Justice for the world

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 June, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 June, 1998, 12:00am

In the end, Khmer Rouge butcher Pol Pot went off to be judged by a higher power before anyone on Earth could put him in the dock.

But the former Cambodian leader's recent death was hardly of great comfort to those who had called in vain for his arrest and trial ever since Vietnam chased the Khmer Rouge out of the country in 1979. Nor does it help matters that his death leaves behind a crowd of his former henchmen with rivers of blood on their hands, all of whom live free.

While the major powers turned a blind eye to the Khmer Rouge's free-roaming existence for nearly 20 years in the greater interests of Cambodian stability, Pol Pot managed to avoid justice; yet even after the internal coup which toppled him from the leadership a year ago, the world community was not able to concentrate its efforts into securing his arrest and international trial.

A case like that of Pol Pot, human rights experts are saying, is a prime reason why a conference taking place next week in Rome demands the full attention of the world community. Over the course of a month, government delegates from around the world will attempt to reach a final agreement on the setting up of an International Criminal Court.

The ICC would create an independent body, complete with elected judges and prosecutors, entrusted with the task of indicting individuals suspected of genocide, serious war crimes, and crimes against humanity. It is the kind of court tailor-made for former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic or Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and perhaps the only body which can wipe from their face the smile of men who know that, as things stand, they remain blissfully unaccountable.

Sentiment for an international court to try such criminals is not new; it was first recorded following atrocities committed during the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war, and reached a crescendo after the collapse of the Third Reich. But even though the Nuremberg Trials created a suitable model on which to build a permanent human rights court, international inertia - largely predicated by the geopolitical pressures of the Cold War - put the idea on hold.

Although the United Nations has proven able to set up ad hoc tribunals for the worst human rights abuses of our time, most notably in Bosnia and Rwanda, these panels lack clout and do not come close to the standing that can be imbued in a permanent court.

Now an ICC is close to becoming a reality, the egos of individual powers continue to threaten the process, and risk turning it into an emasculated body unable to do its job.

Whenever multilateral bodies go about their work - whether it is the UN or the International Monetary Fund - they inevitably fall victim to the whims of individual nations worried about questions of sovereignty or funding. Nowhere is this tension between sovereignty and multilateralism more evident than in America, not least because Washington consistently finds it galling to allow its influence as the world's only superpower to be filtered away by international bodies.

Not surprisingly, the US, together with fellow Security Council members France and China, stands in the way of the sort of highly independent ICC the purists want to see.

Ideally, supporters would like to see the court empowered with bringing its own prosecutions against individuals, without needing the permission of any state. The only caveat would be that the ICC would only take up a case once a government had failed to take action against its own suspects. The ICC will thus go much further than the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which can only settle disputes between states.

The US, however, is pushing hard to bring the final version of the ICC under the remit of the Security Council, which would review cases before the ICC prosecutors could go ahead. Washington also believes individual states should be given the chance to veto prosecutions it does not want.

America's basic reasoning is that it fears rogue nations may push the ICC into bringing frivolous prosecutions against the 200,000 US troops serving abroad, and endanger international security. This is an argument that can only be brought by the only nation whose soldiers are spread out in such numbers worldwide. But critics say it is a cynical position, taken by an America which claims to be in favour of the court - only, that is, when it does not involve US citizens. Any doubts that the issue at hand is not one of sovereignty are crushed by the fact that Senate foreign relations committee hawk-in-chief Jesse Helms - a man who would surely love to see Saddam Hussein in the ICC dock - vehemently opposes creating the body.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), which is pushing for a fully independent ICC, says: 'If only the Security Council and the states can bring cases before the ICC, the court's docket will reflect the political biases of the world's strongest states.' Not all the strongest states see eye to eye with the US, France and China. Britain and Germany are leading a rump of about 40 nations that will go to Rome sharing HRW's vision for the court.

The debate will be heated and may reveal some of the insecurities of some of the world's most powerful nations. There are about 100 clauses in the draft agreement still subject to disagreement; and that is without settling some important practical matters such as where the court will be based, how much it will cost, and where the money will come from.