By Paul Gallagher
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The world's first permanent war crimes court swore in its first 18 judges Tuesday to try the 21st century's worst crimes in a move hailed as the biggest legal milestone since Hitler's henchmen were tried at Nuremberg.
Amid pomp and ceremony, the judges at the International Criminal Court, or ICC, 11 men and seven women, were sworn in to try people accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
But even as the judges -- from Samoa and Latvia, from South Africa, Brazil, Britain and France -- took their oaths, there were concerns the court would struggle to flex its muscle in the face of opposition from the United States, China and Russia.
"By the solemn undertaking they have given here in open court, these eleven men and seven women, representing all regions of the world and many different cultures, have made themselves the embodiment of our collective consciences," U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said.
Some 89 countries have thrown their weight behind the court to try alleged perpetrators who committed crimes after it came into being in July 2002. But lack of support from the United States and Russia -- two powers behind the Nuremberg Trials -- has been a setback.
Support for the ICC -- a descendant of Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials after World War II -- was given added impetus by ad hoc U.N. war crimes tribunals set up to try crimes in the Balkans in the 1990s and the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
"The court which we have created, and in which we install judges today, responds to one of the darkest parts of our human experience, and yet this is also a ceremony of hope," said Jordan's Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein, head of the assembly of states who backed the Rome Statute in 1998 to set up the ICC.
WORLD JUDICIAL CAPITAL
The ICC takes its seat in The Hague -- dubbed the world's legal capital -- alongside the U.N. war crimes tribunal trying ex-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and the U.N.'s World Court, which only rules on disputes between states.
The United States, Russia and China -- three of the five permanent members of the 15-seat U.N. Security Council -- have shunned the court with Washington leading a dogged campaign to ensure it does not try to prosecute U.S. citizens.
Fearing U.S. troops could face politically motivated prosecutions, Washington strongly opposes the ICC and declined an invitation to join Annan for the ceremony.
The United States, which has withdrawn its signature from the 1998 treaty that set up the ICC, has been busy persuading other countries to seal bilateral agreements exempting all U.S. citizens from the court's authority.
The court's supporters said the dispute would not remove the symbolism of the inauguration hosted by Dutch head of state Queen Beatrix. The European Union, a staunch advocate for the court, also welcomed its becoming a reality.
"The court sends a powerful message to any potential perpetrator of such crimes: impunity has ended," said EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten.
Anyone -- from a head of state to an ordinary citizen -- will be liable to ICC prosecution for human rights violations, including systematic murder, torture, rape and sexual slavery. But it is still some way off being ready for its first case.
The court officially opened in The Hague last year after 60 states backed it, but with just a skeleton administrative staff.
Benjamin Ferencz, 82, a former U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg at the ceremony, lamented Washington's stance. "The current leadership in the United States seems to have forgotten the lessons we tried to teach the rest of the world," he said.
The ICC's first judges were elected in New York earlier this year. A prosecutor is expected to be appointed in April. The court has already received more than 200 complaints alleging war crimes, though it will say nothing about the nature of them.
The new tribunal has jurisdiction only when countries are unwilling or unable to prosecute individuals for atrocities. Cases can be referred by states that have ratified the treaty, the U.N. Security Council or the tribunal's prosecutor after approval from three judges.
Unlike the U.N. war crimes tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda -- based in The Hague and Arusha in Tanzania -- the ICC is not a U.N. body.