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Thursday, 11 April, 2002, 03:48 GMT 04:48 UK
Historic day for international justice
Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague
Milosevic is being tried in an ad hoc tribunal
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By Greg Barrow
BBC United Nations correspondent in New York
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On Thursday the world is set to move a step closer towards establishing an international criminal court, when the last few ratifications required are expected to be lodged at a ceremony at the United Nations in New York.

Once that takes place, the court, which will be located in The Hague, will enter into force on 1 July this year.

Its aim will be to pass judgement on the most grievous war crimes, and crimes against humanity across the world, committed after it comes into being.


We're dealing with crimes here that have a genuine international flavour, and that being the case, the notion of an international court is more appropriate

Peter Barcroft, legal adviser to the Irish UN mission
History has played an important role in making the idea of an international criminal court become a reality.

It was the Nuremburg trials at the end of World War II that highlighted the important role of international justice in punishing those responsible for the gravest crimes.

The more recent genocide in Rwanda, and the atrocities committed during the course of the Balkans conflict added weight to the calls for a permanent international criminal court.

But even supporters of the court have been surprised at how quickly it has won the support required to bring it into force.

Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch now believes that 11 April 2002 will go down in legal history as the day when the world gave international justice a new priority.

"I see this event on Thursday as really bringing into being potentially the most important human rights institution that's been created in 50 years," he said.

"Precisely because it will have the ability to try those accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, it is a major historical development."

Objectivity

Ireland is among at least nine nations preparing to present the final few ratifications required to establish the court.

"There is a sense that what an international court can do in contrast to national courts is that it brings with it a layer of objectivity and impartiality that may at times be more difficult to obtain in a domestic setting," said Peter Barcroft, legal adviser to the Irish mission at the UN.


Many of those who committed war crimes believed that they would never face justice, because in the history of the Balkans there was never such a court

Bosnian ambassador to the UN, Mirza Kusljugic
"I think also there is a sense that we're dealing with crimes here that have a genuine international flavour, and that being the case, the notion of an international court is more appropriate."

One of the most important aspects of the new court will be its permanent status.

Until now, international tribunals have been established on an ad hoc basis.

The International War Crimes Tribunal on Yugoslavia only began functioning after the full horror of war crimes in the Balkans conflict came to light.

"We believe that if there had been an ICC before the atrocities in the Balkans started, there wouldn't have been such a level of commitment of war crimes," said Bosnian ambassador to the UN, Mirza Kusljugic.

"We definitely believe that many of those who committed war crimes believed that they would never face justice, because in the history of the Balkans there was never such a court to convict those who had committed war crimes."

Empty chairs

Like all multi-lateral institutions, the international criminal court, will only be as strong as its constituent parts, and there are some fairly serious international players missing.


The Bush administration is extremely fearful that any particular decision to use military force would end up with US officials being charged before the international criminal court

David Sheffer
Russia, China, and the United States, have all so far failed to ratify the Rome treaty establishing the court.

The Bush administration has made no secret of its opposition.

David Scheffer, ambassador at large for war crimes issues under President Clinton, believes this is a mistake, founded on an unwarranted concern that the International Criminal Court might charge American soldiers with war crimes.

"The Bush administration, I think, is extremely fearful that the court could tie the hands of the United States in the execution of its foreign policy... to such an extent that policy makers would have to be extremely concerned about whether any particular decision to use military force would end up with US officials being charged before the international criminal court."

The Bush administration is now considering the unprecedented diplomatic move of unsigning itself from the Rome Treaty - an empty gesture that has clearly angered those like Bill Pace, of the Coalition for an International Criminal Court.

"The United States has been in the forefront of promoting international justice initiatives for 55 of the past 56 years," he said.

"That this new court being established by the world's democracies is being established without US political and financial support is a tragedy."

Not that this will detract from the celebrations planned when the court receives the last of the 60 ratifications it requires from around the world on Thursday morning in New York.

Those who have campaigned long and hard for this day are confident that justice will prevail, and nations who are yet to embrace the international criminal court, will soon become convinced that it is a force for good.

See also:

11 Mar 02 | Africa
Sankoh murder trial begins
14 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Indonesia begins landmark trial
13 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Cambodia rejects UN tribunal demands
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