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Swiss urge US to join international war crimes court

The International Criminal Court in Arusha, Tanzania, was set up to deal with atrocities committed in the Rwandan war Keystone

Switzerland has appealed to the United States not to rule out joining the International Criminal Court (ICC), which came into force on Monday.

This content was published on July 1, 2002 - 13:15

On Sunday, the US vetoed a resolution to extend United Nations peacekeeping operations in Bosnia for six months. This followed the Security Council's refusal to go along with Washington's demand that its peacekeepers be granted immunity from the reach of the new international war crimes court.

However, the US agreed to a 72-hour extension to find a solution to the Bosnian peacekeeping impasse.

The US Ambassador, John Negroponte, said Washington vetoed the resolution "with great regret".

But he added that US personnel could not be asked to accept the "additional risk of politicised prosecutions before a court whose jurisdiction [...] the US government does not accept".

The Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, warned on Monday that any withdrawal of US peacekeepers from Bosnia would threaten stability in the region.

Earlier this week, Jürg Lindenmann, an official at the Swiss foreign ministry, said the US threat to veto the mission would not undermine the ICC, but he hoped the Bush administration would not rule out future participation.

"The most important thing is that the US keeps its ICC options open so that it can participate in the future like it has with the international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda," Lindenmann told swissinfo.

"They may even come to understand that the ICC is in their interests too."

Switzerland praises court

The Swiss foreign ministry has praised the new court, which will be the first permanent body for the prosecution of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Lindenmann, who has followed the court from its birth at the Rome Conference in 1998, says it has emerged against all odds. It has now been ratified by 74 countries.

"Last century was one of the most brutal [in human history]," he says. " We created a number of ad-hoc tribunals, such as Nuremberg and Tokyo after the Second World War and The Hague and Arusha after the war in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda."

"The work they did and are doing is very important, but it's clear that they cannot provide a long-term solution, because in many ways these courts arrived too late" he adds.

"Little by little, it became more and more obvious that a permanent court was needed. Financial reasons also played their part."

Although the new court will be located in the Netherlands, a coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) has invited delegates from the founding countries - including Switzerland - to celebrate the opening at a final preparatory session in New York.

Adrien-Claude Zoller, the Geneva-based director of the International Service for Human Rights and a member of the NGO coalition, said he was pleased by how quickly the court had been established, despite the opposition of some governments.

The Hague and Arusha legacy

Dominique Reymond, the personal adviser to the Swiss chief UN prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, told swissinfo that the new ICC would benefit from the experiences of The Hague and Arusha.

“Before these two courts were created there was no jurisprudence in international justice,” she said.

She added that the two “ad-hoc” courts have also shown that “the main perpetrators of crimes against humanity, even those responsible for genocide, can be brought to justice and sent to prison, even if they are former heads of state and former government ministers.”

Reymond also says international criminal tribunals act as a deterrent. For example, since the former Yugoslav leader, Slobodan Milosevic, was indicted by The Hague, Macedonian politicians have viewed him as a “persona non grata”, warning their military leaders to avoid any possible human rights violations themselves.

Optimism

Zoller shares Reymond's optimism about the future success of the ICC, but unlike Reymond, he believes its greatest strength lies in it being part of a growing movement for universal justice.

"Countries which have agreed to be part of this new international justice system will have to adopt new legislation which is in line with international justice practices for certain crimes," he says. "Torturers will no longer be able to go unpunished in their home countries."

Switzerland is due to introduce a new federal law on July 1 outlining how the country will co-operate with the ICC.

However, questions remain about whether the court will be worthwhile given cannot prosecute past war criminals.

"The justice system has to be perfect," says Zoller, "It will have to operate on basic law principles. One of these is that no-one can be prosecuted retrospectively, even though this is regrettable for the victims of such crimes."

by Bernard Weissbrodt, translated by Sally Mules

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