International Criminal Court

THE HAGUE Eighteen judges took their seats Tuesday at the world’s first permanent war crimes court, a long-awaited body that the United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, said could help “dismantle tyrannies” and replace them with more democratic governments.

With the backing of 89 countries but facing a boycott by the United States, the International Criminal Court was formally inaugurated in a borrowed 13th-century grand hall in the presence of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. It will be at least five years before the court has a permanent home in The Hague.

The judges, drawn from a mixture of regional and cultural backgrounds, were charged with the task of trying war criminals, denying shelter to leaders deemed

responsible for criminal acts, and deterring others from committing atrocities.

Annan told the inaugural assembly of international statesmen that the world had tried for 50 years to create such a court. He admonished the 11 men and seven women impaneled as jurists to “act without fear or favor” and to demonstrate “unimpeachable integrity and impartiality” in their decisions. “All your work must shine with moral and legal clarity,” he said.

Annan said the creators of the tribunal had considered “the implications such a court might have for the delicate process of dismantling tyrannies and replacing them with more democratic regimes committed to upholding human rights.”

By staying away, the United States has lost any chance to influence the new agenda and use it to strike at dictators like Saddam Hussein, said David Scheffer, a former U.S. war crimes ambassador.

The court came into existence last July when the 1998 Rome Treaty was ratified by the requisite number of countries. Since then, about 200 complaints have been filed, but none can be processed or investigated until a chief prosecutor is named.

The administration of President Bill Clinton signed the Rome Treaty, but the signature was withdrawn by his successor, George W. Bush.

Neither Russia nor China has endorsed the court, leaving it without the support of three of the five permanent UN Security Council members. But, of those three, only the United States actively tried to block the court’s creation.

Bush has secured bilateral treaties with 22 countries granting U.S. citizens immunity from arrest warrants issued by the international court. Congress also adopted legislation empowering the president to use “all means necessary” to free Americans taken into the court’s custody.

In the last decade the jurisprudence of war crimes has been honed in the special courts established for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and East Timor.

Nonparty states can ask the court to intervene, as can the UN Security Council.