World crimes court opens in The Hague

Stephanie van den Berg,THE HAGUE, AFP

The world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal officially opened its doors in The Hague on Monday to bring to justice perpetrators of the worst crimes against humanity as the United States stepped up its opposition to the court.

An advance team reported to work at a temporary office of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on the outskirts of the Dutch capital and was ready to receive the first complaints, Dutch foreign ministry spokesman Frank de Bruin told AFP.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called the creation of the ICC, supported now by 74 states, “an historic occasion.”

“It holds the promise of a world in which the perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes are prosecuted when individual states are unable or unwilling to bring them to justice,” Annan said in New York on Sunday.

But the United States along with mainland China, Russia, India and Israel oppose the court, arguing that its citizens could be the target of politically-motivated prosecutions.

Stepping up its challenge to the ICC, the United States vetoed the renewal of a U.N. force in Bosnia on the eve of the court’s launch, to protest the U.N. Security Council’s refusal to exempt peacekeepers from ICC prosecution.

The U.S. veto, its 75th since the United Nations was set up in 1945, was the latest move in a clash of wills between the United States and advocates of the ICC — most of them the world’s leading democracies.

Cast only seven hours before the court came into being, the veto could lead to the collapse of the U.N. police force in Bosnia and also call into doubt the 19,000 strong, NATO-led Stabilization Force in Bosnia, known as SFOR.

At NATO headquarters in Brussels, talks were to get underway to try to resolve the dispute over the future of the Bosnia force before the Wednesday midnight deadline.

Disagreement over the court has prompted Dutch and ICC authorities to take a low-key approach to the launch of the court. While human rights groups, the United Nations and many governments have hailed the court as a milestone in international justice, there was no official ceremony to mark its coming into being.

Edmond Wellenstein, the Dutch director general of the ICC advance team at the new court, said the ICC was “a symbol of hope.”

“At the moment we do not have a functional tribunal yet, we just have an impressive building,” he told Dutch Radio 1.

“It is like a child that has been born on July 1 and now needs to be nourished, cherished and raised within the family,” he said.

When reached by AFP, the advance team of the court would not give details about the number of calls they had received or say if any complaints had yet been lodged.

The court is mandated to prosecute genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression committed anywhere in the world.

The court was established by the 1998 Rome Statute when 120 states adopted the statute. It was agreed the ICC would come into being two calendar months after 60 nations ratified the treaty, which happened on April 11 this year.

Much remains to be done before the court can function properly. There are currently no judges, no prosecutors, no courtrooms and no registrar. The new court does not even have a budget yet.

The director-general of the ICC advance team is currently in New York to prepare the ICC states parties assembly. All 74 states that ratified the Rome treaty will meet in the city in September to agree on a budget and establish the procedures for electing and appointing court officials and employees.

The states will come together again in January 2003 to elect the chief prosecutor and 18 judges. The court is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2003.

Although some observers expect complaints to pour in in the first weeks of the ICC’s existence, the court is not retroactive and can only try crimes committed after July 1.