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World Court Gearing Up and Biding Its Time

U.N.-sanctioned body will handle complaints of mass murder, rape and abductions, but only from nations who accept its authority.

June 20, 2004|Anthony Deutsch | Associated Press Writer

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — From jungle warlords and cult leaders to bankers and presidents, prosecutors are lining up their targets for the first cases by the new permanent war crimes court.

But nearly two years after the court's creation, it has yet to launch a full investigation, and already it is running into a dilemma that goes to the core of its independence: When does political support for the court erode impartiality?

Nearly 800 complaints of war crimes and crimes against humanity have flooded into the International Criminal Court, which has temporarily set up in a former telecommunications building. They present a grim litany of mass murder, systematic rape, child abductions and persecution.

But most complaints are disqualified by the court's rigid jurisdiction limits. Unless the U.N. Security Council intervenes, only people from countries that have signed the court's founding treaty -- 94 so far -- can be prosecuted.

That means that citizens of the United States, Russia, China, Israel, Iraq and all other Arab countries except Jordan are beyond reach. Thus, the court has no jurisdiction to try either ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or U.S. soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners.

In the 94 signatory nations, the court's prosecutors can initiate investigations if they see war crimes going unpunished, or a government may ask the court to prosecute its own citizens.

Uganda has made such a request. In January, President Yoweri Museveni asked the court to prosecute leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army, a ruthless rebel group known for kidnapping children to use as fighters or sex slaves. It is led by Joseph Kony, a cult figure who shrouds himself in the Bible and magic powers.

Museveni's appeal was seen as a coup by Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, bolstering the tribunal's legitimacy.

But human rights groups say Museveni, who seized power in 1986, also should be investigated for alleged abuses by Ugandan troops. They criticized Moreno-Ocampo for appearing with Museveni to announce the impending investigation of the rebels, noting that Moreno-Ocampo made no reference to excesses by the Uganda military.

A failure to investigate both sides of the conflict could risk appearing biased. Yet an investigation of Uganda's military might risk Museveni's government's ending its cooperation on any cases, although Museveni reportedly has promised to cooperate should he be investigated.

Michail Wladimiroff, a Dutch lawyer who defended the first suspect at the special Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, said the International Criminal Court must guard against wading into politics.

"They can't escape negotiating with governments, but he [Moreno-Ocampo] wasn't as tactful as he could have been. He has to avoid appearing brotherly" with potential suspects, Wladimiroff said.

In April, Congo offered another boost to the court by becoming the second country to hand over jurisdiction of a case.

It involves crimes committed in Congo's war-racked Ituri province, and Moreno-Ocampo said the investigation would look at financiers of the tribal warfare and businessmen who stoke tribal animosities to exploit illicit trade in gold or diamonds.

Moreno-Ocampo, an Argentine, earned his reputation prosecuting members of his homeland's former military regime, which was blamed for thousands of killings during a "dirty war" against leftist activists 25 years ago.

He is assembling a team of experienced prosecutors from around the world. Christine Chung, a veteran of the Manhattan district attorney's office, will handle the Uganda case. Deputy Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz, a Belgian, will head the Congo investigation.

About 30 prosecutors have been recruited, many lured from the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. They are among nearly 200 full-time employees from 35 countries who are sifting through complaints and preparing investigations.

But the court's first trial could be years away.

By comparison, the Yugoslav tribunal issued its first indictment within a year of its creation in 1993 and has conducted a string of trials, including the current proceeding against former President Slobodan Milosevic.

But legal experts say the comparison isn't fair because the new court faces greater challenges, particularly the fierce opposition of the U.S. government.

"The Yugoslavia tribunal was established by the U.N. Security Council and had superior authority to try crimes in Yugoslavia. It could impose its will upon the Yugoslav states," said Wladimiroff, who now represents former President Charles Taylor of Liberia.

"The ICC can only work with the cooperation of the country. It would be unreasonable to expect the ICC to have a case in no time."

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