At the United Nations Thursday, the first permanent international criminal court became a reality. James Donahower reports on the historic occasion from the United Nations.

The new International Criminal Court will have the authority to try individuals for the world's most serious atrocities: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other gross human rights abuses.

In a solemn ceremony at the United Nations, 10 countries formally ratified the treaty setting up the court, bringing the total to 66. A minimum of 60 was needed.

The process of ratification began in 1998 and was expected by many to take as long as a decade to achieve. The landmark ratification took place over the objections of prominent U.N. members China and the United States.

The U.S. Congress has expressed concern that setting up an international court will subject American servicemen abroad, for example, to politically motivated charges. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed the issue from Rome via videoconference.

"The court will prosecute in situations where the country concerned is either unable or unwilling to prosecute," he said. "Countries with good judicial systems, who apply the rule of law, and prosecute criminals promptly and fairly need not fear. It is where they fail that the court steps in. There is a principle of complementarity here."

Supporters of the court say it will eliminate the need for ad hoc tribunals like the ones set up to try individuals accused of heinous crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

The court is expected to be up and running by 2003, and will be located in The Hague, Netherlands. Only crimes committed after July 1 will fall under the jurisdiction of the court. It will function independently of the United States and funded by participating nations.