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UN approves Darfur war crimes trials

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UNITED NATIONS, April 1 (AFP) — The UN Security Council has voted to approve war crimes trials over Sudan’s Darfur conflict at the International Criminal Court, ending weeks of deadlock over US opposition to the tribunal.

A photo taken in the village of Hamada, in Sudan Darfur on Jan. 15, 2005 right after a Sudanese government-backed militia, the janjaweed, attacked it and killed 107 people. One of them was this little boy. (NYT) .

The council voted 11-0 to refer the matter to the ICC late on Thursday, two months after an international enquiry found evidence of war crimes in Sudan’s Darfur region, where an estimated 300,000 have died in two years of violence.

The move clears the way for the Hague-based court to prosecute those behind the murder, rape and pillaging in the vast Darfur region, after weeks of tense diplomatic haggling over how to bring the guilty to justice.

Algeria, Brazil and China abstained along with the United States, which is not party to the Hague-based court and could have used its veto power to reject the measure — the first time the council has made an ICC referral.

"It is important that the international community speak with one voice in order to help promote effective accountability," deputy US ambassador Anne Patterson said after the vote.

"We decided not to oppose the resolution because of the need for the international community to work together in order to end the climate of impunity in Sudan," she said.

While there was broad agreement about the atrocities in Darfur, the United States resisted any ICC referral while most other council nations were wary of concessions that could undermine the court’s legitimacy.

In a day of diplomatic back-and-forth, Washington was able to win changes to the measure, including language saying nations not party to the court, like the United States, would be exempt from prosecution over Sudan.

Resolution 1593 also gives those nations "exclusive jurisdiction" over its nationals — meaning, for example, that an American charged with killing the citizen of another country in Sudan could only be tried in American court.

Patterson said Washington "continues to fundamentally object" to the court, where the United States fears could see US nationals targeted by politically motivated lawsuits.

But a US veto would have carried political risk after Washington pushed hard to bring international attention to the Darfur crisis, which it has characterised as a genocide.

Darfur exploded when rebels in the western Sudanese region rose up against the government in February 2003, a rebellion the government put down with the help of proxy militias known as Janjaweed.

A commission of enquiry in January said government forces and militias had committed gross human rights violations, including the killing of civilians, torture, rape and pillaging. Rebel forces may also be guilty, it said.

Sudan has insisted it is trying to end the bloodshed, though UN reports have called its efforts insufficient.

Because Sudan is also not party to the court, a Security Council resolution was required to bring the matter to the ICC. It is unclear what kind of cooperation will come from Khartoum.

"There are lots of practical difficulties," said Sudan’s ambassador, Elfatih Mohammed Erwa.

Despite the concessions, the US abstention marks a change after the administration of US President George W. Bush consistently fought any ICC reference and threatened a veto.

Britain and France, which helped orchestrate the compromise, hailed the cooperation with the United States and other reluctant council nations.

"Tonight there is only one winner, those who fight against terrorists. There is only one loser — all those who have committed crimes in Darfur," said French ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan welcomed the resolution, calling the decision "an appropriate mechanism to lift the veil of impunity that has allowed human rights crimes in Darfur to continue unchecked."

"We object strongly to the price the US government has imposed," said Richard Dicker, head of the international justice division of Human Rights Watch. "This is a historic step but at a high price."

The 15-member council last week approved a 10,000-strong peace force to monitor the accord that ended a separate north-south civil war in January, and on Tuesday passed sanctions on rights violators in Darfur.

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