Shaping a War-Crimes Court

A permanent international criminal court (ICC) to deal with genocide and other crimes against humanity is an idea whose time has at least partly come.

More than 130 countries have signed a treaty establishing such a court. So far, 25 have formally ratified it, with 60 ratifications needed to set the court in motion. That number is likely to be reached in 2002.

Precedents date back to the trials of Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, Germany after World War II. But more recent international trials - notably for mass killings in Rwanda and Bosnia - have shown a need for a standing court to deter mass atrocities.

Proponents of the court have had to work against a heavy drag - persistent opposition from the US, and not just from those conservatives in Congress who are leery of an institution with supranational authority.

The Clinton administration, too, raised doubts about the court's expansive jurisdiction over US soldiers on peacekeeping missions. Still, President Clinton shifted gears on Dec. 31 (the deadline for signing the treaty) and inked the treaty. He now asserts it's right for the US to be involved in "making the ICC an instrument of impartial and effective justice in the years to come."

Giving up national sovereignty to an international body isn't easy. It requires a faith in universal principles applicable to all. The US is right to be supportive of the ICC while also wary of its actual workings.

The new Congress and Republican president could still ignore Clinton's move, but they would do so as other nations move ahead with the court.

What bothers the US is whether anti-American prosecutors or judges at the court might make political judgments against US soldiers or diplomats working in a conflict. This is a real concern, but not insurmountable. Provisions already in the treaty preclude prosecution if the nation whose soldiers or officials are charged with a crime is already investigating the matter. The US would also like to restrict court jurisdiction over actions in countries that are not signatories to the treaty - anticipating, perhaps, charges against peacekeepers in such countries.

Further adjustments in the treaty may be needed. But the danger is that US insistence on exemptions from jurisdiction could undermine the court.

Some powerful figures in Congress oppose any US support for the court. A two-thirds vote in the Senate to ratify the treaty won't come any time soon. The Bush administration will be under pressure to simply shelve it.

The better choice would be to back the purpose of the court, which is to hold accountable those who perpetrate horrendous mass crimes, and continue to negotiate court procedures and jurisdictional reach.

As Clinton noted, such involvement would sustain America's "moral leadership." It also would show that the world's sole superpower can be a team player.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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