Ever since Nazi war criminals were tried at Nuremberg 50 years ago, there has been much talk about creating a permanent international criminal court. With the United Nations General Assembly taking action to promote its establishment and a UN conference on the subject scheduled for 1998, supporters say establishing such a court is closer to reality than ever before.
The idea was not born after World War II. The signatories of the 1919 Paris Peace Treaty after World War I were the first to mention it. But the creation of ad hoc international war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in 1993 and 1994 have given momentum to plans for an international criminal court, say supporters.
Those tribunals were established by the United Nations Security Council to try people suspected of crimes against humanity after public outrage at the numbers of people slaughtered in those conflicts - numbers that reach into the hundreds of thousands. Recently though, there have been setbacks in both tribunals. At The Hague, a major prosecution witness was found to be lying in the case against Bosnian Serb Dusko Tadic, and despite pressure from the tribunal prosecutor and judges, only a handful of the 80 indicted Bosnian war criminals are in custody.
In October, at the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda, the first scheduled trial of a Hutu defendant was delayed for the fifth time.
But Michael Posner, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York, says even the shortcomings of these tribunals are steps toward perfecting future procedures for a permanent criminal court.
On the positive side, Mr. Posner says, the ad hoc tribunals have shown the importance of including justice in the settlement of international conflicts.
But Posner notes that the current tribunals don't function as well as they should and says their enormous start-up costs make them prohibitive.
"This isn't a cure-all," he says. "There are a lot of problems in the world that are not going to be solved by an international criminal court, but some will. And I think the task here is building slowly from the ground up a system that begins to hold people accountable. That's what this is about. Somebody, somewhere in the world ought to feel that they're going to be held accountable if they commit genocide."
Others, such as Alfred Rubin, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., disagree and say that establishing an international court is unnecessary, and even unwise.
Mr. Rubin is concerned about the authority such a court would have and about how it would safeguard the rights of defendants. He says there are other options to preserve international order, such as the creation of truth commissions as seen in South Africa and some Latin American countries, where issues are resolved in the moral rather than the legal sphere.
Or the international community can just do nothing. "That's the traditional response.... The best recourse for others is to offer asylum to ... victims. And it may well be that the way society is structured, there's nothing we can do about it," he says.
But supporters of an international criminal court say a permanent court is needed to act as a deterrent against future crimes against humanity, to develop consistency in international law, and to avoid selective justice.
"We are truly on a path in which this is the last major international institution [to be] established in the 20th century, and one of the most important," says Bill Pace, executive director of the World Federalist Movement, based at the UN, and the convener of the Coalition for an International Criminal Court.