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International Criminal Court Will Help
Prevent Atrocities, Says Judge
October 18, 1999

The statute approved last year by the United Nations Law Commission to establish a permanent International Court of Criminal Justice intended to prevent atrocities marks a watershed in international human rights. The challenge now is to make the court operational, according to Mauro Politi, a judge and member of the Italian delegation to the United Nations, who was involved in negotiating the statute.

"The court is a legacy to the next century of peace with justice."

Judge Mauro Politi
Member, Italian
Delegation to the UN

The court "is a revolutionary concept," Politi said, during a lecture at Alumni House on October 9. "It's a legacy to the next century of peace with justice and it's a legacy against the culture of impunity, a culture that is at the root of the atrocities of the past and continues to nourish the atrocities perpetrated at present."

Whereas the Nuremberg Trials prosecuted the perpetrators of war crimes during World War II retroactively, the goal of the statute that will establish the International Court of Criminal Justice is to prevent as well as to punish the most serious crimes.

The impulse for the court, Politi said, came from the tragic events of the last decade.

"Only 10 years ago, nobody would have imagined that atrocities such as those perpetrated during the Second World War would happen again," he said. "Yet at the close of the century, we are seeing an endless stream of humanitarian tragedies: Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and very recently East Timor. The international community was basically unprepared to face such a sudden recurrence of crimes everyone thought had been relegated to the pages of history."

Politi said the negotiations began with widespread skepticism, many countries believing the project was too ambitious. After intense negotiations and some difficult compromises, the statute was adopted by 162 countries, with seven voting against it, including the United States, and 21 abstentions. Politi said the main concern of the United States was to avoid a situation in which the court could prosecute and punish U.S. citizens, without the consent of the U.S. government.

When the statute was adopted, he said, "people were absolutely overwhelmed by emotion."

The International Criminal Court is intended to have jurisdiction over citizens of all countries for all atrocities committed in the future. It may be activated by information from any source, including governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations or individuals, and will prosecute genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Politi said the major successes of the statute include:

  • The court's jurisdiction will extend to crimes committed during peacetime. He said this is the only way the court can defend a population against its government, and it marks a departure from the Nuremberg Charter, where the crimes to be prosecuted were linked to armed conflict.

  • The definition of crimes against humanity will include all forms of sexual violence and exploitation, in addition to rape. "This is a truly remarkable progress in international legislation, designed especially to protect women and children," Politi said.

  • The definition of war crimes is extended to include internal conflicts and civil war. This is critical, he said, because "90 to 95 percent of conflicts in today's world are internal, purely domestic."

He said a shadow was cast over the statute, however, by the exclusion of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical, biological and laser warfare. "The prohibition of these methods of warfare ... is quite anachronistic," said Politi, who specializes in nuclear energy law, as well as international criminal and defense law.

He said a case can be referred to the court by a state that is party to the statute and by the UN Security Council, but another major achievement of the statute is that, in addition, the prosecutor will be able to activate the court, independent of the Security Council. Yet this was highly controversial, he said, and was one of the provisions that caused the United States to vote against the statute.

Politi said the work did not end when the statute was passed. To date, 88 states have signed the statute but only four have ratified it; 60 ratifications are needed for the statute to enter into force.

The lecture, given under the Emiliana Pasca Noether Chair in Modern Italian History visiting speaker program, was sponsored by the Center for European Studies and the School of Law.

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu