The prosecutor at the new International Criminal Court says he is closely following the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and that mass killings in the northeast of the country could be the basis for the court's first case.
The court's prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, says the killings in Congo's Ituri Province are the most urgent matter so far brought before the court that actually falls within its authority. Mr. Moreno Ocampo noted that the Democratic Republic of Congo has ratified the treaty that created the court, the alleged crimes are grave and the Congo government seems to be unable to prosecute cases itself. The prosecutor says the court is sending a message.
"We are now here, and we will investigate and punish people who are killing people in Ituri," said Mr. Moreno Ocampo. "So this is a message. The court could prevent crimes tomorrow. That's why it's so urgent to send a message."
Experts estimate that some 5,000 civilians have been killed in Ituri since the court's authority became effective last year. The violence is part of a five-year conflict that has involved several African nations and killed millions of people.
Mr. Moreno Ocampo says his office has received nearly 500 complaints from 66 countries around the world about alleged crimes in conflicts ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to the civil war in Ivory Coast.
But Mr. Moreno Ocampo says the court cannot pursue those complaints because they don't fall within its jurisdiction. Either the countries involved have not ratified the court's treaty, the alleged crimes were committed before the court came into existence, or they are outside its authority, such as environmental damage or drug trafficking.
Mr. Moreno Ocampo says the highest number of complaints over a single conflict concerned Iraq. There were about 100 of them, but he says none of them will be investigated. Many had to do with the alleged crime of aggression, which because of disagreements between countries, is not yet defined under this court's statute.
Mr. Moreno Ocampo says other complaints were against U.S. forces in Iraq, but because neither the United States nor Iraq has accepted the court's authority, those cases are also outside its jurisdiction.
"There is no detailed information about any case against any person in Iraq," he said. "Most of them are letters of people angry with the problem, but not detailed reports, like Congo. We have nothing. We don't know. We know more reading the newspapers than reading our communications about Iraq."
More than 90 nations have signed the court's treaty, and put themselves under its jurisdiction. But the United States has refused, fearing the court could be used to prosecute U.S. soldiers for legitimate actions.
The United States has signed agreements with more than 40 countries not to hand over American citizens to the court and is trying to increase that number. Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo says he is confident the United States will join the court eventually.