- The Washington Times - Monday, March 10, 2003

BRUSSELS, Belgium, March 10 (UPI) — The first world court capable of trying war criminals and brutal dictators opens its doors for business in The Hague Tuesday in an attempt to ensure that the gravest international crimes do not go unpunished.

The International Criminal Court, which was set up in 1998, will be formally inaugurated by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands at a ceremony in the Dutch parliament.

The U.N. court's 18 judges will also be sworn in at the high-level event, which is due to be attended by Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and representatives of the 89 states that have signed up to the court's jurisprudence.

But the United States, which withdrew its signature from the treaty setting up the court, will not be popping open the champagne Tuesday.

One American official told United Press International the court would fail to bring war criminals to justice because it: "Undermines the U.N. Security Council's role in keeping peace and security, creates a prosecutorial system with unchecked powers, is vulnerable to politically motivated prosecutors and asserts jurisdiction over citizens and states that have not ratified the treaty."

The Brussels-based diplomat added: "The United States respects the decision of those who join the International Criminal Court, but asks that they in turn respect our decision not to join."

Critics say without Washington, the ICC lacks credibility. They also point to the huge number of administrative hurdles the court must clear before it can start trying serial violators of civil liberties.

At present, the U.N. body has no chief prosecutor, no detention cells and no courtroom. The court's 62-staff, who are housed in an office block on the outskirts of the Dutch capital, will also have to wait until 2007-09 to move to permanent premises.

While admitting the ICC is a "work in progress," the court's supporters say it will help deter genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"No one expects this court to work at 100 percent from day one because it is where the boundaries of law and politics merge," says Brussels-based human rights lawyer Mathew Heim. "But at the moment it is the best we have got and it is something we need."

With a nod to the looming war in Iraq, Heim adds: "It is better to have a multilateral legal order than unilateral action by individual states, no matter how good their intentions are."

The ICC, which is modeled on temporary U.N. tribunals for Rwanda, East Timor and the former Yugoslavia, aims to put an end to the gross violations of international humanitarian law witnessed in the 20th century.

However, the court will only be able to act when nation states are unable or unwilling to prosecute.

Perpetrators of heinous crimes committed before July 1. 2002, the date the ICC's founding treaty entered into force, will also be able to sleep easily as the fledgling court is unable to try suspects retroactively.

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