As the International Criminal Court seeks an arrest warrant against the president of Sudan, the Rome Statute, the foundation treaty for the ICC, turns ten years old.
Home of the ICC in The Hague, Netherlands
It took two years of fierce wrangling, but on July 17, 1998, the Rome Statute was signed, establishing the functions, jurisdiction and structure of the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC), which came into existence four years later.
"Rome should provide a signal that crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression will in the future no longer go unpunished," said the head of the German delegation in Rome, Gerd Westdickenberg.
The fundamental idea that emerged from the Rome conference was that every country should pass laws that would require even high-ranking politicians and military officials to answer charges of human rights abuses before a court.
Luis Moreno Ocampo
The ICC, which was launched in 2002, is based on the theory that such people could be extradited to a standing international court if a country's own justice system was not capable of prosecuting them.
"We're a backup system," said the ICC's lead prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo. "We're not a Supreme Court of the World."
Several countries have since passed laws that allow war crimes, even genocide, to be prosecuted in national courts. Germany passed its own legislation in 2002 that regulated crimes against public international law to bring its own laws into accordance with the Rome Statue. Indirectly, it prevents German citizens from being taken in front of the ICC.
Refusing to sign
But those who support an international court which steps in when national courts cannot, or will not, are distressed by the refusal of those countries that refused to sign the treaty.
These are not a few small nations run by dictators, but major world players such as the United States and India. China and Russia have also withheld their signatures.
Judges of the International Criminal Court at the start of a hearing
Even today, US President George W. Bush has shown no sign of reconsidering his refusal to sign the Rome Statute and in a move almost unique in legal history, even withdrew American support after it had been given.
The administration of previous President Bill Clinton had signed the treaty in its last days in office so that it could take part in consultations on details of the court.
But in 2002, Washington "unsigned" the treaty, arguing that the court could create havoc for the United States, exposing American soldiers and officials overseas to capricious and mischievous prosecutions.
"As the United States works to bring peace around the whole world, our diplomats and our soldiers could be dragged into this court," Bush said. "And that's very troubling to me. We'll try to work out the impasse at the United Nations but one thing we're not going to do is sign on to the International Criminal Court."
Bush has shown no interest in following Germany's example and passing laws that would make war crimes a punishable offense. Instead, he has tried to weaken the ICC by establishing non-extradition agreements with individual nations regarding American citizens.
Those are linked with threats to withhold military aid for the land if such deals are not made. He has had some success with this strategy.
Sudan and the situation in Darfur is now a concern of the ICC
In the meantime, the row over the ICC between critics of the Rome Statute, such as Washington, and its biggest proponents, who are mostly in Europe, has gotten quieter. That has something to do with the fact that the court is busy for now with cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, the Central African Republic and Darfur.
"I had to choose the cases according to gravity. And the gravest cases happened in Africa," said prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo.
But as the ICC continues its work to bring those who commit grave human rights abuses to justice, New York-based political analyst Jeff Laurenti believes it is gaining credibility around the globe, despite the vocal critics.
"The court will be proving itself despite the Bush administration's knee-jerk hostility," he said. "That creates the opportunity to demonstrate that the paranoia about the ICC that has been propagated by the right wing is unjustified and misplaced."
A change in Washington's attitude could be developing. When the UN Security Council referred the case of Darfur and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to the Hague, the US could have vetoed the move, but didn't. Instead, it just stayed silent.