United Nation, 12 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A treaty creating the world's first permanent court to try crimes against humanity gained its final necessary signatures yesterday.
Ten countries, including Bosnia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania, simultaneously deposited instruments of ratification of the Rome treaty creating the court. The United Nations' top legal official, Hans Corell, called the event historic.
"A page in the history of humankind is being turned. May all this serve our society well in the years to come," Corell said.
The court, to be based at The Hague, will come into force on 1 July and is expected to start its work in 2003 after states that ratified the treaty select a prosecutor and judges.
Its jurisdiction will include genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed after 1 July. But it still faces some notable opposition.
The U.S. administration of George W. Bush says it will not present the treaty for ratification to the U.S. Senate and is considering revoking the signature of former President Bill Clinton on the grounds that it could involve politically motivated cases against U.S. military service members deployed worldwide.
Russia and China also have not ratified the statute, and few nations in Asia support the court.
At a ceremony held later in Rome, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged all countries to ratify the Rome statute, calling it the best defense against evil.
"The time is at last coming when humanity no longer has to bear impotent witness to the worst atrocities, because those tempted to commit such crimes will know that justice awaits them," Annan said.
Until now, crimes against humanity have been prosecuted by the international community on an ad hoc basis. The UN Security Council set up two temporary tribunals in the 1990s to prosecute war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. But a number of UN member states have criticized such an arrangement, saying they serve the biases of Security Council members.
Slovakia's UN Ambassador, Peter Tomka, told RFE/RL before the ceremony that a permanent court is more representative of the will of the international community: "These ad hoc tribunals are a subsidiary body of the Security Council, and we think it's better to have a permanent institution, treaty-based, which will perform these functions if states, nationally, are not able for one or another reason to exercise their domestic criminal jurisdiction."
Tomka stressed the importance of the new court's role as a complementary jurisdiction. He said he expects the court to exercise jurisdiction most often in cases of failed states such as Somalia. He said the court's very existence could have a deterrent effect on those leaders who would abuse their authority.
"An important function of this court is a deterrent function because now some warlords or some politicians should be fully aware that if they do not comply with requirements of international humanitarian law, they may face criminal prosecution even if they are in command of their states," Tomka said.
The 1998 Rome treaty has been signed by 139 countries and is now ratified by 66. Supporters expect to have more than 100 ratifications by 2003 and hope that once the court is operational, other countries will follow.
The main non-governmental group campaigning for the court -- the Coalition for the International Criminal Court -- says tens of millions of people have died in conflicts in the past 50 years and many more suffered human rights abuses without any legal recourse to bring the perpetrators to justice.