Sun, Jan 07, 2001 - Page 9 News List

At last, war crimes court wins US, Israeli backing

The last-minute endorsement by the two countries will help speed up the ratification process necessary to bring the international court to active life

By Jonathan Power

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

Bill Clinton sprang a surprise, but Ehud Barak sprang an even bigger one when, as the light was just about to be turned off at the end of the year, both announced that their governments were signing the treaty creating a permanent International Criminal Court. It had been the stand against the treaty by the world's superpower and the state founded by victims of the worst crime against humanity that had done the most to undermine the Court before its work had begun. That China and India and assorted other malcontents such as Libya and Iraq had not voted for the treaty in Rome at the founding diplomatic conference in 1998 was less significant. One hundred and twenty other nations had.

But the US and the Israeli vote against seemed to many to have stripped it, on the one hand, of a true global reach, and, on the other, of unblemished moral purpose. This was to exaggerate -- all the other NATO countries were behind it and the Israel of Binyamin Netanyahu was a pale shadow of the idealism of the founding fathers. Nevertheless their absence cut a hole.

Signature doesn't guarantee anything

Even though Clinton's signature comes with no promise of ratification by Congress in the immediate future -- "it will be dead on arrival" is the promise of Senator Jesse Helms, the influential chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee -- it will give a fillip to the pace of ratification by the 60 countries necessary to bring the Court to active life. And once that happens then it will be interesting to see if the number of future Pinochets, Saddam Husseins, Pol Pots and Milosevics starts to decline.

The court has no retroactive powers so it is only the world of the future that will concern it. Thus, it will take the best part of a decade before we can get a proper reading on its effectiveness. And even if in 2011 we find that we live in a better world there will, no doubt, be many other claimants for the progress made -- the UN becoming more robust? Western nations coming to their senses and deciding to tightly control the export of armaments and the import of illicit funds into their banks? Or just simply the rapid extension of democracy, already expanding with some impetus?

Yet the rapidity with which the idea of a Court has moved forward since the end of the Cold War suggests that there is a widespread and powerful urge not just to establish it but to make it work.

The idea for a world criminal court first surfaced when the League of Nations in 1937 published a draft statute for a court to try international terrorists. This helped lay the foundations for the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes tribunals that tried the war criminals of the Second World War. And they in turn inspired the passing of the 1948 Genocide Convention, which made a passing reference to the need for an "international penal tribunal". But the idea then lay dormant for the best part of half a century. At the end of Cold War it was President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union who brought the idea back to life when he suggested the need for an international criminal court as a measure against terrorism. Then in 1993 the UN Security Council decided to create the ad hoc tribunal for war crimes in ex-Yugoslavia and the concept took wings again.

The General Assembly of the UN asked the International Law Commission to set to work to create a statute for a full court and the draft was delivered in 1994. The UN worked at breakneck speed to produce an agreed treaty in only 27 months. The UN and its member governments had Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and, by the end, a total of another 800 human rights orientated organizations on their back. Never in the world's history has non-governmental activism been so effective or fruitful.

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