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Afghanistan: Kabul's Entry Into ICC Hailed By Rights Groups

  • Mark Baker

Afghanistan has formally joined the United Nations' new International Criminal Court, a move that will bring the country's rogue commanders under the legal jurisdiction of the international community. While the court will not prosecute war crimes committed in the past, it can pursue, and may even deter, future crimes. RFE/RL looks at consequences for Afghanistan.

Prague, 11 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan officials or rogue commanders who commit serious war crimes in the future will now face possible prosecution at the United Nations' International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

Afghanistan yesterday formally joined the ICC, becoming the 89th country to deposit its instruments of ratification at the UN's headquarters in New York. The groundbreaking court is due to be inaugurated on 11 March. Only crimes committed after 1 May will be eligible for prosecution.

The U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch hailed Afghanistan's entry as a major step forward, saying that for more than 20 years regional and factional commanders have enjoyed near-total freedom from prosecution.

Urmi Shah of Human Rights Watch in London said: "This is a great moment for Afghanistan as a country, given that you've had over two decades of war [and that] warlords have pretty much carried out their activities with a complete impunity. This puts it on record that the current government of Afghanistan is very serious about human rights issues and that any future crimes committed by warlords, government officials, local police, local military commanders, or other groups not necessarily connected with the government will come under the jurisdiction of the ICC."

Tens of thousands of ordinary Afghans died in more than two decades of fighting, first during the war with Soviet Union from 1979 to 1989 and then in the years of factional violence among rival mujahedin groups that followed. Although these acts likely will never be prosecuted, the hope is that future crimes, such as the indiscriminate bombing of cities, mass murder, torture, and rape, can be deterred or prosecuted.

The ICC was created in 1998 to be a permanent tribunal to prosecute individuals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and serious war crimes. It was modeled after the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia that prosecutes war crimes committed in the Bosnian, Croatian, and Kosovar wars of the 1990s.

According to its statutes, the ICC intervenes only in cases where a country is unable or lacks the political will to conduct a trial.

The court is expected to open for business later this year. On 7 February, some 18 judges from around the world were selected to preside over the tribunal. The court does not yet have a prosecutor.

Afghanistan joined over the reported objections of the United States, which is not a member of the ICC. The United States opposes the ICC in part because it fears the tribunal could be used to try U.S. peacekeepers serving abroad.

The United States, which maintains several thousand soldiers in Afghanistan, has a bilateral agreement with Kabul exempting Americans from prosecution.

William Pace, the head of the global Coalition for the International Criminal Court, was quoted by AP yesterday as saying, "Afghanistan's accession amid great pressure to the contrary is a further marking of hope and commitment to democracy and justice."

Among Afghanistan's neighbors, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran are members. Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and China are not.

Shah of Human Rights Watch said it's hard to predict what effect the tribunal will have on Afghanistan's regional commanders, but she said that it puts them on notice that the world is watching. "It sends a signal that you cannot get away with such things, that there is a mechanism now that if you're going to commit such a gross crime, a violation of human rights laws and humanitarian laws, that you are [going] to be prosecuted," Shah said.

She said that under the court's statutes, any aggrieved party can bring a case before the court. This includes the signatory government, a victim, or even another state. "A victim can bring [a case before the tribunal]. Another state can bring an action, but it has to be shown that the country that a person is a citizen of, or where the crime has been committed, is unable or unwilling to investigate meaningfully," Shah said.

Observers say any convictions are probably years away -- the wheels of international justice turn slowly. More important, they say, is that a process is in place to prevent and prosecute further abuses.