For Philippe Kirsch, the Canadian president of the new International Criminal Court, traveling to Nuremberg for the 60th anniversary of the trials of Nazi leaders must have been a tad frustrating. Veteran lawyers and interpreters convened in the southern German city last Saturday to commemorate the launch in 1945 of the first multinational court to try Hitler's henchmen for the worst crimes ever committed.
But the ceremony also served as a reminder that the ICC, inspired by Nuremberg and created by a conference of states, hasn't yet attained the global legitimacy it needs to do its job -- bringing to justice the perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The United States, the driving force behind the Nuremberg trial, has refused to join the ICC because it is worried that U.S. soldiers on missions abroad might be subject to politically motivated prosecutions by such a court.
That stance is totally unwarranted, says Kirsch with more than a hint of irritation. "The spectre of politically motivated prosecution which is a running theme against the ICC is so unfounded that it is to me intellectually difficult to understand," he told journalists in Berlin earlier this week ahead of a speech he held at the American Academy.
According to media reports, William Timken, the new U.S. ambassador to Berlin, declined to participate in a discussion with Kirsch and German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries in Nuremberg.
China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Turkey have not signed the treaty under which the court was set up in 2002. Among countries that signed up but have not yet ratified it are Egypt, Iran, Israel and Russia. So far 100 countries have ratified the court, including Germany, France and Britain. Jordan is the only Arab state which has thus far joined.
In Kirsch's view, it's only a matter of time before acceptance of the ICC grows worldwide. "Over a period of time the court will demonstrate that it is acting in a fair, non-political way as it is supposed to do, and support should in my view follow," he said. A number of states which have not joined the ICC were showing more interest and less apprehension about the court than a couple of years ago, he said.
He noted that the ratification of the ICC treaty by 100 states - most recently Mexico - would not have been thought possible by most people just a few years ago.
Unlike the two temporary international tribunals set up to try individuals for crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Hague-based ICC is a permanent institution. It can only deal with crimes committed after July 1, 2002, when it was formally set up. This means, of course, that it can't take the case of a leader like Saddam Hussein, whose alleged crimes against humanity took place before the court's creation.
Its remit is also limited in other respects. It only has jurisdiction if it has the consent of the nation where the crime was committed or of the nation the accused person belongs to, or when the United Nations Security Council refers a case to it.
So far, its activities have been limited to Africa where it is investigating allegations in the Democratic Republic of Congo of thousands of deaths by mass murder and summary execution since 2002.
The ICC's biggest investigation so far is into mass killing and rape in the Sudanese region of Darfur. It has also unsealed warrants of arrest for five leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army for crimes committed in Uganda -- the first warrants issued by the ICC.
ICC prosecutors have received more than 2,000 communications about alleged crimes, but they have already dismissed 80 percent of the possible cases because they didn't fit the court's mandate, Kirsch said. The court is also monitoring seven or eight further "situations" in addition to the cases it is already dealing with in Africa, he said.
Kirsch said the ICC was intended as a court of last resort, able to take over when a nation's courts were unwilling or unable to prosecute people for committing atrocities. Ultimately, it should act as a deterrent, he said.
Understanding of the court was still limited because it was so young, said Kirsch. He then appealed to states to help make the court effective by co-operating in arresting suspects and gathering information. "That cooperation has to come not only to demonstrate the fairness of the court but also the effectiveness of the system as a whole," said Kirsch. Enforcing international law was "a shared responsibility between the ICC, states and international organizations," he said.