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The BBC's Tom Carver in Washington
"It may be hard to get American ratification"
 real 56k

Monday, 1 January, 2001, 09:48 GMT
US signs up for war crimes court
Nuremberg trials
Nuremberg was the scene of the first international war crimes tribunal
The United States has signed up to the world's first permanent international court to try those accused of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

The US move came only hours before the deadline after which no more signatures will be accepted. Israel and Iran followed suit.


The US has a long history of commitment to the principle of accountability

US President Bill Clinton

President Bill Clinton said he had endorsed the international court in order "to reaffirm our strong support for international accountability and for bringing to justice perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity".

But observers say other reasons include maintaining US leverage in defining the court's parameters and trying to set the agenda for his successor and the next Congress.

Republican opposition

Conservatives in the US have opposed moves to set up the court for fear that it might encroach upon US national sovereignty.

Senator Jesse Helms, the influential Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described Mr Clinton's move as "a blatant action by a lame-duck president to tie the hands of his successor."

The Senate must ratify the treaty for Mr Clinton's signature to be valid.

The court will act much like the two temporary war crimes tribunals currently investigating the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the Yugoslav conflicts.

Supporters of the project hope that, because the tribunal will be a permanent body, it will be able to deliver swifter justice than an ad-hoc one, and thereby act as a greater deterrent.

Hold-outs sign

Israel signed the treaty a few hours after the US did.

Bosnian woman
A temporary tribunal is already investigating the Yugoslav conflict
Israel's UN ambassador, Yehuda Lancry. said Israeli lawyers who had contributed to formulating the court's statutes "had in mind and in heart the memories of the Holocaust - the greatest and most heinous crime against mankind."

The Israelis had been concerned that under the new court's jurisdiction, Jewish settlers in the occupied territories could be charged with war crimes.

Iran also signed the treaty shortly before the deadline.

Reservations

Mr Clinton said he still had reservations about some aspects of the treaty, including the possibility that the court might not be able to exercise authority over countries that had not ratified the treaty.

Rwanda genocide
Hundreds of thousands died in Rwanda's 1994 genocide
The president had come under pressure from defence officials not to sign until Washington had guarantees that no US servicemen or other government officials abroad would be subject to the court's jurisdiction.

BBC correspondent Tom Carver says the move is certain to be criticised by conservatives, who fear the court could subject American citizens to politically motivated prosecutions.

Based on Nuremberg

The tribunal - which will be set up in the Netherlands and based on the principles of the Nuremberg Nazi war crime trials at the end of World War II - will come into existence automatically after 60 countries have ratified the treaty.

So far, 139 countries have signed the treaty and 27 have ratified it.

The United Kingdom, which signed the treaty in November 1998, is expected to ratify it within the next few months.

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See also:

17 Dec 00 | Africa
Rwandan genocide suspects jailed
06 Nov 00 | Europe
Belgrade pledges war crimes purge
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