Plans for International Criminal Court gather momentum

Building on the momentum created last July, when 120 countries endorsed the establishment of the International Criminal Court to prosecute individuals accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Preparatory Commission for the Court will hold its first session in New York from 16 to 26 February. The meeting, the first of three scheduled for this year at UN headquarters, will discuss a number of issues, prominent in which will be the outstanding and politically sensitive issue of defining the crime of aggression. Discussions will also focus on a number of proposals for the operation of the Court and the elements of crimes under its jurisdiction.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan -- who is scheduled to open the Preparatory Commission -- described the 17 July 1998 decision by the United Nations Diplomatic Conference to establish an International Criminal Court as "a giant step forward in the march towards universal human rights and the rule of law." Events in Kosovo and other parts of the world since then, have reinforced the case for the Court, UN officials argue. The recent sentencing of war criminals for the crime of genocide and other atrocities by the UN's ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have demonstrated the importance of independent international bodies able to translate the world's revulsion over war crimes into effective justice. But their effectiveness only demonstrates the need for a permanent forum -- the " missing link", as described by Hans Corell, the UN's Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs -- to prosecute crimes against humanity wherever they may occur when national courts cannot or fail to take action.

Speaking in late-January to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) -- one of the most effective advocates for the Court -- Kofi Annan pointed out how fitting it would be to use this last year of the millennium to reach the 60 ratifications needed to establish the Court. On 2 February, Senegal became the first country to ratify the treaty establishing the Court -- the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court -- agreed to by 120 of the 160 countries attending the July Diplomatic Conference in Rome. With 75 countries having signed the Statute as of 11 February, the Secretary-General is expected to take this opportunity to urge more countries to ratify.

At this week's meeting, the Commission will discuss operational arrangements for the Court's rules of procedure and evidence, issues which are critical to the manner in which the Statute will be applied and for the effective functioning of the Court. The meeting will also discuss the elements of crimes that fall under its jurisdiction. These draft texts must be finalized by 30 June 2000. On the issue of the crime of aggression -- on which agreement could not be reached at the Rome Conference -- the meeting will discuss proposals on the definition and the elements of the crime of aggression, and the conditions under which the Court will exercise its jurisdiction with regard to it.

Later meetings of the Commission -- scheduled for 26 July-13 August and 29 November-17 December -- will take up the issues of financial regulations and rules; an agreement on the privileges and immunities of the Court; a budget for the first financial year; and the rules of procedure of the Assembly of States parties.

The ICRC will submit a study on the elements of war crimes, says Patrick Zahnd, deputy head of the ICRC delegation at the United Nations. "We have been associated with the entire process as an expert body, and we have prepared a document of reference, which will contribute to the efforts of all delegations in determining the elements of war crimes."

Non-governmental organizations -- which played a major role in the establishment of the Court -- will be able to participate in the plenary and other open meetings. "NGOs overwhelmingly thought that the Rome treaty was much better than expected, even with its shortcomings," says Bill Pace, convenor of the NGO Coalition for the International Criminal Court, an umbrella group comprising some 800 NGOs from all over the world. NGOs are expected to carry on their global strategy in support of the Court, which includes holding education campaigns and encouraging technical assistance to the countries that have made the political decision to support the Court.

In addition to the question of defining the crime of aggression, there are a number of other outstanding issues from the Rome Conference that the Preparatory Commission will have to overcome if the Court is to receive universal acceptance. The Commission is to remain in existence until the conclusion of the first meeting of the Assembly of States parties, which will occur when the trigger figure of 60 ratifications has been reached -- a target that UN officials hope will be met before the start of the new millennium.

Department of Public Information
(16 February 1999)

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