THE HAGUE Military attacks against civilians in Libya could be a crime against humanity and warrant the launch of a full investigation within days by the International Criminal Court, its prosecutor said on Monday.
The United Nations Security Council on Saturday imposed sanctions on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his family, and referred Libya's crackdown on anti-government demonstrators to the ICC.
"We have to decide whether to open an investigation ... and I hope we can move very fast. Within a few days," ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told reporters in his offices in The Hague.
He said anyone who attacked civilians would be investigated and prosecuted and that military commanders could be held accountable for the actions of their troops.
"If people were on the square and they were attacked by soldiers, tanks or airplanes, in a widespread and systematic way, it's a crime against humanity," he said.
Moreno-Ocampo said an investigation team had been put together in The Hague to collect information and his office was in contact with Libyan officials and army staff to understand command structures and how the Libyan military system worked.
The office of the prosecutor was also liaising with an African Union investigation team and the Arab League with the aim of moving as swiftly as possible, Moreno-Ocampo said.
Set up in 1998, the ICC is the world's first permanent war crimes court and has a mandate to investigate state aggression, genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
When the office of the prosecutor receives a Security Council referral, the statute requires that prosecutors first carry out a preliminary examination to see whether there is a reasonable basis to proceed with a full investigation.
Should an investigation be launched, prosecutors may ask an ICC pre-trial chamber to deliver arrest warrants or summonses for those deemed most responsible for the alleged crimes.
The difficulty, however, will be in enforcing any arrest warrant, said Elizabeth Evenson at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"Co-operation on arrests is the Achilles heel of the ICC. It is one of the most difficult challenges because the ICC does not have its own police force," Evenson said.
The unanimous decision by the 15-member Security Council to refer Libya to the ICC is seen as a positive step for the court, which is struggling to win acceptance and complete its first trial.
Permanent Security Council members China, Russia and the United States refuse to accept the court's jurisdiction, but agreed to back the referral of Libya on Saturday.
This is only the second ICC probe to be triggered by a Security Council referral, after the Darfur crisis in Sudan was referred to the ICC on March 31, 2005.
Although the court has since indicted Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for genocide, the Darfur case has highlighted the difficulties in arresting suspects as Bashir has continued to travel to friendly African countries.
If Gaddafi was overthrown and a new government co-operative with the ICC were to come into place, however, the investigation and possible prosecution of individuals could become easier.