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First Judges Take Office at International Criminal Court - 2003-03-11

The world's first permanent international criminal court will go from being a political body to a judicial reality at 1330 UTC Tuesday. The court's first 18 judges will be sworn in in a high-level ceremony in The Hague, in spite of American opposition to the court.

Noticeably absent from the more than 500 guests attending the court's inauguration with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan will be any official representative from Washington.

Eighty-nine countries have so far ratified the Rome Treaty establishing the court, but the United States is not among them. The world's first permanent international criminal court will have the power to try the world's most serious crimes, such as genocide and crimes against humanity, but it mostly has jurisdiction only over signatory countries.

The Bush Administration says it fears American citizens will be unfairly targeted and has opposed creation of the court. It has also negotiated agreements with more than 20 countries to grant U.S. citizens immunity from the court's authority.

The man who signed the Rome Treaty on behalf of the United States, David Scheffer, the U.S. war crimes ambassador under President Bill Clinton, said it is extremely disappointing that his country is not playing a role in the formation of the court.

"It will take a long long time for the U.S. to recapture leadership and credibility and the high ground with respect to the rule of law when it comes to addressing atrocities and dealing with them," said Mr. Scheffer.

The International Criminal Court has so far received more than 200 referrals of cases it may take on. Most of them are reported to be frivolous, but many are not.

Alleged war crimes committed in the Central African Republic and the Congo are among the court's potential targets. Once a prosecutor is elected next month, the referrals can be reviewed, but it is expected to take about two years for any case to actually come before the court.