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World - Europe

Treaty creating war-crimes court gets preliminary nod


U.N. delegates defeat U.S. attempt to limit scope

In this story:

July 17, 1998
Web posted at: 7:22 p.m. EDT (2322 GMT)

ROME (CNN) -- A treaty creating a permanent international tribunal to try those accused of war crimes and genocide received preliminary approval Friday from delegates to a United Nations conference in Rome.

Final approval was expected later Friday.

The vote came after delegates beat back an attempt by the United States to amend the treaty to give countries the option of refusing to allow their nationals to be tried by the new tribunal under certain circumstances.

The court, to be based in The Hague, Netherlands, would have jurisdiction over individuals charged with genocide, crimes against humanity, aggression and other war crimes. A case could be triggered by the court's independent prosecutor, by a country or by the U.N. Security Council.

To proceed, the court would need the permission either of the nation where the crime was allegedly committed or the suspect's home country.

Treaty hailed as 'historic achievement'

Starting with the Nuremberg trials after World War II, the international community has conducted war-crimes trials under the auspices of temporary tribunals, but there has not been a permanent body to investigate and try such cases.

"I think this is a great, historic achievement," said Benjamin Ferencz, 78, who was a prosecutor at Nuremberg and has worked since then for the establishment of a permanent tribunal.

Human rights groups protested the proposed U.S. amendments  

But some delegates worried that without the support of the United States, the world's sole remaining superpower, the court's effectiveness will be limited.

"I'm afraid we will have a court that may not work. It may be like the League of Nations or certainly will take a very, very long time to be effective," said Muhammed Sacirbey, a Bosnian delegate to the U.N. treaty conference.

U.S. worries that peacekeepers could be tried

The Americans' concern is that the court could be used for politically motivated prosecutions of troops sent on peacekeeping missions in various parts of the world.

The United States proposed an amendment that would have exempted peacekeepers and others from war-crimes prosecution for actions committed on official duty, unless their home country consented to a trial. But human rights organizations said that provision would gut the court's effectiveness.

"It would mean that if you wanted to ever investigate or prosecute [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein, you would have to ask Iraq's permission to go ahead," said Jelena Pejic of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.

In the end, only 17 nations expressed support for the American amendment, with 113 opposed and 25 abstaining. The rebuff was greeted with prolonged rhythmic applause.

The impasse among delegates to the Rome conference created strange alliances. Supporters of the U.S. position included nations such as Libya, Algeria, China, Qatar and Yemen, while many traditionally close U.S. allies opposed changing the treaty to mollify American objections.

U.S: Court 'strong on paper, weak in reality'

After the vote, U.S. chief delegate David Scheffer warned the conference that it was in danger of creating a court that was "strong on paper and weak in reality." He also pointed out that under international law, a treaty isn't binding on nations that do not ratify it.

U.S. delegates have been under pressure from powerful congressmen back home in Washington, who reject even the possibility that a U.S. citizen would face trial by an international tribunal.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was in Buenos Aires Friday, decided to interrupt a Latin American tour and go to Rome for the treaty signing ceremony, scheduled for Saturday afternoon.

Correspondent Gayle Young and Reuters contributed to this report.

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