UN officials hail inauguration of first international war crimes tribunal

UN officials hail inauguration of first international war crimes tribunal

Kofi Annan speaking at ICC inaugural ceremonies
As the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal was inaugurated today in The Hague with the swearing-in of its judges, top United Nations officials hailed the occasion as an historic day for international justice and a reaffirmation of the global commitment to protect and promote fundamental freedoms.

"It has taken mankind many years to reach this moment," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at the opening session of the International Criminal Court (ICC). "By the solemn undertaking they have given here in open court, these eleven men and seven women, representing all regions of the world and many different cultures and legal traditions, have made themselves the embodiment of our collective conscience."

Mr. Annan recalled that the important special tribunals set up in Nuremberg and Tokyo - which established the vital principle that individuals who take part in gross violations of international humanitarian law cannot shelter behind the authority of the State in whose name they did so - had ultimately paved the way for a permanent international court to try and punish those who commit crimes against humanity.

The 18-judge ICC will have jurisdiction over the most serious crimes, including war crimes, genocide, mass murder, enslavement, rape, torture, and, once defined, the crime of aggression. The Rome Statute - the treaty establishing the ICC - entered into force 1 July 2002, and the Court's jurisdiction will cover only crimes committed after that date. The Statute allows States Parties as well as the UN Security Council to refer situations to the Court for investigation. Officials are not exempted from criminal responsibility.

Today, one by one, the judges gave a solemn undertaking to perform their duties honourably, faithfully, impartially and conscientiously. They also promised to respect the confidentiality of investigations and prosecutions, and the secrecy of deliberations. Immediately after they were sworn in, they conferred in what was their first private meeting as a Court, and elected Philippe Kirsch of Canada as their first President. Two vice presidents were also elected, Judges Elizabeth Odio Benito of Costa Rica and Erkki Kourula of Finland.

Outlining the importance of their task, the Secretary-General called on the judges to show great patience, compassion and an unfailing resolve to arrive at the truth. "All your work must shine with moral and legal clarity," he told the judges, adding "in all your functions - judicial administrative and representational - you must act without fear of favour, guided and inspired by the provisions of the Rome Statute."

Joining the Secretary-General, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, heads of government and other dignitaries, was the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who hailed the inauguration as an historic "reaffirmation of our commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms and justice."

He stressed, however, that only 89 countries have ratified the Rome Statute – “far from universality” – and that to make the Court truly effective, wider acceptance of its jurisdiction will be necessary.

The judges were elected last month at UN Headquarters in New York with a specific aim of ensuring a good geographical and gender mix. Once the composition of the Court was completed, States Parties drew lots to settle on the terms of office for the judges, six of whom would serve a full term of nine years, another six a term of six years, and the remainder a term of three years, as set out in the Statute.

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