Fine Gael has been an enthusiastic supporter of the establishment of the International Criminal Court since the issue was agreed in Rome six years ago. The establishment of the International Criminal Court is the most important development in international law since the foundation of the United Nations. For that reason we fully support the Bill before the House. It is a Bill that, after ratification, ensures that our domestic law is in compliance with the obligations we undertook when we signed the Rome statute six years ago and ratified it in the meantime.
The International Criminal Court is a tribunal that will try individuals responsible for the most serious international crimes — war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, enforced disappearances and genocide. There is no doubt that such a forum is needed after a century of strife and trouble and crimes against humanity, not just in Europe but across the globe. The court has been in gestation for upwards of a century. The Treaty of Versailles, after the First World War, provided for the establishment of an international tribunal to try the German emperor. As it happens Kaiser Wilhelm ll never stood trial, but efforts after the Second World War were more successful in that temporary tribunals were set up in Nuremberg and Tokyo to try the major war criminals. In addition the Nuremberg charter specified areas that are still considered to be key crimes under international law — crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. In many ways these initiatives were the forerunners of the International Criminal Court. In particular they shattered the notion forever that state sovereignty could be used as a defence for acts that were considered outrages on the consciences of mankind.
Thereafter, there were the genocide and Geneva conventions. The General Assembly of the United Nations then asked the International Law Commission to examine the possibility of an international criminal court. To show how slowly such matters move, that is over 50 years ago. Then we had the Cold War and no possibility of getting agreement among nations. Nothing much happened after that until the 1980s.
It was a small country which proposed that efforts to establish an international criminal court should be resumed. When people argue that a small country such as Ireland has no role on the international stage, I point to the example set by Trinidad and Tobago in the 1980s, a little country that most people here have probably never heard of. It got discussions going again. In the meantime there have been temporary tribunals dealing with the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The establishment of those temporary tribunals gave a further impetus to the need for an international criminal court. Given revelations in recent times around the world, one sees the justification even more for such a court. In Iraq a good deal of attention is currently focusing on the recent incidences in Abu Ghraib, but let us not forget that over the previous 20 years a dreadful regime of torture was in place there under Saddam Hussein and his lackeys. This was not just in Abu Ghraib, but throughout the whole of Iraq.
In recent times also we had the killing fields in Cambodia, Rwanda and even now the way in which the Palestinians are being treated in the Middle East is contrary to international law. That brings me on to the question of how effective this court will be. Ireland is, and should be, an enthusiastic supporter of the International Criminal Court. To some degree it is relevant that the entire global village accepts its jurisdiction. It is probably significant that at this stage well over 100 countries have ratified the treaty. It is timely to recall those countries which voted against the Rome statute six years ago and investigate their reasons for doing so. Seven countries voted against the statute in July 1988, one of which was the United States, which we will come back to. China was another, not exactly a bastion of freedom and human rights. Iraq, which is still not off the wrack, voted against it.
Israel voted against it for its own reasons, which one can see when one examines the state terrorism in which it is indulging at the expense of the Palestinian people. Libya, under the leadership of Mr. Gadaffi, is not a prime example of democracy and human rights, although it is fair to say that Mr. Gadaffi seems to have had some change of heart in recent times, which is to be encouraged. The other two countries which voted against it at the time were Qatar and Yemen.
The countries that do not want international inspection of their actions do not support the proceedings of the International Criminal Court. The United States, which is prime among such countries, signed the Rome statute in the final days of President Clinton's time in office, but it has not yet ratified it. The authorities in that country feel that the American Senate would not ratify it. I have never been considered anti-American, but I question the approach of the American authorities in this regard. Every possible pressure should be brought to bear on the US, as the only global superpower, to encourage it to support the International Criminal Court.
I have discussed the official US position with the US authorities. They said they are not against the idea of international accountability for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, but they do not agree with the form the International Criminal Court takes. That is probably an easy way out for them. The US is happy for other people to be bound by the court but it does not want to be bound by the court itself, which is an indefensible position. As a friend of the US, Ireland should continue to impose on it in a constructive fashion any pressure it can, bilaterally and through international institutions, to encourage the US to support the court. The support of the US is vital if we want the court to be widely accepted in the short term. I do not doubt that it will be successful in the long term and that in years to come it will suit the US to support the efforts of the court. We have a duty to continue to press the issue with the US authorities.
