War crimes court faces biggest test with Darfur investigations

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The Independent Online

Claims of mass murder and widespread rape in Darfur, where about 180,000 people have died in a vicious conflict, are to be investigated formally following a landmark decision by the world's first permanent war crimes court.

Claims of mass murder and widespread rape in Darfur, where about 180,000 people have died in a vicious conflict, are to be investigated formally following a landmark decision by the world's first permanent war crimes court.

The International Criminal Court's announcement yesterday breaks new legal ground and places the Sudanese government under a formal obligation to assist with investigations.

In March the UN Security Council voted to refer the situation in Darfur to the ICC, which is based in The Hague - the first time such a decision has been taken. Many had expected such a move to be blocked by the US, which opposes the ICC in principle. Washington relented, abstaining in a tacit admission that there is no alternative forum in which to investigate such cases. Darfur is now set to become a test case that will make or break the court's reputation. The US has played a key role in trying to curb the violence it has characterised as genocide.

The ICC promised yesterday that the investigation will be "impartial and independent, focusing on the individuals who bear the greatest criminal responsibility for crimes committed in Darfur". In deciding to start investigations, the prosecutor ignored advice to wait until the conflict is resolved. He knows that the Darfur issue will be the first big test of the ICC and that, if its work fails to match up to high standards, the court's enemies will seize on the opportunity to undermine it.

The ICC did not name any individuals, although the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, has given the court a sealed list of 51 people suspected of crimes, including murder and rape. Though the men have not been named, they are believed to include senior Sudanese government and army officials, militia leaders, and rebel and foreign army commanders. The office of the prosecutor at the ICC, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said he had requested information from several sources, collecting thousands of documents, and that more than 50 independent experts had been contacted.

The Darfur conflict broke out in February 2003 when rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated government, accusing Khartoum of discrimination against non-Arabs in the arid region. Sudan's government is accused of retaliating by arming the local Arab militia, whom rebels accuse of burning down villages and killing and raping civilians. Khartoum denies the charge.

As well as the tens of thousands of those who have died in Darfur through violence, hunger and disease, more than two million people have fled their homes. Richard Dicker, of Human Rights Watch, said: "The decision of the prosecutor to investigate mass slaughter and rape in Darfur will start the wheels of justice turning for the victims of these atrocities. As a UN member state, Sudan is obliged to co-operate with the ICC investigation."

Mr Moreno-Ocampo called for co-operation from national and international parties. "It will form part of a collective effort, complementing African Union and other initiatives to end the violence in Darfur and to promote justice," he said.

The court launched its first investigations last year into crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda - though in both cases the government involved referred the cases. It has yet to issue its first indictment or arrest warrant but Mr Moreno-Ocampo says he should be ready to launch cases this year.

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