International court to pursue Darfur war crimes as US misgivings are overcome

Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court will begin collecting evidence against war crimes suspects in the Darfur region of Sudan after receiving authorisation from the Security Council in New York.

In a vote on Thursday night, the Security Council passed a resolution giving permission to the court, based in The Hague, to begin pursuing those suspected of mass killings, rape and arson in Darfur. It was adopted only after concessions were granted to the United States, which opposes the court.

The resolution marks the first time the Council has referred cases to the ICC - a disputed body created under a 1998 international treaty. A deeply suspicious United States withdrew its signature to the treaty in 2002 and has been opposed to its inception ever since.

But, after six weeks of fraught negotiations, diplomats found a compromise exempting nationals of any country not signatory to the treaty. On that basis, the US abstained when votes were taken.

Welcoming the agreement, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said the court, the first such tribunal with global reach, "was established precisely for this kind of purpose - to ensure that those individuals responsible for committing heinous crimes will be held accountable".

Human rights activists were jubilant at the breakthrough while expressing dismay at America's position. "It's a historic step," said Richard Dicker, a director of Human Rights Watch in New York. "The council is providing protection for the people of Darfur through criminal prosecution."

Prosecutors in The Hague already have the names of 51 potential defendants identified by a UN panel which, in January, confirmed that Darfur had been the scene of mass slaughter, although it stopped short of terming it genocide. Most experts expect the court, to net roughly 15 people suspected of the worst offences and to leave others to be tried in Sudan under international supervision.

For the Council, adopting the resolution answers loud criticism of paralysis in the face of butchery in Darfur. In the past few days, it has passed three related resolutions: referring the crisis to the court, toughening sanctions against those with any responsibility for the conflict and deploying 10,000 peacekeepers to monitor a ceasefire in the civil war between the north and south of the country.

While it welcomed the court referral, Amnesty International berated the US for its opposition. "It is a truly sorry state of affairs when one country decides to put its ideological opposition to the ICC over justice for tens of thousands of Sudanese people," commented Kate Allen, the UK director of Amnesty.

But UN diplomats expressed hope that the threat of prosecution by the ICC would serve to quell further violence. The resolution has "sent a salutary warning to anyone intending to commit atrocities," noted the British envoy to the UN, Sir Emyr Jones Parry.

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