(New York, February 10, 2003) - Afghan warlords who commit future atrocities can now face prosecution by the new International Criminal Court (ICC), Human Rights Watch said today, as Afghanistan deposited its accession to the ICC Treaty at the United Nations. Under ICC provisions, the treaty will take force in Afghanistan on May 1, 2003. After that date, the ICC will have the authority to investigate and prosecute serious war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity committed on Afghan soil.
"This is a historic day for Afghanistan," said John Sifton, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. "For over two decades, perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan have enjoyed total impunity. On May 1, that impunity will formally end."
Sifton applauded the Afghan government for joining the court: "It was tremendously courageous for the Afghan cabinet to ratify the ICC treaty. It is an important step not only for Afghanistan, but for improving justice worldwide."
Human Rights Watch said that future war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan were likely to come under the ICC's jurisdiction, in the near future at least, because of the poor state of Afghanistan's justice system. Under the treaty, the ICC can only prosecute such crimes if Afghanistan is unwilling or unable to meaningfully investigate and prosecute on its own.
"Afghanistan's warlords now know that the game has changed," said Sifton. "After May 1, if they resort to systematic torture, rape or murder, they can be called to The Hague."
Sifton said crimes covered by the ICC could also include wartime kidnapping, looting, killing prisoners of war, and shelling civilian villages.
ICC headquarters are located at The Hague in The Netherlands.
Human Rights Watch called on Afghanistan's national authorities and the international community to give the court strong support in coming years to ensure that it is effective in Afghanistan.
"Afghanistan's peace is still fragile and the possibility of future civil conflict is all too real," said Sifton. "The ICC treaty can actually help stabilize the country."
Human Rights Watch noted that the ICC has authority not only over troops committing atrocities, but also over commanders who order or incite them, or fail to stop atrocities from occurring. ICC jurisdiction will apply to Afghan government officials and local military and police commanders, as well as armed insurgent groups, whether they are connected to the government or not.
"The message to Afghanistan's warlords is clear," said Sifton. "The international community, through the ICC, is watching you, and will bring you to justice if you commit atrocities."
The ICC will not investigate or prosecute past crimes. Human Rights Watch said that it would continue to lobby the Afghan government and the international community, including the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan, to pursue justice for past crimes committed in Afghanistan. There are currently no effective mechanisms in place to address past crimes committed during the two decades of war that followed the Soviet-backed coup in 1978.
Afghanistan's accession to the ICC Treaty brings the total number of states parties to eighty-nine. The states parties met in New York last week and elected the court's eighteen judges, who will be sworn in on March 11. The court's prosecutor will be selected at the end of April.
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