- Associated Press - Sunday, February 27, 2011

THE HAGUE | In its nine years of existence, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has yet to prove itself. Now it has been handed another tough assignment — meting out justice for possible crimes against humanity in Libya.

The court’s first trial has been a shambles, it cannot apprehend its most wanted suspects and it has been criticized for focusing too much on Africa.

Yet the order by the U.N. Security Council to investigate Libya marks an achievement for the court, which is still struggling for global acceptance.

The 15 Security Council members unanimously approved the decision Saturday, even though five of them — including permanent members China, Russia and the United States — themselves refuse to recognize the court’s jurisdiction and have not signed its founding treaty.

“It is very positive that the ICC is being looked to by the Security Council as a possible tool for accountability,” Elizabeth Evenson of Human Rights Watch said Sunday.

Chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo was instructed to report back to the council in two months on his investigation whether Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s violent crackdown on anti-government protests featured crimes against humanity.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cited reports that perhaps 1,000 have died amid a popular uprising and the government’s violent crackdown on Gadhafi critics.

The Security Council move sends “a very strong message to Gadhafi and Gadhafi’s henchmen that the violence against civilians that has been reported needs to stop,” Ms. Evenson added.

The investigation marks another step toward holding authoritarian leaders accountable for the criminal activities of their regimes, a process that started with Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic, who died before his trial could finish. It continues now through the war-crimes trials of Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Bosnian Serb strongman Radovan Karadzic, whose cases are under way at other international courts in The Hague.

ICC prosecutors will first carry out a preliminary probe to establish if crimes falling within the court’s jurisdiction have been committed in Libya. That assessment will include the seriousness of the allegations and whether Col. Gadhafi is likely to face justice in Libya.

The only other time the Security Council referred a case to the ICC was in March 2005, when it called for an investigation into atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region. After a preliminary probe, the court formally opened an investigation three months later and issued its first indictments in April 2007.

The Darfur investigation has been based largely on testimony from refugees forced out of the war-torn region. Like with Sudan, it remains unclear if Mr. Moreno-Ocampo will be able to send investigators to Libya to gather evidence while conflicts are still raging.

The new case also will stretch the court at a time when member states are still feeling the pinch of the global economic crisis.

The Darfur case also highlights the court’s Achilles’ heel — its inability to have suspects arrested. Judges issued an arrest warrant in July for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on three counts of genocide, but he has since traveled repeatedly to friendly nations whose authorities refuse to detain him.