ICC Readies First War-Crimes Indictments

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The International Criminal Court is poised to issue its first indictments; the charges are expected to be against the leaders of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. The U.S. has not supported the ICC, but human rights groups hope the first case proves the need for the court.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The newly created International Criminal Court is poised to issue its first indictments. The charges are expected to be against the leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army. The Ugandan rebel group is notorious for abducting children and turning them into killers. The International Criminal Court or ICC was designed to prosecute the world's worst war criminals and to replace ad hoc tribunals set up for specific conflicts in the past. The US doesn't support the ICC, but human rights groups hope the first case proves the need for the court. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

It has not been an easy beginning for the International Criminal Court's lead prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo. He recently told legal scholars in Washington about the pressures he's faced as he investigated war crimes in northern Uganda. In one week, he received letters giving him conflicting advice about an amnesty offer for rebels who disarm. Some Ugandans urged him to abide by it and human rights groups urged him to make sure international law prevails.

Mr. LUIS MORENO-OCAMPO (Lead Prosecutor, ICC): This is my normal life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORENO-OCAMPO: Same activity. One group saying I do A; others say no A.

KELEMEN: The affable Argentinean prosecutor says he's had to be low-key in Uganda to avoid disrupting even remote chances for peace talks and he's had to answer concerns that the only cases he's investigating now are in Africa, in Uganda, Congo and Sudan's Darfur region. He says he takes on only the most serious crimes so his court can serve as a deterrent to other would-be criminals.

Mr. MORENO-OCAMPO: My three cases are in Africa, and I think it's OK because I cannot use ...(unintelligible) geographical representation. I had to focus in the ...(unintelligible) because this is the way in which I will move my state to the right situation.

KELEMEN: Moreno-Ocampo was speaking at American University where prosecutors from non-permanent tribunals from Rwanda to Yugoslavia had some advice. David Crane was the chief prosecutor for the United Nations special court for Sierra Leone.

Mr. DAVID CRANE (Chief Prosecutor, War Crimes Tribunal): We have to be mindful of political retrenchment, a war crimes worry world tired of tribunals, tired of hearing about what's happening in generally Africa, Africans killing Africans, etc. We have to be careful. We have to get the ICC right.

KELEMEN: His experience doesn't make him too optimistic. Crane made headlines over two years ago when he indicted then Liberian President Charles Taylor, accusing him of fomenting violence in neighboring Sierra Leone. The fact that Taylor is living comfortably in exile in Nigeria, Crane says, does not bode well for the International Criminal Court.

Mr. CRANE: Because there's the African exception. There is an indicted war criminal sitting there in his villa in Calabar not turned over.

KELEMEN: American University law Professor Diane Orentlicher says arresting indicted war criminals will be a challenge for the International Criminal Court, but she says prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo has had more international cooperation than expected. She believes he may even manage to alleviate fears in Washington that he would be a rouge prosecutor taking on politically motivated cases against the US.

Professor DIANE ORENTLICHER (American University): He simply doesn't have the capacity to go roving around the world issuing indictments at will. He has a limited capacity, and the kinds of cases he takes on are extremely labor intensive. He only gets involved in situations where extremely serious abuses are occurring on a mass scale.

KELEMEN: The US may be softening its position against the International Criminal Court. The Bush administration allowed the UN Security Council to refer atrocities in Darfur, Sudan, to the ICC and US officials say they will cooperate on that case if asked. Moreno-Ocampo has also sought to ease concerns that the international court would replace local efforts to bring war criminals to justice. He made clear he's committed to helping member states do what they can to prosecute war criminals.

Mr. MORENO-OCAMPO: This is a way in which we can really succeed and using this tiny court help to change the world.

KELEMEN: A big task for a court just beginning to take shape.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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