ICC Launches Amid Flurry of Expectation

Could establishment of new court signal dawn of new era in international justice?

ICC Launches Amid Flurry of Expectation

Could establishment of new court signal dawn of new era in international justice?

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

For once the hype is justified: history really was made this week in The Hague, when the world got its first permanent war crimes court – the International Criminal Court, ICC.

Beneath the vaulted wooden ceiling of the Knights Hall of the Dutch parliament, the court’s 18 judges were sworn in on March 11.

These judges come from all corners of the world, and from different disciplines – some are hard-nosed trial judges, others experts in human rights law.

They join a court backed by 89 nations for the most ambitious undertaking yet seen in international affairs – an attempt to impose a set of rules, backed by the force of law, to prevent the most hideous crimes being committed.

Never has Never Again sounded more plausible.

And among the dignitaries, one guest stood out - United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Annan told an assembly including Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, “By the solemn undertaking they have given here in open court, these eleven men and seven women, representing all regions of the world and many different cultures, have made themselves the embodiment of our collective consciences.”

Annan’s presence was a huge boost for a court that knows it must now struggle for success.

Originally conceived as a UN institution, opposition from states including America means the ICC has had to become a free-standing organisation with no formal ties to the UN.

Annan, in other words, has no official link to the court. The fact that he nevertheless turned up, and gave the court a ringing endorsement, shows that he favours such a link. This will be a big plus for a court in what is likely to be a battle to establish credibility.

Annan got prolonged applause when he ended his speech declaring, “The

United Nations looks forward to working with the International Criminal Court in the cause of all humanity.”

The ICC follows many of the rules established by the temporary UN tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia.

ICC prosecutors have the power to investigate war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

But its key obstacle is the United States, which says it is opposed to the ICC because it fears there could be politically motivated prosecutions.

Washington is working to persuade individual nations to sign deals giving Americans immunity from ICC prosecutions. So far 24 nations have signed – two of them already members of the new court.

The ICC fears that if such deals spread, they will undermine its credibility, which must be universal in its justice if it is to succeed.

But these worries are for tomorrow: for today, there is that rare chance to stand back and watch as history is being made.

Because, 400 years after Dutch thinker Hugo Grotius wrote On The Law of War and Peace, 104 years after the first Hague peace conference drew up rules of war, and 53 years after the Nuremburg trials, the world now has a full-time war crimes court.

This is no small achievement. For several hundred years, states have signed war crimes treaties and conventions by the dozen, only to ignore them when they wish to fight wars.

These wars themselves have become steadily worse, involving genocide, nuclear devastation and now global terrorism.

Only with a court that gives conventions the force of law is there some chance the worst horrors can be avoided.

But, equally, a global court has not been tried before: there is a chance, albeit a small one, that prosecutions will be politically motivated, and that the court, like any court anywhere, will make mistakes and deliver bad judgements.

Yet for those in the Knights Hall, there seemed plenty of grounds for optimism.

Much of the war law that the ICC will deploy has already been tried and tested by the UN’s Hague tribunal – so hopefully the new court can learn from the mistakes of others.

The ICC will never convince doubters that it can be free of error or even manipulation – no court can.

But it may, in the end, convince America and other non-members including China, India, Iran, Israel and Russia that enforcing a minimum set of rules for global conduct can pay huge dividends.

Against a background of looming war in Iraq, Dutch prime minister Dr Jan Peter Balkenende caught the mood perfectly when he told the delegates, “Suspicion and pessimism often dominate international politics. But today we are showing the world that there are grounds for joy, optimism and hope.”

Chris Stephen is IWPR’s bureau chief in The Hague.

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