One should not forget that the court's operations are under way. It is investigating a case in northern Uganda and it has received a second referral from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is important not only that the court should be fully established, but that it should be fully accepted and recognised as a body that can bring good to the world. The tribunals at Nuremberg and Tokyo were established by the victors at the time. They were established post facto, after nazism and fascism had been defeated. The advantage of the International Criminal Court is that it is in place now. Those who are tempted to indulge in horrific practices are aware of its existence. They know they may be answerable to the body. It is not a question of getting the international will to support the establishment of such a body subsequently.
The other country that should be encouraged to take cognisance of the International Criminal Court is Israel, which seems to be prepared to plumb the depths of inhumanity at a state level. Anybody who raises such issues with Israel is deemed, as a standard defence, to be anti-Semitic. Such an argument is rubbish and baloney, to use a phrase used by the Taoiseach yesterday. Jews suffered dreadfully as a consequence of the inhumanity of man when the state of Israel was established and immediately thereafter. We should recall that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, but that does not give those who are running the state of Israel a licence to subject others to the same treatment. While there is no direct parallel, some of the inhumanity in which Israel is involved against the Palestinians has certain resonances. It is from the same stable, in many ways. I hope those who are friends of Israel and want Israel to live in peace and harmony with its neighbours on a fair and just basis will bring that message home to Israel. More importantly, I hope the message will be heard.
The International Criminal Court, which we have supported from the beginning, has started its work. I have a mild criticism in that it is a little late in the day to put in place measures that should have been put in place some years ago. I accept that there was a need for a referendum, which took place about three years ago, to the best of my recollection. I accept too that the Bill, which is quite complex, contains a series of sections aimed at ensuring that our domestic law complies fully with our international obligations. I wish the Bill had been in place when we were ratifying the relevant treaty, which would have been the correct procedure. It is good that the Bill is now before the House, however, and that we are in a position to support it, thereby ensuring that we will comply fully with the court in every respect, including in our domestic law.
I ask the Minister to consider certain aspects of the Bill. Amnesty International produced a comprehensive document on the Bill, including many comments and recommendations. I hope the Minister will assure me in his closing speech that the issues raised by Amnesty International have been taken fully into account. I do not intend to discuss the document in detail because the Minister will have read it just as I have. Amnesty International has raised issues such as increasing to 18 the age at which children may be conscripted or enlisted in armed forces. The existing articles provide that it is a war crime to conscript or enlist children under the age of 15 into armed forces or groups, or to use children under that age to participate actively in hostilities. It is not a theoretical problem because young children are being drawn into conflicts in many parts of the world, unfortunately. They are generally not involved in the regular armed forces of a country, but many children are actively participating in hostilities with irregular groups, militias and terrorist groups. There is a strong case for raising the age of prohibition from 15, which was set to comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I would support an approach which would seek a higher standard of protection for children. Since 18 years is the age of majority, there is no case for conscription under that age, nor is there a case for drafting children under the age of 18 into militias and groups.
An issue which one might not speak about with complete certainty concerns voluntary enlistment of children under that age in the regular forces of a country. That might not be as clear-cut if we are talking about apprentices into a regular army or something of that nature. The case made by Amnesty International on that issue is a good one.
It also deals with the issue of other crimes under international law that are not contained in its own statute. I would be in agreement with the thinking on that. The establishment of the International Criminal Court is the most important progress in international law in years but I would hope that once it is fully supported by the entire international community, the ambit of the court will be extended. I could see the International Criminal Court having jurisdiction at some stage in regard to drug trafficking and issues of that kind. I realise that may be well into the future but it is possibly a development that will take place once the court is operational and fully supported by all members of the international community.
Fine Gael is fully supportive of the International Criminal Court. We want Ireland to comply not just with its obligations but take the lead and give an example in ensuring the International Criminal Court becomes a permanent successful part of the international architecture. We do not want it to be just a symbol but a working body that will help to bring to justice those who are guilty of these outrageous crimes. If the court succeeds in the short term, we will all be pleased and we can then hope to extend its ambit and jurisdiction to ensure it will have an even greater role in international affairs in future years.