U.N. conference to consider creating international court Permanent body would hear cases concerning crimes against humanity


ROME -- In one of the most ambitious efforts ever undertaken to extend the rule of international law, the United Nations will open a conference here today to hash out rules for an international court to prosecute crimes against humanity.

The United Nations envisions a kind of global Nuremberg -- a permanent court where individuals accused of atrocities and genocide can be tried and punished. But even before legal experts and delegates from 156 countries begin debating the fine points at the monthlong conference, the most basic issues of jurisdiction and accountability remain deeply contested.

On one side, the United States and other nations hope to rein in the court's prosecutorial scope. While supporting the notion of an international criminal court where a leader like the late Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein could be held accountable for their actions, Washington wants to limit the prosecutors' independence.

The Clinton administration, and most particularly, the Pentagon, fears that unless the court is in some way answerable to the world's leading democracies, U.S. soldiers around the globe could be hauled before international judges on politically motivated charges.

Four of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, China, France and Russia -- want the council to decide which cases should be prosecuted. Only Britain, the fifth member, does not.

On the other side, at least 42 nations in what has been called the "like-minded group" are battling for a completely independent court, arguing that unless the court and its prosecutors are free from interference from the Security Council, its authority would be toothless.

The view for a strong court is supported by many in the U.N. leadership as well as 260 nongovernmental groups and human rights associations, which are in town lobbying intensely to keep the United States and other countries with reservations from prevailing.

The Italian government, which is spending $3 million to sponsor the event, and the city of Rome, which is its official host, are keeping up the pressure with giant welcome signs all over the city that say "We expect concrete results."

It has taken 50 years for the United Nations to get this far toward a criminal court. (The existing World Court, a U.N. institution in The Hague, Netherlands, formally known as the International Court of Justice, rules on disputes between countries.)

In 1948, the General Assembly created a commission to examine the establishment of an international court modeled on those at Nuremberg and in Japan after World War II. The Cold War made consensus impossible.

But after Communism collapsed across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the proposal resurfaced in earnest as brutal ethnic and religious conflicts exploded around the world.

Prodded by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, the Security Council set up in 1993 an ad hoc tribunal in The Hague that is trying people accused of war crimes in the Balkans. In 1994, a similar ad hoc international tribunal was set up in Tanzania to try people charged with taking part in the genocide in Rwanda.

But a permanent court of independent judges with broad powers to indict and prosecute -- without the Security Council's blessing -- has raised doubts in the State Department and the Pentagon. And there is fierce congressional opposition in some corners over any plan for an international criminal court unless Washington has veto power over it.

Part of the U.S. resistance lies in an age-old reluctance to surrender sovereignty. A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, expressed dismay over the idealism expressed by some proponents of the court.

"They think that if they create a court which is totally independent, everything will work out," the official said. "That's unrealistic: These things work when governments such as the United States use their clout to make it work."

Pub Date: 6/15/98

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