United Nations The governing body of the International Criminal Court met for the first time Tuesday, ignoring a U.S. campaign to undermine its jurisdiction and exempt Americans from prosecution.
There was loud applause when U.N. Undersecretary-General for legal affairs Hans Corell pounded the gavel to launch the Assembly of States Parties, made up of the 76 nations that ratified the treaty creating the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal. It plans to be fully operational by next year.
At the opening meeting, the assembly elected Prince Zeid bin Raad, Jordan's envoy to the United Nations and a cousin of King Abdullah II, as its president. Sierra Leone's deputy U.N. Ambassador Allieu Kanu and Uruguay's U.N. Ambassador Felipe Paolillo were elected as vice presidents.
Representatives of dozens of nations that support the court but haven't ratified the treaty were in the U.N. conference room as observers. Many of the more than two dozen countries that haven't signed or ratified were also there to watch. But the seat for the United States was conspicuously empty.
"We see the dawn of a new age in the pursuit of justice," Corell said. "Impunity for those who commit the most heinous crimes will be curtailed."
The court is the culmination of a campaign that began with the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials for World War II's German and Japanese war criminals. It has jurisdiction over war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity that take place after July 1.
The United States objects to the idea that Americans could be subject to the court's jurisdiction even if it is not a party to the pact. Washington argues that the court could be used for frivolous or politically motivated prosecutions, especially of American troops.
The only oblique reference to the U.S. campaign against the court was in Prince Zeid's acceptance speech. He said it wasn't the number of countries supporting the court or the mix that was important, but "the justness of its cause and its inherent moral logic."
Supporters argue that the court can step in only when states are unwilling or unable to dispense justice, one of many safeguards to prevent abuses.
The Bush administration rescinded President Clinton's signature on the treaty in May. In July, the United States got a yearlong exemption for American peacekeepers from prosecution by the court after a lengthy battle with the court's supporters in the U.N. Security Council. Since then, Washington has been lobbying countries throughout the world to sign bilateral agreements exempting Americans from trials by the court.