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World criminal court launched

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THE HAGUE, The Netherlands (Reuters) -- The first global criminal court holds its inaugural session on Tuesday when judges are sworn in, but the United States will show its hostility to the tribunal by staying away.

Human rights groups hail the International Criminal Court (ICC) as world justice's biggest step since an international military tribunal in Nuremberg tried Nazi leaders after World War II.

Washington, fearing its troops could face politically motivated prosecutions, strongly opposes the ICC and has declined an invitation to join U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and hundreds of other guests at the inaugural session.

"We won't be attending the inaugural ceremony because we're not a party to the ICC, and that's basically it," a spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in The Hague told Reuters.

Washington, which has withdrawn its signature from the 1998 treaty that set up the ICC, has been busy persuading other countries to seal bilateral agreements exempting all U.S. citizens from the court's authority.

The court officially opened last year after 60 states backed it, but with just a skeleton administrative staff it had no prosecutor or judges to make it truly operational.

Benjamin Ferencz, a war crimes prosecutor for the United States at Nuremberg who will be among the 900 guests, raised his voice against Washington's stance.

"The current leadership in the United States seems to have forgotten the lessons we tried to teach the rest of the world," Ferencz, 82, said in remarks published on his web site.

Eighteen judges

The ICC's first 18 judges, 11 male and seven female, were elected in New York earlier this year.

"This is when the ICC becomes visible to the outside world in an open session for the first time in its history," said Edmond Wellenstein, director-general of an ICC task force at the Dutch Foreign Ministry.

"After this session, the ICC is a reality," he told reporters.

The ICC will try genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the yet-to-be defined crime of aggression.

Since it was officially set up last July, the ICC has received more than 200 complaints alleging war crimes, though it will say nothing about the nature of them.

Until a prosecutor is appointed, probably in April, ICC staff are simply filing the complaints. The prosecutor will decide whether to act on them.

No one has been formally nominated yet as prosecutor, Wellenstein said. Member countries prefer to reach consensus, and as 89 have ratified the court that will be no mean feat.

The court can only try alleged crimes committed since July 2002, when it officially came into being. It will handle only cases where the accused comes from a state party to the court, or if the crime is committed on such a country's soil -- unless the U.N. Security Council itself refers a case.

With a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq, observers wonder if such a conflict could lead to proceedings at the ICC. Iraq is not a party to the court.

British troops involved in military action in Iraq could potentially be tried at the ICC, Muller said.

But the court would act only when states could not or would not try cases nationally, and that would be unlikely in Britain's case, he said.

Richard Dicker, international justice expert at Human Rights Watch, said the inauguration of the first 18 judges would help to thwart U.S. efforts to undermine the court.

"The judges' inauguration makes this court more unstoppable than ever," said Dicker.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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