International War Crimes Court Is Inaugurated, but Without U.S.
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service.
Wednesday, March 12, 2003; Page A18
THE HAGUE, March 11 -- The world's first permanent war crimes tribunal was inaugurated today in this Dutch seat of government, despite efforts by the Bush administration to hamper its creation and exempt Americans from its provisions.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan presided as 18 international judges of the International Criminal Court took the oath of office at a ceremony before Queen Beatrix and international dignitaries representing some of the 89 countries that back the court's establishment. Notably absent was an official representative of the United States, although the U.S. Embassy is located two blocks from the 13th-century grand hall where the ceremony took place.
The court is the culmination of a concept that had its genesis in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after World War II, and that gained currency recently during ongoing tribunals created to consider charges of genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
"For centuries, and especially in the last century, [the world's] conscience has been shocked by unspeakable crimes -- crimes whose victims were counted not in the tens, but in tens of thousands, even in millions," Annan said. With the establishment of the court, he said, "persons who are tempted or pressured to commit unspeakable crimes must be deterred by the knowledge that they will one day individually be called to account."
A 1998 accord, known as the Rome Treaty, established the International Criminal Court and was ratified by the United States during the Clinton administration. But President Bush withdrew U.S. support, expressing concern that an independent court could be used for frivolous or politically based prosecutions of American citizens.
A senior U.S. official said that the precise case of an impending and unpopular U.S. invasion of Iraq was the kind of situation in which there were concerns about international court proceedings. "Sometimes the U.S. has to do things and people don't agree with it," said the senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We don't want a politically motivated prosecution to result from that."
In the event of a war in Iraq, there was also a possibility of charges against Saddam Hussein, who is accused by the United States, Britain and other countries of war crimes in his own country. U.S. officials have suggested a special tribunal inside Iraq would try Hussein and other Iraqis accused of such crimes after a U.S.-led invasion.
While Clifford Sobel, the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, did not attend the ceremony here, David Scheffer, the former U.S. ambassador for war crimes during the Clinton administration, was present. Scheffer signed the Rome Treaty on behalf of the United States.
Since abrogating the Clinton administration's signature last year, the Bush administration has persuaded 24 countries to sign bilateral agreements with the United States, pledging not to surrender to the court U.S. nationals or foreigners working under U.S. contract. The U.S. Congress has passed legislation authorizing the president to take "all means necessary" to free Americans taken into custody by the court.
Human rights activists say the bilateral agreements pressed by the United States risked undermining a core founding principle of the court -- that no one is immune from prosecution for war crimes.
"The real objective is to try to undermine the legitimacy of the court by creating a two-tiered standard of justice -- one for Americans and foreign nationals working for the United States, and another for everyone else," said Richard Dicker of the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch.
Dicker dismissed Bush administration concerns about unfounded prosecutions. He said tribunal rules contain sufficient safeguards -- including the power of the U.N. Security Council to halt any prosecution by unanimous vote. Prosecutors also must obtain the approval of a three-judge panel before launching any prosecution, to avoid "unbridled prosecutorial discretion," Dicker said.
Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said in a telephone interview tonight, "Our views on the International Criminal Court are well known." He said the United States was concerned about the court having jurisdiction over citizens of countries that had not signed the Rome Treaty, and "we are particularly concerned about the potential for politically motivated prosecutions in the framework of this court."
Boucher added, "We respect the right of other nations to become parties, but ask that they respect our right not to do so."
China and Russia have not signed the Rome Treaty, meaning that three of the five permanent members of the Security Council are not participating in the court. The European Union today, however, hailed the establishment of the court.
The international court is scheduled to begin considering 200 complaints already filed sometime this year. A chief prosecutor and staff are to be selected during a meeting of Rome Treaty countries here next month. There is hope for a consensus choice for prosecutor, but none has emerged yet, and Annan alluded to the highly sensitive nature of that choice in lending the court legitimacy in the face of U.S. opposition.
"The importance of that function can hardly be exaggerated," Annan said. "The decisions and public statements of the prosecutor will do more than anything else to establish the reputation of the court."
"It is therefore vital that a person of the highest caliber be found to undertake that grave responsibility," Annan said. "This surely is a time to set aside national interests and focus exclusively on the qualifications of the individual candidates."