Tunisia joins international war crimes court

Tunisia is the fourth Arab country to join the International Criminal Court and the first to join up since a wave of pro-democracy uprisings started sweeping the region.

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NEW YORK // Tunisia became the fourth Arab country to join the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal yesterday, and the first to join up since a wave of pro-democracy uprisings started sweeping the region.

Ghazi Jomaa, Tunisia's envoy to the United Nations, formally joined the International Criminal Court (ICC) in a ceremony at UN headquarters, saying the North African country is "witnessing historic changes" and is taking "steady steps" on political reforms.

Tunisia's interim government decided to join the court, which is based in The Hague, in February, and is in the process of signing up to other global treaties on political rights and torture, after the ousting of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The ICC has 116 members but only four from the Arab world: Jordan, Comoros, Djibouti and Tunisia. Key countries such as the United States, Israel, Russia and China have not joined, saying it would undermine their sovereignty.

Dr Amor Boubakri, a professor of law at the University of Sousse in Tunisia, said: "This great step has become possible only after the collapse of Ben Ali's 23-year rule."

William Pace, head of the Coalition for the ICC, an advocate of the court, said Tunisia's membership will "inspire other nations and peoples throughout the region".

Last month, ICC officials met Arab leaders and jurists in Doha to try to increase membership.

Several Arab envoys expressed fears about a double standard in the court, which cannot probe Israeli violations against Palestinians.

Since the ICC was established in 2002, it has launched prosecutions for atrocities in Uganda, Kenya, Congo, Sudan, Libya and the Central African Republic. It is criticised for disproportionately targeting African leaders who have been eschewed by the West.

It prosecutes those accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide by nationals of or within the territories of its members, when domestic courts are unwilling or unable to pursue justice, or following a UN Security Council referral.

On Monday, the court's pretrial chamber will announce whether it will issue arrest warrants against the Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, one of his sons and the country's intelligence chief, who are accused of crimes against humanity while repressing pro-democracy demonstrators.