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International court deserves our support

Does the United States have a double standard in international relations? It supports bringing President Slobodan Milosevic to trial as a war criminal. It apparently is reluctant to have its soldiers or officials tried by a similar court on charges of war crimes.

Historically, the United States has promoted the concept of a rule of law that would be valid everywhere and in all circumstances. We supported the establishment of the United Nations. We exercised leadership in the creation of the Nuremburg Tribunal and the International Military Tribunal of the Far East, which established the machinery to bring to justice those guilty of crimes against humanity during World War II.

With today’s globalized market, of which the United States is a major proponent, it would seem logical to encourage every initiative that would ensure the worldwide rule of law. Unfortunately this is not happening. We are now resisting the creation of an International Criminal Court that would simply institutionalize the ad hoc tribunals we sponsored in the 1940s to deal with crimes against humanity and the laws of war. Last year 83 countries signed a treaty in Rome creating this tribunal. Only seven voted against the court: China, Iraq, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Israel and the United States. Signatories included all our European allies in NATO.

The court’s role will be to try individuals accused of politically inspired crimes under a mandate that covers crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide and aggression. Given the leading role of the United States in the recent conflict in Serbia, it would seem logical for us to support a project that would punish those we have denounced as war criminals. Instead we voted against it, and now we are lobbying against it at a follow-up conference being held at U.N. headquarters in New York.

The United States is proposing changes that would make the tribunal meaningless -- specifically, that citizens of a country that rejects the court’s jurisdiction could only be prosecuted with the consent of their own government or that the Security Council would have to approve each prosecution. The former limitation would mean that rogue states could always protect their citizens. The latter would mean that each of the five states with veto power on the Security Council could protect its own citizens or those of its friends.

Actually the treaty as it now exists would seem to provide adequate protection against the risk of politically motivated charges against U.S. soldiers and officials involved in peacekeeping or enforcement operations such as the recent bombing campaign in Serbia. It places the primary responsibility for judging war crimes on the national courts of the accused individual. We already have a classic example of the readiness of our own courts to deal with such a situation in the case of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War.

No doubt there are some U.S. policymakers who fear that opening up our official actions around the world to international examination might prove embarrassing. A Congressional investigation, for example, has established that the U.S. government made several attempts to assassinate the head of a state with which we were not at war, Fidel Castro.

There may be yet another motive behind the administration’s campaign against the International Criminal Court. All treaties must be ratified by the Senate. For reasons not easily fathomable, powerful senators have long engaged in an irrational vendetta against the United Nations, even to the level of making us an international laughingstock for our refusal to pay our dues to that body. Is the administration afraid to challenge these few individuals who have long made a parody of democratic institutions?

Surely the rule of law deserves better.

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 1999