War-crimes court may go ahead without US support

Commission meets this week at UN, but US officials say it compromises sovereignty.

The world community is making a final push to convince the United States to support an international war-crimes court, but a compromise looks unlikely before President Clinton's term expires Jan. 20.

The International Criminal Court, whose preparatory commission is meeting this week at the United Nations in New York, is being established to try international war-crimes suspects along the lines of Foday Sankoh of Sierra Leone and Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia.

Yet US military officials have resisted throwing their support behind the treaty, saying it could compromise US sovereignty and allow other countries to make politically motivated charges against American soldiers.

There is some support for the treaty within the Clinton administration, however, and because of that, backers of the court see the current meetings as a last chance for the United States to join. A Republican White House would probably look less favorably on the concept, analysts say.

The treaty is supported by nearly every US ally, including Canada, the European Union, and NATO (minus Turkey). It has been signed by 116 countries and ratified by 23. The ICC would work similarly to the temporary tribunal in The Hague, prosecuting war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.

Without US involvement, the court will still go forward, but it will likely have a more difficult time establishing legitimacy. Furthermore, by not joining, the US could weaken its alliances and lose a say in the administration of global justice, an area it has traditionally led.

"This could create a division between the US and its closest military allies," says Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch in New York. "That could make consensus on other foreign-policy issues more difficult to achieve."

The Joint Chiefs of Staff have spearheaded resistance to the court, overcoming moderate support for the measure in the Justice Department and the State Department, analysts say. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, has said he would block ratification if the measure reached the Senate.

The US has tried to persuade the court's preparatory commission to grant exemptions for US nationals.

"We put a proposal on the table, and it's still being discussed," a US official says.

But backers of the court say exemptions would undermine the court's objectivity and produce a "two-tier" justice system. Other international war-crimes courts, including the one for the former Yugoslavia, have been accused of being politically motivated and biased toward the West.

"[An American exemption] can't work," says William Pace, who heads the Coalition for an International Criminal Court in New York. "This type of position undermines US leadership."

The Clinton administration has spent enormous energy promoting the idea of globalization. Washington, for example, has tirelessly pushed and expanded the World Trade Organization, which serves the purpose of, among other things, resolving trade disputes.

Throughout history, the US has championed war-crimes courts, starting with the establishment of the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg that prosecuted the Nazis following World War II.

More recently, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright led efforts to establish temporary international courts for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Yet as delegates from around the world were meeting in New York this week, the US took on a distinctly different role in which it was accused of slowing down a historic development in human rights and global justice.

"In particular, we call on our close ally and friend, the United States of America, to sign the statute before the end of this year," said Hans-Peter Kaul, the head of the German delegation, in remarks to the commission.

"The International Criminal Court needs the support of your great country, which time and again had a decisive role in bringing about the fall of tyranny and dictatorship and in reestablishing the rule of law," he added.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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