International Papers

Court Date

“The most important step toward global justice since the 1945 United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” is how Spain’s El País described the creation of the International Criminal Court, which came into being last Thursday when the 60th state ratified the Treaty of Rome. The court, which will provide a permanent tribunal to investigate and prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, will be inaugurated July 1, though, according to Spain’s ABC, selecting the court’s 18 judges and organizing the court’s funding will delay the start of activities until late 2003. The Irish Times likened the court’s founding to “a shot going around the world. It is a warning shot to tyrants, to psychopaths, to those who hate other people simply because of their colour or surname.”

Most papers agreed that the biggest challenge is the refusal by the United States—and many other countries, including China, India, Russia, Israel, and most of the Arab world—to recognize its jurisdiction, for fear that military personnel could be subject to politically motivated prosecutions. The court is unlikely to investigate crimes in states that have not ratified the Treaty of Rome, providing an incentive to steer clear. The Sydney Morning Herald noted: “Israel, Russia and China have not ratified, meaning abuses in the Palestinian territories, Chechnya and Tibet, for example, are unlikely to be referred to the ICC.”

Despite the long list of stay-aways, Washington was singled out for criticism. Toronto’s Globe and Mail said, “If the International Criminal Court is to wield the authority it deserves, the United States will need to reconsider [its] misplaced hostility, and do so sooner rather than later.” Britain’s Daily Telegraph rushed to Uncle Sam’s defense. An editorial, which decried “the global nomenklatura [celebrating] the launch of another bureaucracy,” fretted that the ICC “will be liable to be hijacked by the most politicised Third World elements.” It also sniffed that the court’s judges will be elected by the states that ratified it—”including such bulwarks of jurisprudential rigour as Cambodia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Niger, Sierra Leone and Tajikistan.”

The Guardian pointed out that since the ICC is “expressly barred from pursuing a case which is being genuinely investigated or prosecuted within the state concerned,” it is likely that the bulk of the court’s docket will come from “failed or failing states” that lack the resources or will to investigate abuses and are “unable to prevent the arrest and detention of their own nationals by a foreign intervention or peacekeeping force.” Prosecutors will therefore need to be careful not to give the impression that the system is “dominated by the white north, imposing standards on a reluctant south.”

Even without some key participants, the court could have a positive effect. ABC declared, “The effectiveness of the court will depend not so much on the number of cases it pursues as on the deterrent effect that it will have on future generations.” The Guardian agreed: “Like the nuclear deterrent, the ICC may have a function even if it is not used.”