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UN: U.S. Withdraws From Treaty On International Criminal Court

  • Andrew Tully

Today, international war crime suspects are tried in courts set up especially for cases they handle, as is the case of the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Now 60 nations have ratified a treaty that would create a permanent court to handle such cases. But the United States says it does not want to participate in the court, fearing frivolous and politically motivated prosecutions of its military and political officials. Our correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports from Washington.

Washington, 7 May 2002 (RFE/RL) - The U.S. government says its critics should not be surprised by Washington's formal withdrawal from the treaty that sets up the United Nations' International Criminal Court (ICC) and should not single out President George W. Bush for opposing it.

Many who support the ICC say that without U.S. participation, the court will never have the strength it needs to bring suspected war criminals to justice. Some had held out hope that Bush might eventually relent on his opposition.

But yesterday, Washington formally notified UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the United States is withdrawing from the Treaty of Rome, so named because that is where the ICC was negotiated four years ago.

Under the terms of the treaty, the court would come into being once 60 nations ratified it. That number was reached last month, and the tribunal will open on 1 July in The Hague -- without the endorsement of the United States.

Nations that have ratified the treaty include U.S. allies such as Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Russia has signed the treaty, but the Duma has not yet ratified it. Israel, which is seen as another likely target of prosecution, has not signed.

Bush's predecessor, President Bill Clinton, signed the treaty in 2000, less than a month before his term in office expired. However, he did not submit it to the Senate for ratification (as is required by the U.S. Constitution), and at the time he said he had no intention of doing so. When Bush became president in January 2001, he, too, made it clear that he would never submit the treaty to the Senate for ratification.

Bush and many other American political leaders oppose the idea of a permanent court. They say the U.S. is likely to be a constant target of opponents in unfriendly countries who could bring indictments against American troops or even government officials for political reasons alone.

Yesterday, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said observers should have expected Bush's decision to withdraw from the ICC. "Right from the start, when President Clinton made the statement on the signing of this International Criminal Court, he made quite clear from the start that he did not intend to send it to the Senate for ratification and therefore obligate the United States completely in that regard."

One prominent American opponent of the ICC is Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina), who until a year ago was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Helms, however, supports ad hoc tribunals, such as the ones trying war crimes cases related to the wars in the Balkans and in Rwanda. He argues that trials for war crimes and genocide are not conducted every day, and therefore the courts needed to hear such cases do not have to be established permanently. He also contends that ad hoc courts are better focused on the issues at hand, and that they usually have high standards for evidence.

On the other hand, Helms says, U.S. civilian and military officials could be disproportionately targeted for prosecution for no reason other than that America is a superpower.

Heather Hamilton is the director of programs for the World Federalist Association, a private, nonprofit advocacy group that has been trying to raise support in the U.S. for the ICC. She says the U.S. is sending the wrong message about the rule of law by withdrawing from the ICC. "While we claim to uphold the international rule of law, by rejecting an international institution that is intended to extend the rule of law -- for only the worst crimes and only in cases where states cannot [prosecute suspects] -- it undermines the U.S. leadership."

Some ICC supporters have warned that the court would be weaker if the U.S. does not join it. But Hamilton rejected that notion in an interview with RFE/RL. But she concedes that American participation would be preferable. "It has the support of the vast majority of the world's democracies. It is not going to be weak without the United States. It will not be as effective as it could otherwise be. It will not have the kind of resources that the U.S. can bring to it. But the bottom line is, this doesn't really affect the court. The court is going to come about without the United States."

Hamilton says there are safeguards built into the ICC to prevent it from permitting frivolous or politically motivated prosecutions. One such safeguard is making sure that the UN Security Council does not decide which potential cases the court would hear. The U.S. had wanted Security Council backing for prosecutions, but opponents argued successfully that its involvement would make the process more, rather than less, political.

According to Hamilton, the American people are only now beginning to emerge from a sense of political isolation from the rest of the world, and that eventually they will demand that their government join the ICC.

Celeste Wallander specializes in international relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent Washington policy institution. She says the level of politics in the court is what has driven the debate in the U.S. about the ICC. "The problem is that this court will be not just legal, it will also be political. It strikes me [that] the political nature of the court, [rather] than any actual concern about any legal jurisdiction -- that is the core of the problem."

According to Wallander, it is probably unrealistic to expect that a court involving so many countries could be entirely apolitical. Instead, she says the American people, and their government, evidently have decided that the political liabilities outweigh the court's potential benefits.

Wallander notes that political and military officials in Britain and France also could face politically motivated prosecutions. But she says these countries have chosen to support the ICC in spite of these risks. But for now, at least, she says the American public -- and their political leaders -- are not yet convinced of the benefits of the court.

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