Palestinian sympathizers in Europe and the Arab world called yesterday for the Israeli government to be investigated for war crimes, raising the prospect that leaders of the Jewish state could be among the first targets of the new International Criminal Court.
That court became a reality yesterday at a U.N. signing ceremony in New York, with representatives of 66 countries that have ratified the treaty establishing the first global war-crimes tribunal. The United States denounced the treaty as a violation of international law.
With the U.S. seat in the hall empty, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan vowed that "those who commit war crimes, genocide or other crimes against humanity will no longer be beyond the reach of justice."
As the Israeli incursion in the West Bank showed no signs of abating yesterday despite Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's arrival in Israel, an Israeli-Arab legislator suggested that members of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet be investigated for "war crimes" in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Mohammad Barakeh, a communist member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, accused Mr. Sharon's government of "serious violations of human rights and humanitarian conventions." He named specifically Mr. Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.
"The Israeli army has indiscriminately shelled refugee camps, using helicopters, warplanes, tanks and heavy artillery, killing hundreds of people. Medical assistance has been denied; hospitals have been shelled," Mr. Barakeh said.
"The population is starving because of the curfew, while water pipes and electricity networks have been destroyed," he wrote in a letter to the International Court of Justice, quoted by Agence France-Presse.
But international legal experts said the International Criminal Court is a more appropriate place for such appeals to be directed because it can bring individuals to justice, while the International Court of Justice, as a U.N. organ, deals only with cases between states. The ICC, although negotiated by the United Nations, has its own statute, a U.N. official said.
The Israeli army on March 29 began its largest military operation in the Palestinian territories since the 1967 war, invading six major West Bank cities. It said the attacks, in which more than 200 Palestinians have been killed, were in response to a series of suicide bombings in Israel.
On Tuesday, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud called for the Israeli leadership to be brought before the International Court of Justice for the "massacres" committed by the army.
In Madrid yesterday, the Spanish judge who led international efforts to prosecute former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for war crimes accused Israel of committing "crimes against humanity."
Baltazar Garzon, in a statement to mark his nomination as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, said the "terrorist attacks" against Israel by Palestinian militants should end but that they "in no way authorize any state to engage in illegal responses."
Mr. Garzon welcomed the ratification of the ICC treaty and called it "a key peace initiative." At the ceremony in New York, 10 countries brought the number of nations to ratify the 1998 Rome treaty to 66 - six more than needed for it to enter into force July 1. The tribunal is not expected to begin functioning until next year.
The United States signed the treaty with serious reservations at the 11th hour in December 2000, just before President Clinton left office. The Bush administration has said from the start that it will not submit it for ratification to Congress, even though all other NATO members have done so.
The administration is seriously considering withdrawing the U.S. signature, though no final decision has been made, State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker told reporters.
"It has a number of fundamental problems," he said of the international tribunal. "It purports to assert jurisdiction over nationals of states not party to the treaty, contrary to the most basic principles of customary international law governing treaties."
Mr. Reeker said the United States is concerned that its military and civilian personnel will be exposed to politically motivated investigations and prosecutions.
"Accountability is a serious problem," he said. "Relatively unrestricted powers of the prosecutor and the court may lead to politicized second-guessing of a state's ability or willingness to investigate its own personnel."
Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said yesterday that Washington should seek immunity from the court for all of its peacekeeping troops.
"We would oppose any future U.S. military participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations where the Security Council refuses to grant such immunity to our personnel," he wrote in a letter to Mr. Powell.
"The United States must begin now to implement policies to protect against the unintended consequences that will flow from establishment of the ICC," he said.
"The ICC is more likely to hinder than help efforts to prevent genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity," Mr. Hyde said, noting that "dictators with the blood of thousands on their hands will scoff at the threat."