(New York) - The United Nations secretariat and the 105 states that have joined the International Criminal Court should step up support for the court so that it can bring justice for war crimes, Human Rights Watch said today as the ICC opens its annual meeting in New York.

For the first time since 2003, the court’s annual Assembly of States Parties is taking place at UN headquarters. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will address the session on December 3. The meeting, which lasts two weeks, will conclude on December 14. The 105 states parties to the ICC’s Rome Treaty and numerous observer states will participate.

“The ICC has no police force of its own, so it needs robust political backing to bring accused war criminals to trial,” said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program. “At this year’s session, we are looking to the secretary-general and the states that created the court to convey their strong support for its work.”

This year the Sudanese government has starkly shown the level of resistance the International Criminal Court faces in its work. Although the UN Security Council referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC in 2005, Khartoum has refused to hand over two individuals subject to ICC arrest warrants. The government has kept one suspect, Ahmed Haroun, in his post as state minister for humanitarian affairs, and even appointed him to a committee whose mandate includes hearing human rights complaints. The government released the other suspect, “Ali Kosheib” (the nom de guerre of Ali Mohammed Ali), who had been in domestic custody.

“The UN and its many members that have joined the court have been far too quiet about Khartoum’s frontal assault on the ICC and its blatant disregard for the Security Council resolution that referred Darfur to the court,” said Dicker. “The secretary-general should clearly call on Sudan to surrender suspected war criminals to the ICC.”

At the annual assembly, states will make decisions on a range of issues including the court’s budget and election of new judges.

With active conflicts in every situation where the ICC is involved – Darfur, eastern Congo, northern Uganda, and the Central African Republic – the relationship between peace and justice is also likely to feature prominently at the session. As peace talks to end the conflict in northern Uganda continued this year, some states parties at times seemed keen to support measures that could lead to impunity. The ICC issued arrest warrants in 2005 for leaders of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army for crimes committed in northern Uganda.

“It is hardly surprising that bringing peace and holding perpetrators to account will generate tension, especially in the short-term,” said Dicker. “It is precisely at these moments that the UN secretariat and states must work to advance both objectives.”

Experience belies claims that justice thwarts peace, Human Rights Watch said. The unsealing of the indictment of former Liberian president Charles Taylor for crimes committed in Sierra Leone – issued while he attended peace talks to end the conflict in Liberia – was strongly criticized at the time for potentially jeopardizing the negotiations. Yet, only a couple of months later a peace agreement on Liberia was concluded as Taylor stepped down from power.

“Justice is not something that can be traded away in peace talks like a poker chip,” said Dicker. “That approach threatens a durable peace.”