A court for the world

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2001, 12:00am

President Bill Clinton's decision to sign the treaty which will lead to the setting up of an International Criminal Court has proved predictably contentious within his own country. Globally, however, it will set the seal on his second term of office by reinforcing the strong moral leadership the United States prides itself on giving to the rest of the world.

A total of 139 nations had signed by Sunday's deadline, and 27 countries have already ratified the treaty, almost half the total needed to make the court a reality. Long and intensive negotiations remain before the court's structure and authority is finally agreed. The treaty is promised a stormy passage in the US Senate, and from senior officials in the new administration of George W Bush, including perhaps the president-elect himself.

But that is for the future. Mr Clinton has done the right thing. The administration that comes after him will decide whether the court really does threaten American sovereignty, or whether it is so constituted that it would entertain frivolous prosecutions against the US.

In the wider context, the court should bring justice to those who previously had little or no voice. It has taken more than 50 years for the United Nations to get this far. The Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II showed a clear need for a permanent court in which the perpetrators of international war crimes could be made to answer for their actions. Recently, the terrible events in the Balkans and Rwanda confirmed the need for such a permanent mechanism to prosecute war criminals.

Following the American lead, Israel also signed the treaty on Sunday, but with the proviso that it will reject any attempt to interpret the treaty's provisions in a politically motivated manner against Israel and its citizens. Similar reservations will no doubt surface in the coming months, as countries endeavour to absolve their own aggressive actions from the court's jurisdiction.

But the fact remains that in the modern world the need for such a court - however limited its powers - is overwhelming.