First international criminal court `very close' to being established

Four more ratifications are needed, could come within next few weeks


UNITED NATIONS - The world's first permanent international court to try individuals charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity may become a reality within the next few weeks, much sooner than expected, legal experts said yesterday.

"We're creeping very close to the 60 ratifications needed," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard told reporters yesterday.

The leader of the nongovernmental Coalition for the International Criminal Court, William Pace, said in an interview that the remaining ratifications - four more are needed - could take place during the opening days of a meeting to discuss the court's budget and other matters, beginning April 8. Some officials say the finish line could be crossed earlier.

At the end of last week, the 1998 treaty establishing the court had been signed by 139 nations and ratified by 56. Countries are now jockeying to be the 60th to ratify, thus technically bringing the court into existence. Based in The Hague, Netherlands, the International Criminal Court will take at least a year to begin to function.

The Bush administration, breaking with European and NATO allies, strongly opposes the court and has vowed never to send the treaty to the Senate for ratification.

The treaty, adopted by a conference of nations in Rome in 1998, was signed by the United States in the waning days of the Clinton administration over the objections of the Pentagon and conservatives in Congress who feared that Americans would be easy targets as they carried out missions abroad.

The United States has demanded that no U.N. money be spent on the first organizational meeting of nations that have ratified the court treaty, tentatively set for September. Washington wants an exemption for its citizens from the court's reach.

If the 60 ratifications are received in April, the court's jurisdiction will begin July 1 in the sense that any crime committed after that date is eligible for prosecution. There is no ex post facto jurisdiction.

"When we started in the mid-'90s, and even right up until Rome in 1998, people thought it was going to take 50 or 100 years before governments would be willing to create a permanent international criminal court," Pace said.

"After the treaty was adopted - because of the opposition of the U.S., China, India and other countries - it was thought that it would probably take at least 15, 20, 25 years for 60 ratifications. Many countries, like Germany and France, have had to change their constitutions to ratify. Yet here, less that four years later, we will have achieved the 60 ratifications," he said.

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