US looks to evade the world criminal court

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edited May 2002 in General Discussion
US looks to evade the world criminal court
By Carola Hoyos
Published: May 29 2002 19:47 | Last Updated: May 29 2002 19:47

For European leaders and many in the human rights community, the establishment in July of a world court is the most important development in international law since the United Nations was created more than half a century ago.

But Washington sees it as an ominous threat to its sovereignty - and, in an attempt to evade its reach, could threaten to withdraw support for UN peacekeeping operations.

From July 1, prosecutors based in The Hague will be authorised through international law to try those believed to have committed crimes against humanity. But the US has begun to pursue creative ways to try to extract itself from their jurisdiction.

US lawmakers fear the International Criminal Court will be used to embark on politically motivated witch-hunts against US politicians and soldiers overseas.

Their long-standing and passionate opposition to the ICC has set Washington on a diplomatic collision course with the European Union, all of whose member-states have ratified the court and staunchly support it.

So far the White House's tactics have been less confrontational than expected, but with some of the most hawkish members of the State Department, the Pentagon and Congress calling the shots, European diplomats and the UN are bracing themselves for battle.

The US this month fired its opening salvo in the UN Security Council against the ICC by attempting to set a precedent to prevent UN personnel serving overseas being tried by the international court.

Behind closed doors, John Negroponte, US ambassador to the UN, warned other members of the Security Council that the US would pull its observers and police from the UN's peacekeeping operations in East Timor if the 15-member group did not amend a resolution to outlaw the international prosecution of UN personnel working in the newly established country, however unlikely the prospect.

The tactic failed when other members of the Security Council - especially France and the UK, which like the rest of the EU strongly support the court - refused to accept the US amendment and Washington dropped the clause.

"People think this was just a shot across the bow, and that they will come back with this again and again," said one UN official.

As the US offensive gets under way in the Security Council, mainly Republican senators, such as Jesse Helms from North Carolina, are on the warpath.

Legislation that would bar the US from co-operating with the ICC and possibly allow Washington to use force to extract any US citizen taken into custody of the court in The Hague, is in the final stage of its two-year journey through Congress.

The version of the anti-ICC bill being considered by a conference committee - so it can be reconciled and rubber-stamped by the House and Senate - gives President George W. Bush the leverage to waive the rules.

Nevertheless, Heather Hamilton, co-ordinator of the Washington Working Group on the ICC, says: "The legislation would make it much more difficult to co-operate with and be friendly with this court in the future, even if the administration were to observe the function of the court and become comfortable with its operation."

But even more dangerous, she says, is that Congress could use its substantial grip on the purse strings of UN peacekeeping operations to undermine the ICC.

Because Congress must approve US funding for all UN peacekeeping operations, US lawmakers could stymie missions by refusing to pay its share if the resolution establishing or extending the operation does not state that the ICC's jurisdiction does not extend to those serving on the teams.

The measure would almost certainly ground to a halt the UN's peacekeeping operations, of which the US pays more than one quarter of the costs.

Meanwhile, a US refusal to participate in missions could affect the more than 700 US personnel serving in blue-helmet missions and undermine international operations, especially in the Balkans, where US troops make up much of the international force.

But UN officials point out that the clause protecting personnel in the missions would be redundant. Host countries of UN-led, or UN-authorised, peacekeeping missions generally sign agreements with the UN or those who provide the troops and staff, that the international personnel would only be subject to the jurisdiction of courts in their home country.

However, such bilateral agreements do not represent a strong enough safeguard against the wrongful prosecution of US citizens in the eyes of many Washington sceptics and US ambassadors have been told to push their hosts to promise not to subject US nationals to the court.

Mr Helms, together with John Bolton, under secretary of state for arms control, and Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, have been three of the most outspoken critics of the world court.

Mr Bolton last month wrote to Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general, to officially inform the UN that the US no longer saw itself bound by its signature on the Rome treaty, which outlines the court.

The move prompted criticism from EU capitals where July 1 is viewed as marking an end to the impunity of war criminals - as passionately as the same date is viewed by many US officials as the beginning of a dangerous time for US personnel serving oversees.


"If cowardly and dishonorable men sometimes shoot unarmed men with army pistols or guns, the evil must be prevented by the penitentiary and gallows, and not by a general deprivation of a constitutional privilege." - Arkansas Supreme Court, 1878
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