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New court could prosecute the world’s villains


Civilized people are repulsed by the slaughter seen recently in Bosnia and Rwanda. We feel outrage that the architects of these horrors -- the political and military leaders whose policies triggered the killing -- have largely gotten off scott free. But the diplomatic and legal tangles involved in bringing these rogues to justice seem so intractable, most of us feel only confusion or a blind lust for vengeance.

Creating an international system where justice prevails, however, requires more than an emotional desire to see scores settled. It takes years of painstaking, complex diplomatic work. So when the vast majority of the world’s 192 nations meet in Rome on June 15, hoping to complete plans for the establishment of an international criminal court, it’s a moment worthy of our interest and support.

Some observers believe the meeting in Rome might turn out to be as important as the gathering in San Francisco in 1945 that hammered out the final version of the United Nations charter.

Some 600 nongovernmental organizations will also be in Rome. This group, which includes several Catholic and other religious entities, may well be more influential than the sovereign nations -- which, understandably, will seek to protect their own sovereignty from erosion by the projected new world body.

The movement for a permanent international criminal court goes back to the Nuremburg, Germany, and Tokyo tribunals, which meted out punishment to war criminals after World War II. But the more recent impetus comes from universal frustration over the impotence of the world community to prosecute war criminals in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. The accomplishments of the tribunals set up to deal with these cases should not be minimized: As of May 6, the U.N. court has indicted 74 suspects and is conducting four trials simultaneously. But it is also undeniable that the big fish have so far gotten away.

One problem with the present system is procedural. The validity of the jurisdiction of the tribunal at The Hague is open to challenge, as the jurisdiction of the Nuremburg tribunal has been questioned over the last 50 years. This is the core reason for the world conclave to be held in Rome. The community of nations recognizes the need for a court whose jurisdiction is unassailable, that can process cases against persons charged with genocide or crimes against humanity.

The legal and constitutional problems involved in the charter of the international criminal court are formidable. Should any nation be allowed to appeal to the new tribunal, or should the United Nations Security Council have the power to deflect some of the complaints? If any country can charge wrongdoing, some rogue nation could make reckless allegations against a neighbor that is a political rival or against the United States. But if the Security Council can exercise a veto, the largest nations would have the power to block complaints from nations outside their alliances.

That is only one of the enormous conundrums that the Rome conclave must try to resolve. How to guarantee that the new international criminal court is an impartial and independent judicial body is another. Who appoints the judges and for how long a period of time? How can the charter of the international criminal court assume that national courts are not acting properly in connection with cases charging crimes against international law? How can the new international court prevent nations from filing suits against the United States or its citizens when such suits are not justified?

These and other problems are discussed in a letter sent to President Clinton by a group of human rights academics and activists, myself included.

The letter notes the several initiatives the Clinton State Department has undertaken to advance the idea of the international criminal court. The letter also warns that the Security Council should not generally have control over the new court’s docket.

The statement urges that any automatic triggering mechanism available to nations could be postponed if the Security Council believed that a pressing interest in peacemaking outweighed the need to bring those engaged in crimes against humanity to justice.

Abundant material about the international criminal court can be found on the Web site of the Coalition for an International Court. The address of that page is http://www.igc.apc.org/icc/

The possibility of an international criminal court has been a dream for a long time. But it took the cemeteries of Sarajevo to impel the United States and other nations to make the court a reality.

In the year 1215, also on June 15, the Magna Carta was adopted at Runnymede, England. No one at that place could possibly have realized that the political and civil rights granted to citizens by King John would be the basis for the English Bill of Rights, the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The charter for a permanent world court to be acted upon in Rome might well be a historic document that will put every tyrant on notice that the international community now has the juridical machinery to arrest, indict and imprison everyone who commits crimes against humanity.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, May 29, 1998