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Welcome to the New World Court!

By Reuters News Service

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -- Despite militant opposition from the United States, the first permanent global criminal court to prosecute the world's most heinous crimes becomes a reality on Thursday. At a ceremony at U.N. headquarters, ten countries bring the total number of ratifications from 56 to 66 -- six more than needed to bring the treaty establishing the tribunal into force on July 1. The ten are Bosnia, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Congo, Ireland, Jordan, Mongolia, Niger, Romania and Slovakia. All deposit their ratification papers at the same time so that the honor of being the 60th nation will not just go to one country.

"It is an extremely significant moment in world history, the achievement of this court," said David Scheffer, the former U.S. ambassador for war crimes in the Clinton administration. While it will be only months for the treaty officially to come into force to investigate and prosecute war crimes, mass murder and other gross human rights violations, the court -- based in the Hague -- is expected to be functioning in 2003. Furious at the concept of an international court, a number of U.S. congressmen have proposed measures forbidding U.S. contact with the tribunal and punishing nations who do. The Bush administration is also considering withdrawing former President Bill Clinton's signature on the treaty, setting Washington on a collision course with the European Union , the driving force behind the court. But the complicated treaty has been ratified much sooner than anticipated.

Canada's Phillipe Kirsch, president of the court's preparatory commission, said optimists expected the 60 approvals in ten years and pessimists thought it would take twenty. "There has been a sea change against the impunity associated with horrific crimes," said Richard Dicker, associate counsel of Human Rights Watch. "What the Bush administration decides to do will not derail that but put it on the wrong side of history."

Spurred by the Nazi war crimes tribunal at Nuremberg at the end of World War II, the court has been an off and on issue over the past half century. Germany now is one of its strongest advocates, as were numerous officials in Israel's former Labor government, which was among 139 states who signed the treaty. The final impetus came after the U.N. Security Council established temporary tribunals to deal with war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and genocide in Rwanda. The new court, which cannot try crimes retroactively, would obviate the need for any future ad hoc tribunals.

"Those two back-to-back genocides were the engine that has driven this process as fast as it has," Dicker said. "It is a tribute to the victims." The absence of a permanent court, human rights leaders say, had made it impossible to try such suspects as Pol Pot, who led a Cambodian government that left one million people dead in the 1970s, or Iraqi President Saddam Hussein , who used poison gas on rebellious Kurds in 1988.


However, not everyone is coming to Thursday's party. Russia and China have held their distance and Asia, compared to Latin and America and Africa, is the only continent where few nations back the court. The Bush administration, as the Clinton administration before it, opposes the entire concept of the court and fears that Americans on duty abroad would be vulnerable to frivolous or ideological prosecutions. American servicemen, for example, would only be subject to the court's jurisdiction if the United States failed to investigate their war crime and the territory on which the crime was committed had ratified the treaty. Clinton signed the treaty to have some influence over nations who will set up the court but made clear he would not submit it to Congress for ratification. Now the Republican administration of President George W. Bush is considering rescinding his signature, opposing the concept of an international tribunal unless approved by the U.N. Security Council, where Washington has a veto.

"Anything is possible. What's possible is that we will remain a signatory or that we may not," said Pierre-Richard Prosper, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes. Scheffer said such a step would send a "powerful signal" to other countries that have signed but not yet ratified other treaties important to the United States. "And they would be given a green light to unsign such treaties as the one on chemical weapons, torture or the twelve anti-terrorist conventions," he said. "We need to stay in the game and observe how the court operates."

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