We recently met a remarkable woman, a survivor of the genocides in Rwanda. Even though she now lives in the United States, she asked us not to use any details of her story, for fear of reprisals against what's left of her family.
"I want the people who did this to be brought to justice," she told us. Her wish will probably never be granted, and neither will those of the millions of other victims of war crimes. The perpetrators of these heinous crimes - Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Radovan Karadzic of the former Yugoslavia - live as free men. So does Idi Amin, the former Ugandan dictator, whose 1970s regime murdered an estimated 300,000 people, and Immanuel "Toto" Constant, accused of overseeing the murder and torture of thousands of Haitians in the early 1990s. Pol Pot died recently without ever answering for the million Cambodians killed by his Khmer Rouge.
But now we have a unique opportunity to end the impunity of future war criminals. Last week, the Diplomatic Conference to create the world's first International Criminal Court (ICC) opened in Rome. The court would investigate and prosecute those accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and serious war crimes where national courts are either unavailable or ineffective.
The Clinton administration should seize the chance to create a strong and independent court. An effective court would make future killers think twice before embarking on a path of genocide if they faced a realistic prospect of apprehension, trial, and punishment. Equally important, the court would provide justice for the victims of war crimes and help advance the process of national reconciliation where such crimes have been committed.
Unfortunately, the US hasn't yet joined the growing coalition of countries - including Britain, Germany, Canada, and South Africa - that favors granting the court the powers to bring war criminals to justice. While endorsing the idea of a court, the US has joined China, Russia, and France in advocating a court with limited powers. The US favors giving the UN Security Council veto power over ICC investigations. Other states have gone even further and want to be able to consent to the court's jurisdiction and choose the crimes for which their nationals can be held liable. These proposals would not only politicize and cripple the ICC, they also go against US and international law, which recognizes universal jurisdiction over genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
The US points to the threat of an omnipotent prosecutor and unfriendly countries initiating frivolous cases. However, under the ICC's draft statute, it could only assume jurisdiction when national courts have not prosecuted a case effectively - unlikely for countries with highly effective judicial systems.
It's critical that the US not condition its support for the ICC on the acceptance of provisions which undermine the independence and effectiveness of the court. It's taken decades and millions of victims for the world to reach a point of near consensus on the court's creation. If shortsighted domestic politics prevail over long-term visions of a viable international institution to protect human rights, then the US can delay ratification as it did with the Genocide Convention and the Convention on Political and Civil Rights. But it should not deploy its international muscle to impede as strong a foundation as possible for this landmark institution.
Our generation and generations to come must live with the kind of international criminal court that is created today. We owe it to our children to protect their rights and help ensure that the next century doesn't surpass this one as the most violent in human history.
* Daniel Weiss, a lawyer with O'Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles, served as a fellow on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Emma Cherniavsky is a Los Angeles-based writer. Both are members of Young Advocates of Human Rights Watch-California.