UNITED NATIONS - The International Criminal Court (ICC) will come into force in July following Thursday's final ratification of the Rome treaty, which created the court in 1998.
”The long-held dream of a permanent international criminal court will now be realized. Impunity has been dealt a decisive blow,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said immediately after 10 countries deposited their instruments of ratification with the United Nations.
The act of unsigning will do more than create a firestorm of controversy with America's closest allies and friends. It will also create a precedent that is contrary to U.S. national interest.
”Those who commit war crimes, genocide or other crimes against humanity will no longer be beyond the reach of justice,” he added.
The 10 countries that presented their ratifications were: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ireland, Jordan, Mongolia, Niger, Romania and Slovakia.
The treaty setting up the ICC was adopted at a meeting in Rome in July 1998. Since then, 139 countries have signed the treaty, which required 60 ratifications to come into legal force. As of Thursday there were 66 ratifications. The treaty comes into force 60 days after Thursday's final ratification.
Richard Dicker of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Watch said the ICC was potentially the most important human rights institution created in the past 50 years.
”It will be the court where the Saddams, the Pol Pots, and Pinochets of the future are held to account,” Dicker said.
The late Pol Pot was held responsible for the deaths of millions of Cambodians during his rule in 1975-79. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein stands accused of using chemical weapons against his country's Kurdish minority. Former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet, who has been charged with human rights violations, ended 17 years of military dictatorship in 1990 and 25 years as head of the armed forces in 1998.
Dicker said the 60th ratification came sooner than even the Court's staunchest advocates had expected. The common prediction was that it would take eight to 10 years to obtain the 60 ratifications, he added.
Palitha Kohona, chief of the UN Treaty Section, told IPS widespread belief in the intrinsic value of the ICC - in a world traumatized by large scale human rights violations, whether in Yugoslavia, Rwanda or Cambodia - facilitated its early entry into force.
”The international NGO community played a critical role in emphatically conveying this message around the world,” he said.
The New York-based Coalition for the International Criminal Court, a network of more than 1,000 civil society and legal organizations throughout the world, led the NGO campaign.
Despite its early entry into force, more than one-third of the world's population will not have access to the court. China and India, with a combined population of more than two billion, have refused to sign the treaty, saying it is flawed.
Kohona said that in an ideal world it would be highly desirable to have universal participation in a treaty of this nature.
”States have priorities of their own. A treaty of this nature would require extensive reviews and complex legislation prior to its introduction to the domestic legal system,” he said.
Nevertheless, he added, the participation of major states ”will certainly contribute to strengthening the moral force behind the court.”
Non-signatories include North Korea, Libya, Cuba and Iraq -- countries designated as ”terrorist states” by the U.S. State Department.
The United States has signed the treaty but has refused to ratify it. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton signed the treaty Dec. 30, 2000 -- one day before the deadline and two days before George W. Bush took over at the White House.
Senator Jesse Helms, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described Clinton's action as a blatant attempt ”to tie the hands of his successor.”
Reflecting the Bush administration's skepticism, Helms said he feared the ICC would subject the U.S. military to future prosecution.
”The court is not directed against citizens of any particular country,'' said Annan. ''The court is directed against criminals, and it will prosecute in situations where the country concerned is either unable or unwilling to prosecute.”
There has been widespread speculation that the Bush administration would withdraw its signature from the treaty.
”The act of unsigning will do more than create a firestorm of controversy with America's closest allies and friends,” said Don Kraus, spokesperson for the non-governmental USAforICC. ”It will also create a precedent that is contrary to U.S. national interest”.
Once the U.S. government withdraws from the treaty, it should get ready for pressure to withdraw from other treaties deemed undesirable by interest groups, Kraus added.
He said some of the treaties that could come under pressure include the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. All three treaties have been signed but not ratified by the United States.
The ICC will only have jurisdiction over events that occur after its entry into force and would not be able to take up cases stemming from earlier events such as the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence, said a spokesperson for the NGO Washington Working Group on ICC.
In addition, the Court will only have jurisdiction if a covered crime is committed by a national of a state that has ratified the ICC treaty, if a crime has been committed on a territory of a member state, or if the UN Security Council refers a specific case.
To qualify for the first category, Israel or an internationally recognized Palestinian state would have to ratify the treaty. Israel has signed but not ratified it.
The ICC will be located in the Hague, Netherlands, also home to the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
The proposal for an ICC, initiated by President Arthur Robinson of Trinidad and Tobago, was introduced as a UN General Assembly resolution back in 1989 and has been kicked around the UN system for nearly 13 years.
The Court will consist of 18 judges, as well as prosecutors and investigators. It will not be part of the United Nations and will be funded by states that are parties to the ICC treaty.
In contrast, the two existing war crimes tribunals, on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, were created by the UN Security Council and have mandates limited to those two countries.
Copyright 2002 IPS