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World Court for Crimes of War
Opens in The Hague

THE HAGUE (New York Times), March 11 — Fiercely opposed by the Bush administration and long awaited by other countries, a new and permanent international criminal court for dealing with dictators and war criminals formally opened today with the swearing in of its bench of 18 judges.

The court's task will be to try individuals — not nations or armies — accused of large-scale crimes against civilians. The judges, 11 men and 7 women from all over the world, will be part of what was called today the most ambitious initiative in the history of modern international law.

Dressed in black gowns, the 18 judges took their oath of office in a 14th-century hall of the Dutch Parliament, before jurists, diplomats, politicians and government ministers from more than 100 nations.

One by one, their right hands raised, the judges pledged to perform their duties "honorably, faithfully, impartially and conscientiously." They also promised to respect "the confidentiality of investigations and prosecutions and the secrecy of deliberations."

The group elected a president, Philippe Kirsch, a Canadian judge and international law specialist.

Supporters hope the new institution will play a crucial role in averting as well as prosecuting major human rights abuses. Although the court is independent of the United Nations, Secretary General Kofi Annan was present and said he was looking forward to supporting its cause, "which is the cause of all humanity." He urged the judges to act without fear or favor. "Unspeakable crimes must be deterred," Mr. Annan said, adding that deterrence has been missing in the past. "It is needed today as much as ever, and it will be needed in the future."

But the Bush administration, fearing that a politicized prosecutor could indict American officials or military personnel on missions abroad, has actively campaigned against the institution and pressed many governments into deals to disregard any subpoena issued for an American citizen. Washington has obtained such deals from 21 nations, mainly poor countries dependent on United States aid.

No American officials attended the ceremony, but some American legal experts did, among them Theodor Meron, a professor at New York University Law School who was recently appointed president of the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal, as well as two elderly lawyers who had played a role at the Nuremberg trials. One of them, Benjamin B. Ferencz, 82, said the current American leadership "seems to have forgotten the lessons we tried to teach the rest of the world."

Several speakers tried to dispel the fears of America and others — including China, India, Iraq and Turkey — who are not among the 89 that have ratified the Rome Treaty that created the court in 1998. Prince Zeid al-Hussein of Jordan, who presided over the court's parent body, said the new court "is not the world's crucible for vengeance" but a "court of last resort." Its statutes dictate that it must defer to national courts first.

The prosecutor, who is expected to be selected in April, can issue indictments only in cases where national courts are unwilling or unable to deal with grave atrocities, like war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The court has no jurisdiction over single abuses, but only over those that have been "systematic or widespread." A panel of judges must approve any indictment before it can be issued.

The shadow of a possible war in Iraq was also very present today. As the new court pledged to uphold the rule of law, several speakers expressed fears of a breakdown of international law if the United States and Britain waged war on Iraq without United Nations approval. With neither the United States nor Iraq members of the court, however, it seems unlikely that this new tribunal will play any role in prosecutions stemming from the war. British troops however could in theory be vulnerable in case of abuses.

The court's jurisdiction covers only crimes committed after July 1, 2002. Anyone can bring charges, individuals, groups, governments, and the United Nations Security Council.

Once before in history, corporate managers were tried
and sentenced by a War Tribunal.

Read more about the Nuremberg War Tribunal

Spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

(3/10/2003) The 18 judges of the International Criminal Court will meet on March 11 to be sworn in at the ICC’s official inauguration ceremony in The Hague, where it is headquartered.

These 18 judges were elected during the week of February 3-7 by the Assembly of States Parties to the Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. One of the judges, Mr. Claude Jorda, is French; he has presided over the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia since November 1999.

The judges will be responsible for passing sentences on those responsible for crimes against humanity, crimes of genocide and war crimes, while respecting the principle of complementarity with the jurisdictions of the States Parties, today numbering 89.

France, the second-largest contributor to the budget of the Court, sees this day as the culmination of long efforts to promote the creation of a permanent, independent and universal judicial institution.

France will be represented at the March 11 ceremony by Justice Minister Dominique Perben and Deputy European Affairs Minister Noëlle Lenoir.

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