More than half a century after it was proposed in the ruins of World War II, the world’s first permanent court for the prosecution of war criminals was established on April 11 when 10 countries deposited ratification documents with the United Nations in New York.

Their action brought the number of signatory countries to 66, six more than the required 60 for the treaty to come into force on July 1. The United States boycotted the ceremony, saying it has “no obligation to the court.”

As of July 1, the International Criminal Court (ICC) will have permanent jurisdiction over the most serious breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law – crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.

Establishment of the court closes a gap in international law by becoming a permanent tribunal dedicated to trying individuals responsible for these most horrific crimes.

“The long-held dream of the International Criminal Court will now be realized,” United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said at a news conference in Rome, where 120 countries first agreed in 1998 to set up the tribunal.

William Pace, convenor of the NGO Coalition for the International Criminal Court, an umbrella organization of more than 1,000 civil society organizations called the establishment of the ICC the most significant advance in international law since the founding of the United Nations. “Today’s momentous achievement can only be understood as a victory of the new diplomacy model of developing international law,” he said.

Either the U.N. Security Council or the court’s chief prosecutor will have the authority to initiate a court proceeding. A pretrial review panel will be able to throw out charges. The court will be headquartered in the Hague.

U.S. opposition to the ICC has been long and furious. Congress has passed a law forbidding Americans at all levels of government from cooperating with the new court. The U.S. is trying – so far without success – to insist on exemptions for Americans from its jurisdiction.

As further expression of his contempt for world public opinion, many observers fear that President Bush will make good on his promise to “unsign” the treaty that Clinton signed in the waning days of his presidency. (See story page 4) According to Michael Posner, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, no U.S. president has ever unsigned a treaty.

European Union countries have ratified the treaty – except Greece, which is in the process of doing so – along with Canada, New Zealand and a number of African, eastern European and central Asian countries. Israel has signed it, but not ratified it. Egypt, Iran, Russia and Syria have signed. India, China and Pakistan have neither signed nor ratified.

The first meeting of the Assembly of States Parties – open to all nations who are signatory to the treaty as of July 1 – is slated to convene in September. It will discuss the rules and procedures for the nomination and election of Judges as well as for the nomination and election of the Prosecutor. A second meeting of the assembly is set for January 2003 where judges to the court will be nominated and elected. Any nation that has ratified the treat by Oct. 1 will be eligible to nominate a judge to the court.

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