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U.S. Should Support World Criminal Court

By Jimmy Carter

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Dec. 15, 1996.

ATLANTA -- Out of the horrors of World War II, world leaders collectively agreed that genocide and crimes against humanity represented a threat to international peace and security, above and beyond the populations directly affected. To avert future occurrences, mechanisms were devised, such as the Geneva and Genocide conventions, which place obligations on states engaged in warfare and the international community at large. Unfortunately, these have been inadequate in their ability to enforce state compliance. Genocide has been perpetrated twice within the last few years, in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Political efforts to address these crises failed for far too long. World leaders have been largely divided about what could have been done to prevent them, given the absence of enforceable protection procedures. One response to this concern has been the creation of special tribunals to prosecute the architects of genocidal policies and practices in the two countries.

Simultaneously, negotiations have been under way within the United Nations to create an International Criminal Court. This would be a permanent court for prosecuting suspected perpetrators of crimes against humanity when national courts are not able to do so, eliminating the need for special tribunals. Late last month, these negotiations resulted in a landmark agreement to convene a diplomatic conference in 1998, during which a treaty establishing the Court would be concluded.

These developments offer hope in the struggle to protect human rights, but will require greater care and attention in the coming year.

Since the creation of the two special tribunals, they have been marred with difficulties that provide lessons for the permanent Court. Early on, financial resources were scarce. While this lack seems to have been solved for the time being, other matters threaten the tribunals effectiveness.

After initial missteps, the Bosnia Tribunal has gradually addressed many of these issues, including performing more effective investigations of crimes of sexual violence against women. This required proper definitions of crimes in international law, adequate specialized training and arrangements for collection of evidence and testimonies as well as witness protection.

However, more general problems, such as failure to arrest and extradite the vast majority of these indicted by the tribunal, could undermine its prospects for successful prosecutions.

The Rwanda Tribunal suffers from more acute problems, including shortages of qualified personnel, limited training, faulty methodology and weak investigative procedures. The matter of investigating crimes of sexual violence against women has not been handled well and needs dedicated resources and expertise. In addition to indictments having been slow in emerging, only three of the 21 of those indicted are in the custody of the Tribunal.

The responsibility falls upon the international community to ensure the effective functioning of the tribunals by investing in them resources and political will that, until now, have fallen short of what is needed. One place to start is for all nations to enact laws that enable them to extradite indicted war criminals to The Hague.

The permanent Court is needed so that any future cases can be brought forward quickly without waiting years for procedures and structures to be built, as has been the case with the special tribunals. Now that a date has been set for the Courts establishment, the U.S. government should play a leadership role in ensuring that it will be constituted in a way that enables it to work independently from political pressures. We should reflect on our own experience which shows that a judicial process must not be vulnerable to politics or personal preferences it must be guided by the law alone.

In that light a U.S. proposal to grant the Security Council control over prosecutions in the Court would undermine its very purpose. Such a move rightly would be seen by many nations as a means for serving only the interests of the permanent members of the Security Council rather than as an independent arbiter of justice.

The Court will not be a panacea. As we have found in our own society, a criminal justice system does not ensure the absence of violence, but we would never consider eliminating it as a key ingredient in any strategy to protect civil rights and public safety in general.

The International Criminal Court will be good for America, and it will be good for the world. Meanwhile, all nations should consider it their duty to ensure that the existing tribunals overcome current difficulties and complete their work as expeditiously and effectively as possible.

Jimmy Carter, U.S. President from 1977-81, currently chairs the Atlanta-based The Carter Center, which is working for peace and human rights worldwide.

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