A Superpower's Loneliness

The International Criminal Court, which began work on July 1 in prosecuting major human rights violators, is being treated as an outlaw by the US.

Bush administration officials see the ICC as a distant but possible threat to the US role as the main peacemaker in the world – a role that relies on the high-tech capability of the US military to project power into danger spots as no other nation can.

The US fears it lacks enough control over the court to prevent the possibility of the ICC someday being dominated by anti-US prosecutors or judges who may put US soldiers in jail on dubious charges.

Such a possibility, while unlikely in the foreseeable future, could have the effect of hindering US military actions against future war criminals that the ICC is designed to deter.

The Bush administration also worries that those nations which have joined the ICC treaty – 76 in all – could someday detain Americans on order of an errant ICC, leaving nations like the US, which are not party to the treaty, unable to defend their own citizens in those countries.

Many US concerns were already accommodated by West European nations in their drive to create the ICC. To be sure, the US wants war criminals put on trial, but only in special courts set up for particular situations and – here's the key point – set up by the UN Security Council.

Since Sept. 11, the US has launched a war against terrorism that makes its concerns about the ICC even more real. It now threatens to use its veto in the Security Council to block the renewal of UN peacekeeping missions around the world, starting with UN police work in Bosnia, unless it gets its way on the ICC.

The US position reflects the reasoning behind the creation of the UN itself: that the world's most powerful nations need to be given veto power over concerns such as security. That was the sad lesson learned from the failure of the League of Nations after World War I.

Still, the US has a strong interest in preventing war crimes, and can hardly go it alone in doing so. And by trying to exempt itself from the ICC it may encourage nations with bad human rights records to seek exemptions from international rules.

This debate will likely come to a head by July 15, when the US and Europe hope to reach a compromise. At stake is the larger issue of defining a world which has only one superpower – in military, economic, and cultural terms – but a world that is moving toward tighter international law.

Surely Europe and the US can find a balance between the moral power of the ICC and the need for the military power of the US to maintain that moral order.

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