, those cases will be brought to a modern 16 story building called The Hague Arch, a former home to the troubled Dutch telecom giant KPN. The building will house the court until its permanent home is ready on what is still a Dutch military base.
The court is not expected to be up and running for at least one year. But its first staff members are now at work to take in any complaints, making sure all information and evidence are securely stored for the future.
The head of the Dutch task force helping prepare the court, Edmond Wellenstein, says the first problem is logistical. "But the most difficult item to tackle is to bridge the high expectations of the world community, especially the victims and families of victims on the one hand and on the other hand the very moment the court will be fully operational because there is a time gap between the two," said Mr. Wellenstein.
Across town is the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, a court set up to deal only with war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. It was the world's first attempt at international justice since the end of World War II. But even its supporters argue that a permanent court is needed to serve as a deterrent and to eliminate high start-up costs for separate special courts.
Nine years after it was established, the Yugoslav tribunal has reached a pinnacle with the ongoing trial of the man once at the top, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milsoevic.
But the deputy prosecutor at the war crimes tribunal, Graham Blewitt says there have been problems. And he says the new criminal court can learn from the tribunal's mistakes.
Eighteen judges will be selected early next year to serve on the new court. Mr. Blewitt says the judges must resist pressure to begin moving too quickly. "The existence of judges and their presence in the ICC from the start will put a lot of pressure on the institution to get moving, and I don't believe that sort of pressure is useful," he said. "But from another point of view, the lessons that can be drawn from this tribunal's work is that it is possible to have these trials. It is possible to undertake investigations under extremely difficult circumstances even in the middle of an armed conflict. So as hard as it may look, I think they can take support that it is possible to achieve."
There are currently almost 40 conflicts in the world. Crimes reported in about one-half of them fall under the new court's jurisdiction: genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. However, the ICC will be a court of last resort, acting only when national jurisdictions are not willing or not able to.
There is much speculation among court watchers about who will file the first court cases. Those mentioned include the Palestinians and people in Israel, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Chechnya, Sudan and Iraq.
The United States is among the countries that have not ratified the treaty setting up the court.
American officials have sharply criticized the court, saying it could unjustly prosecute U.S. citizens, especially members of the U.S. military who serve in peacekeeping units around the world. The United States has asked the United Nations Security Council to exempt all Americans involved in U.N. peacekeeping missions from the court's jurisdiction.
A professor at the University of Georgia in the United States, Amy Ross, says the Bush Administration is misrepresenting the new court. She says the court will focus on world leaders, not normal civilians or soldiers. "It's ironic in a certain way that [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush is objecting to the ICC at this stage, at this stage when he could be right in there, choosing the judges, selecting the prosecutor, making a real impact on the character and the personality of this court," she said. "And it's ironic that he's not doing that because one would have thought that President Bush would have recognized the importance of having a court stacked in his favor."
But many Europeans are most upset by a bill that recently passed both houses of the U.S. Congress. The American Servicemembers' Protection Act restricts U.S. cooperation with the new world criminal court, bans military aid to some countries that support it, and authorizes President Bush to use all means necessary, including military, to free U.S. citizens and those of its allies who might be held by the court.
In the Netherlands, some people are calling the measure The Hague Invasion Act. The Dutch talk, tongue-in-cheek, about U.S. ships invading The Hague from the North Sea. And, there has been a cartoon of President Bush storming a windmill on horseback.
U.S. officials, who did not want to be interviewed, have assured the Dutch that they cannot think of a situation where the United States would actually launch a strike. And, no one here actually thinks it would. But they say they are concerned that the U.S. Congress would approve such a proposal.
A member of the Dutch parliament, Farah Karimi, calls the U.S. legislation absurd. "We will try and convince United States that is really something illegal what they are doing now because we know, for example, Article 5 of NATO means if one of the members of NATO is attacked by another country, then NATO as whole has to defend the country," she said. "That means that the United States has to defend us against the United States, and this is really ridiculous."
Ms. Karimi says the measure shows just how far the United States is willing to go in its unilateralist approach. She says she views the U.S. actions as unacceptable pressure, with the real intention of blocking the ICC's effectiveness.
Many court supporters call it tragic and shameful that the United States will be on what they say is the wrong side of the international justice issue. But they also see the ICC as a test for the rest of the world. It is time, they say, to show the United States that its political and financial leadership is not always needed.