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U.N. prepares to create permanent war crimes court

prison camp
A prison camp in the former Yugoslavia  

Nations debate range of court's power

March 22, 1998
Web posted at: 10:33 p.m. EDT (2233 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- The United Nations is finalizing a proposal to create a permanent court to prosecute major international crimes amid debate over the court's power and jurisdiction.

The goal of creating such a court sprang from the war crimes trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo following World War II half a century ago, but the Cold War kept that dream on ice.

The United Nations warmed to the idea following atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Five years ago the United Nations formed a tribunal to prosecute the perpetrators of "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia. A year later, the U.N. Security Council voted for a second court to investigate the genocide in Rwanda.

"If you want to deal with the Pol Pots or Saddam Husseins or others, you have to create a new institution, and we've argued it should be a permanent institution so it's not created after the fact," said Bill Pace of the Coalition for an International Criminal Court.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia  

There is general agreement among nations that a permanent court should deal only with major violations of international law -- genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Defining those terms is not easy, but a bigger question may be who decides which cases to prosecute. Negotiators will try to answer that question in June at a conference in Rome aimed at hammering out an international treaty on the court.

Most agree that countries with functioning civilian and military courts should have the right to try cases first.

The United States has pushed for the right of the Security Council's five permanent members, including the United States, to veto any prosecution before it begins. That might be the only way to win treaty approval from conservatives in the U.S. Congress who worry that Americans could be investigated for military actions overseas.

"How do you give adequate independence to the prosecutor, so he or she is not the plaything of the council, and avoid having the court become a rhetorical debating society for whether Iraq does or doesn't like the U.S.?," asks Ruth Wedgwood of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Those who are devising the complicated procedures for the court believe the prosecutor should have wide discretion.

"We are not against some kind of checks and balances for the prosecutor, but we believe he should be independent to start an investigation on his own," said Silvia Fernandez of the Argentine Mission to the United Nations.

The U.S. State Department stands firm against giving the prosecutor wide latitude but is willing to listen to a compromise that would give the Security Council power to postpone a case if it could hurt the council's efforts to bring peace to the region involved.

That proposal might help get a treaty off the ground in Rome, but might doom its chances in the U.S. Congress.

Correspondent Brian Jenkins contributed to this report.


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