Judging Tyrants and Torturers

History often yokes together extraordinary progress and unbearable atrocity. The ascent of humanity punctuated by outbursts of descent into inhumanity.

The UN's new International Criminal Court, to be set up a few years hence in The Hague, is designed to advance the former by punishing - and thereby deterring - the latter. Will it?

A lot of "despites" stand in the way. But we think a rational answer is a guarded yes. Gradually, as the court's independent prosecutor hauls the fomenters and foot soldiers of genocide and war crimes before the court's 15 judges, at least some tyrants and their sadist followers may hesitate. They won't have the impunity that shielded so many of history's war criminals.

But make no mistake about it. The "despites" mentioned above are numerous. First, there's the percentage of criminals who aren't deterred by the prospect of trial and punishment. Then there's the gaping hole left by refusal of the superpower US to sign up. Giants China and India, as well as Israel, also refused. Washington fought the court because of fear that its troops scattered around the globe might be accused of crimes for political reasons.

The court will not have jurisdiction over acts committed within a non-signatory state's borders. Skeptics point out that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao couldn't have been touched short of defeat or flight, and that Pol Pot was vulnerable only long after killing millions.

But, all these despites aside, there will be momentum for action by the long-sought court. European Union members, conscious of their continent's long struggle with tyrants and torturers, are solidly behind getting it into action.

If the court is seen to be responsible over time, Washington may in future come to support it. And so it should. After all, under court rules, nations that try their own soldiers' My Lai-type war crimes don't have to yield such cases to the new tribunal.

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