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ANALYSIS: ICC Keeps Eye on Venezuela

If Venezuela descends into violence, its perpetrators could face prosecution by the new international court.
By Chris Stephen

Supporters and opponents of the International Criminal Court, ICC, are watching events in Venezuela to see if they'll provide its first test cases.


Should unrest in the country escalate into civil conflict, both government and opposition could find themselves facing ICC indictments as Venezuela is one of the 70-odd nations that have signed the court's statute.


ICC prosecutors have the power to investigate a range of abuses - including war crimes, persecution and wrongful imprisonment.


And the new court poses a threat to Caracas's neighbours too, as they could face indictments if the ICC prosecutor decides they contributed to crimes in Venezuela.


The United States has a long history of extensive involvement in South American affairs, and if its leaders are implicated in crimes on Venezuelan territory they could be liable to ICC judgements, even though Washington is not a signatory to the court's statute.


What constitutes such involvement is an open question, simply because it has never arisen before. The ICC is brand new. Its laws have yet to be tested in a single case.


But the other war crimes court, The Hague tribunal, provides some guidance.


Its trial of Slobodan Milosevic is focusing not just on his alleged direct involvement in war crimes, but in his suspected responsibility - through funding, provision of military equipment and specialist units - in other people's wars.


The immediate problem for the new criminal court is that if there's bloodshed in Venezuela in the coming weeks, ICC investigators will not be dispatched - because none are yet employed.


The ICC is not due to elect its judges until its New York conference on February 3.


And it is unlikely it will even then be open for business, because nominations for the post of prosecutor closed on December 8 without a single candidate.


This makes it unlikely that the office will be filled, and functioning, before the summer. But this will not stop prosecutions, because the court's jurisdiction began on July 1 this year.


It maybe many months before a prosecutor even arrives in office, but any crimes committed now will fall under their remit.


Already, officials at the new court have told IWPR, complaints and evidence is piling up from around the world.


More than 100 communications have arrived at the headquarters - some spurious, some downright wrong - and all are being kept in a safe in the court's Hague headquarters. Officials are refusing to say where these complaints come from, only that, when a prosecutor finally takes office, all will be examined for possible criminal proceedings.


For Venezuela, which ratified the ICC Rome Statute in July 2000, possible liability will come from two sources.


The ICC mirrors The Hague tribunal in judging both war crimes and crimes against humanity.


War crimes charges could be leveled if, for instance, fighting breaks out in the country. Prosecutors could bring charges not just against the army, but against any other armed group or guerrilla force.


And were the president, or any group seizing power from him, to begin round-ups, arrests, torture or deportation, they could find themselves indicted for crimes against humanity.


Outside agencies could find themselves indicted if it was proved they funded, supported or armed those committing war crimes.


South American nations have been enthusiastic supporters of the ICC: Argentina (2001), Brazil (2000), Columbia (2002) Ecuador (2002) and Paraguay (2001) are among nations who have ratified the ICC statute.


They were motivated, at least in part, by seeing the court as a sort of insurance policy against their generals taking power and immobilising the domestic justice system.


But not everyone is happy. The US has led the way in opposing a court it says is open to abuse because it is not embedded in a democratic system of accountability.


America is seeking, so far without success, immunity deals for its citizens from ICC members, and has also passed the American Service Members Act, dubbed "The Hague Invasion Act" because it gives the president the power to launch military action to free anyone detained by the ICC.


Nobody expects US Marines to arrive off the Hook of Holland any time soon, but the legislation has signaled the strength of Washington's opposition to a court, which is soon to begin flexing its muscles.


Chris Stephen is IWPR's Bureau Chief in The Hague