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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New War Crimes Court Opens, Minus the U.S.

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- The world's first permanent war crimes court came into force at midnight Sunday, and Dutch administrators overseeing its initial months of operation are ready to register claims of genocide and wartime atrocities.

With the backing of 74 countries, and fierce opposition from the United States, the Hague-based institute will have authority to prosecute individuals -- not states -- suspected of war crimes anywhere in the world.

The International Criminal Court will not have the power to try offenses committed before July 1, 2002.

A four-member skeleton staff will open for business Monday morning at a temporary office "with a fax and a phone" to keep track of complaints until permanent representatives are appointed early in 2003, said Bart Jochems, a spokesman for the Dutch Foreign Ministry. Allegations will be filed and evidence handed to the court's caretakers will be retained for safekeeping until prosecutors take over next year.

The start of the court's jurisdiction signals the beginning of "the greatest institution of peace ever created," said William Pace, head of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, which includes over 1,000 global organizations.

While the court's supporters rejoiced, the United Nations Security Council tried to resolve a dispute over a U.S. demand for immunity for American peacekeepers, which is opposed by the United States' European allies.

Fearing American soldiers and leaders could be indicted on political grounds, the U.S. Senate adopted legislation authorizing the president to use "all means necessary" to free U.S. citizens held by the court. It also enables the United States to penalize countries for cooperating with the court.

Supporters say there are many safeguards to prevent such abuse, including a democratic process to elect a prosecutor and 18 judges. Each member country has one vote.

Unlike the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, also based in The Hague, the 1998 Rome Statute creating the international court states that prosecutors may only indict individuals not tried by their own governments.

Nations will have first say over where suspects go on trial, not the permanent court.

"We don't understand why the United States doesn't have more faith in its own justice system to punish those who violate international law," Jochems said.

Another safeguard against political prosecution is the aim of an independent prosecutor's office that will weigh claims of war crimes on their merit, not on political grounds.

 The Israeli government has voted against joining the world criminal court, fearing it might be hauled up to face charges over the building of Jewish settlements on land it captured in war, Reuters reported.

The decision not to ratify the 1998 Rome Treaty, which established the court, was taken Sunday hours before the court formally came into existence Monday.