May 17, 2002

Bush’s Snub of Criminal Court Undermines World Justice

By Amy Ross
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is now a reality. But the United States won’t be at the table. Office space has been rented. Professionals from around the world will serve as judges, attorneys and translators, tasked with prosecuting human rights violations such as war crimes and genocide. But the U.S. chair will be empty.

This week, President Bush “unsigned” President Clinton’s signature on the treaty creating the court, a move dubious in its legality and shocking in its arrogance. Bush’s insistence that the United States stands above the court really means that America will be left outside this important international body.

The new court enjoys the support of nations worldwide, including all of the European democracies and a majority of the countries the United States considers its closest allies. The ICC won’t take the place of these national courts; it has jurisdiction only if the courts fail to act. It will be located in The Hague, a city with a long tradition of hosting international treaties and institutions.

The Bush administration’s move typifies its disregard for multilateral cooperation. The White House has made it clear that it will use its muscle to stymie the ICC, which it believes might hold U.S. citizens (soldiers and public servants) accountable to international justice.

Last fall, the Bush administration endorsed legislation --the American Servicemembers’ Protection Act-- calling for sanctions against countries that support the initiative. This legislation was characterized in Europe as “The Hague Invasion Act,” because it authorized the United States to use force to bring about the release from captivity of any U.S. service member detained or imprisoned by the ICC in the Netherlands.

At a time when allies in Europe and around the world are rallying to stand with the United States against a common threat, the State Department should not be embracing legislation that authorizes an invasion of the Netherlands,” the group Human Rights Watch stated in a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell. “It hardly seems like a good moment for the U.S. to be threatening sanctions against dozens of countries simply because they want to bring to justice perpetrators of crimes against humanity.”

Opposition in the Senate managed to remove the extreme language from a defense appropriation bill.

It must be noted that American aversion to the International Criminal Court predates the Bush administration. For five weeks in 1998, under President Clinton’s watch, the U.S. delegation to the United Nations conference wrestled with the rest of the world over the ICC treaty. Washington strenuously objected to elements in the treaty that gave the ICC its powers, and in the minds of the vast majority of the other participants, made the court viable.

The United States insisted on conditions that would essentially make it impossible to try an American. As one frustrated delegate said at the time, “We are being forced to accept a court that is either weakened by ‘American exceptionalism,’ or weakened by the lack of involvement of the U.S.”

Despite accommodations and compromises, the United States became increasingly isolated, watching as its allies coalesced into the group of “life-minded nations.” In the end, 12 countries voted to adopt the treaty. Only seven voted against it. The United States and Israel publicly announced their opposition; the five other countries in the secret vote were reported to be China, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and the Sudan.

Behind this movement to combat bestial crime with rational justice is the recognition that warfare increasingly affects civilians. In the past, soldiers were the victims of war. But throughout the 20th century, civilians made up more than 90 percent of the casualties of war.

On Sept. 11, we Americans felt this reality. Now we share with others across the planet the knowledge that we can become civilian casualties, the “collateral damage” of conflict. As the Bush administration’s bellicose and increasingly unilateral response to 9/11 appears to be failing in its objectives -- Osama bin Laden has alluded capture, and threats against the United States at home and abroad continue -- it is time to reassess our strategy.

With the ratification of the ICC on April 11, the global community will commit itself to responding to outrageous crimes with rational legal mechanisms. The ICC cannot try past crimes; it looks toward the future. In theory, the very existence of a professional court -- competent and empowered -- could deter individuals from committing crimes against humanity. In this best-case scenario, the ICC will see little action.

But in the event that genocide, forced expulsion of populations, widespread rape, “disappearances,” torture, and other crimes occur, the ICC can respond. After thorough criminal investigations, indictments can be issued, trials held and verdicts reached. It’s a process that will surely be conflictive and arduous. It will take time, money and international cooperation and resolve. Such is the messy operation of democracy and civilization.

Bush’s lack of engagement with the ICC is dangerous. While the rest of the world continues to develop laws, norms and practices to combat crimes against humanity, the United States has pulled itself out of the action. Perhaps by abandoning “American exceptionalism” and working within the initiatives of international justice, we might all find ourselves closer to peace and security.

Ross (rossamy@uga.edu) is an assistant professor of geography at the University of Georgia. Dr. Ross has researched truth commissions in South Africa and Guatemala and the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Return to the Frontpage