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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 11 March, 2003, 15:47 GMT
War crimes judges sworn in
Skulls from Khmer Rouge Killing Fields
Khmer Rouge victims: The court will try war crimes cases
The world's first permanent war crimes tribunal has been inaugurated in The Hague with the swearing-in of its judges.

The 11 men and seven women will preside over the International Criminal Court (ICC), set up to try individuals accused of heinous atrocities.

They were sworn in at a ceremony attended by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, heads of government and foreign ministers.

But despite the uplifting words at the inauguration, numerous countries, including the United States, have refused to endorse the new court, fearing it will be used for politically-motivated prosecutions.

In addition, the court still needs to appoint a prosecutor and is not expected to try any cases for at least a year.

Deterrent

The inauguration ceremony, which took place in the Knight's Hall of the Dutch parliament, was described as an historic day and a sign that the international community is committed to justice.

The International War Crimes Court
The mere existence of the court and the possibilities of being held accountable will hopefully deter the committing of war crimes
Judge Navanethem Pillay

One by one the judges gave a solemn undertaking to perform their duties honourably, faithfully, impartially and conscientiously.

They also promised to respect the confidentiality of investigations and prosecutions, and the secrecy of deliberations.

The judges were chosen last month at UN headquarters, in a carefully crafted election process designed to ensure that the new court has a good geographical and gender mix.

Outlining the importance of their task, Mr Annan called on the judges to show great patience, compassion and an unfailing resolve to arrive at the truth.

"All your work must shine with moral and legal clarity," he told the judges, sitting behind him in their black robes.

Supporters have praised the ICC as an important step forward for human rights.

"The mere existence of the court and the possibilities of being held accountable will hopefully deter the committing of war crimes and crimes against humanity, genocide and other human rights violations," said Navanethem Pillay, one of the court's new judges.

The court has already received more than 200 complaints waiting to be investigated, although it will be up to a chief prosecutor to decide whether to proceed with any of the cases.

ICC member states are expected to select a chief prosecutor in April, but there will still be a long way to go before the court sees its first suspect.

"It will be many, many months before you might see a trial or even the completion of a major investigation," said William Pace of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC).

Opposition

The court has already run into difficulties.

Almost two-thirds of countries which signed the 1998 Rome Treaty to set the court up have not yet endorsed it.

The United States has withheld support, fearing its citizens might become targets for politically-motivated persecution.

It has signed agreements with 24 other countries guaranteeing immunity for American citizens in those countries.

Russia and China have also refused to ratify the treaty.

Despite its wide remit, the ICC will be able to try crimes only committed after 1 July, 2002, and only when states are unwilling to take action against suspected individuals themselves.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Geraldine Coughlan
"A historic day for international justice"



SEE ALSO:
US fears persecution
01 Jul 02 |  Americas


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