Is world ready for rule of law? U.N. conference: Effort to create a court to try perpetrators of crimes against humanity.

June 25, 1998

AFTER two years of drafting a 173-page statute on crimes against humanity, a United Nations conference is struggling to find consensus on setting up a so-called "war crimes" court.

Never was the need so clear.

Instead of creating separate courts, such as those in Nuremberg after World War II or in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia today, U.N. countries would form a permanent court to try those accused of such crimes as genocide and ethnic cleansing. The hope is that clear laws and a forum to enforce them would deter the next potential butcher.

But the world that so much needs this court is not ready for it.

The war-crimes tribunals going on in former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda are painfully slow and have failed so far to justify their existence.

Until those tribunals succeed, the proposed international criminal court (not to be confused with the World Court in the Hague, which handles civil cases) cannot work.

Almost every member of the United Nations favors creation of the court in principle. Views differ of how it might work.

One group wants the U.N. Security Council to decide which prosecutions proceed. The United States, France, Russia and China insist on this.

They, and many smaller countries, fear a prosecution out of control.

A group of 42 nations, including Canada and Great Britain, wants the prosecution to be independent, able to intimidate great as well as small powers from committing crimes against humanity.

Iraq and much of the U.S. Congress see the proposed court as an erosion of sovereignty. So it would be, as are the tribunals dealing with former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

As the world gets smaller and globalization becomes more obvious, the need for this court will grow. A court consistent with U.S. recommendations would not be the real thing, but it would be a step in that direction and ought to be tried.

The idea of a court with independent prosecutorial powers will live, but its fruition is not around the corner.

Pub Date: 6/25/98

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