London (CNSNews.com) - The world's first permanent war crimes court swore in its first crop of judges in the Netherlands on Tuesday despite the conspicuous absence of the United States.
"These 11 men and seven women, representing all regions of the world and many different cultures, have made themselves the embodiment of our collective consciences," U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said.
Annan told the judges that "all your work must shine with moral and legal clarity." But critics of the court, including the U.S., have charged that the International Criminal Court (ICC) will be used for politically motivated prosecutions.
The court has already started compiling information on more than 200 potential war crimes, but a prosecutor has not yet been appointed, and the first trial is not expected to begin for at least a year.
Among the conflicts that may lead to the first cases in front of the court are wars in the Central African Republic and the Congo.
Despite the lack of trials, the court will operate on a first-year budget of more than $33 million.
The court's jurisdiction extends only to crimes committed after the official creation of the tribunal on July 1, 2002, and officials can only prosecute when member states are unwilling to take legal action against those accused of crimes against humanity.
The 1998 Rome Treaty that set the foundations for the court was signed by 120 nations, and as of Tuesday, 89 countries had ratified the pact.
Congress has passed legislation allowing the president to use "all means necessary" to free Americans from the court's custody. U.S. diplomats have also continued a drive to come to bilateral immunity agreements with foreign countries under Article 98 of the Rome Treaty.
The agreements pledge the U.S. and partner nations to refuse to turn over each other's citizens to the court.
Under the American Service Members Protection Act, U.S. officials also have the option of cutting off military aid to non-NATO nations that refuse to sign Article 98 agreements. U.S. officials have hammered out 22 such agreements.
Russia, China and Israel have also refused to ratify the treaty creating the court.
But the new court does have the support of European Union nations and some non-governmental organizations.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said the inception of the court "should convincingly boost efforts to deprive the cover of impunity of all those who commit crimes against humanity, war crimes and acts of genocide."
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said Tuesday's inauguration "will help to thwart U.S. efforts to undermine the court."
During the proceedings, Canadian judge Philippe Kirsch was elected president of the ICC. Kirsch, who helped draft preliminary documents for the court, currently serves as Canada's ambassador to Sweden.
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