The judges are the first officers of the court to take up their duties. The court's 89 members, known as States Parties, will select a prosecutor at the end of April.
"The judges' inauguration makes this court more unstoppable than ever," said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's international justice program.
The U.S. State Department is increasing pressure on many governments to obtain what are known as "bilateral immunity agreements," exempting all U.S. citizens from the authority of the court. The fifteen member states of the European Union and the overwhelming majority of other States Parties have refused to sign agreements invalidating their obligations to the court.
More than twenty states have signed immunity agreements with Washington, but only eight of them are parties to the treaty. Many of these agreements have not yet been enacted into law. A number of states that initially signed are now considering whether the agreements unlawfully amend the jurisdiction of the ICC and are hesitant to formally ratify them.
"We urge all States Parties to resist pressure to enter into these illegal contracts," said Dicker. "The U.S. government should not be allowed to undermine the legitimacy of the court."
U.S. officials are claiming the American Servicemembers' Protection Act (ASPA) will cut off military assistance to states that have not signed an agreement by July 1, 2003. The same law, however, allows the Bush Administration to waive this prohibition on grounds of "national interest," said Dicker.
"U.S. officials are double dealing," said Dicker. "They are pointing to the part of the ASPA that makes withdrawal of military assistance look threatening and real. But they conveniently ignore the law's provisions empowering the administration to continue giving assistance."
Dicker said the United States was unlikely to want to alienate allies at a time when it was seeking to build international alliances against al-Qaeda: "States should ask: How likely is it that the United States will discontinue military aid at a time when it is looking to buttress allies in the fight against terrorism? None too likely."
In 1998, 120 states approved the treaty to establish the ICC. The treaty came into force on July 1, 2002, after 60 countries had ratified it.
As of March 11, 2003, 89 countries have joined the ICC. Once a prosecutor is selected, the court will be able to investigate and prosecute those individuals accused of crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes. The ICC complements existing national judicial systems and will step in only if national courts are unwilling or unable to investigate or prosecute such crimes. The ICC provides a remedy to those victimized by these crimes, very often women and children.
For more information on the International Criminal Court, please visit http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/icc/