Q: Why is there a new court?

A: A permanent global criminal court has been called the missing link in the international legal system since the Nazi war crimes trials at the end of World War II.

The International Criminal Court is to prosecute individuals for the world's most heinous crimes - genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity. It came into being in 2002 in The Hague, Netherlands. Its first order of business is probing crimes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Q: Who can be tried?

A: Everyone, from heads of state who knew, ordered or condoned a crime, to average citizens, who normally cannot use the defence that they were simply acting under orders.

Nations ratifying the treaty can turn their own citizens over to the court and those from other states for a crime committed on their soil. But national courts have first priority. The ICC steps in only when a country is unwilling or unable to conduct a proper investigation.

In theory Americans can be prosecuted, but in practice it is highly unlikely because the United States has a functioning judicial system.

Q: Why is Washington opposed to the court?

A: The United States wants air-tight guarantees against prosecution of Americans. It fears that with the large number of US soldiers abroad, they would be vulnerable to frivolous
or ideologically motivated prosecutions.

Q: What has the United States done about it?

A: Former President Bill Clinton signed the treaty on 31 December, 2000. But on 6 May, 2002, the Bush administration wrote a letter tantamount to "unsigning" the signature.

In 2001 the US Senate passed the American Service Members Protection Act, requiring that military assistance be suspended to nations unless they have signed an agreement with Washington granting immunity from the ICC. 

Ninety countries have done so to date. The act also prohibits US officials from dealing with the court.

Q: What about the UN Security Council?

The 15-member body adopted a US-drafted resolution in 2002 granting immunity from the ICC to personnel on UN peacekeeping ventures and other operations approved by the world body after Washington threatened to veto UN missions. This applied to nationals from countries, like the United States, which had not ratified the treaty creating the court.

In 2003, the resolution was renewed but in 2004 opposition grew, fuelled by anger at the US abuse of Iraqi prisoners. The United States withdrew the resolution on June 23 because of
lack of votes.

Q: Who supports the court?

A total of 94 countries have ratified the treaty, including all European Union members except the Czech Republic. Other strong supporters are Canada, Brazil, Jordan, and South Africa. Some 139 countries have signed the treaty's statutes, drawn up in 1998 in Rome.