Global Policy Forum

US Resurfaces Opposition to International Court


By Haider Rizvi

One World
December 22, 2005

While senior United Nations officials and diplomats from other countries would like to see the International Criminal Court (ICC) playing an important role in the world community's efforts to deter attacks against innocent civilians during armed conflicts, the United States says no way.

The U.S. renewed its opposition to the world court last week as the 15-member Security Council started negotiating the draft text of a new resolution that seeks further protections for civilians caught up in bloody conflicts. The United States is trying hard to get the ICC out of the resolution, even though a vast majority of the Council members, including those who have not signed or ratified the ICC treaty, remain unopposed to references to the world court, observers say. The new resolution aims to address key developments that have taken place since April 2000 when the Council adopted its first resolution on the protection of civilians in armed conflicts.

Though the ICC is not part of the U.N. system, many believe that it has become increasingly relevant to the world community's efforts to save civilians from murder, rape, and other heinous crimes at the hands of war criminals. "After five years of recommendations, it's time to take stock of lessons learned and what gaps needed to be filled," British diplomat Adam Thompson told the Security Council recently. Speaking on behalf of the European Union, Thompson said victims' participation in judicial proceedings through the ICC is "an integral part of the healing process," adding that if states fail to try those who commit genocide and other serious war crimes, the international community must act.

Top U.N. officials responsible for the organization's worldwide efforts to provide humanitarian aid to civilians stuck in war zones and refugee camps agree. "Efforts to deter war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide and to break the prevailing culture of impunity in situations of armed conflicts (have) been boosted by the establishment of the ICC," Jan Egeland, the U.N. chief of humanitarian affairs, told the Council.

The ICC has jurisdiction over cases of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity when national judicial systems are unwilling or unable to handle them. So far, the treaty that established the court in 1998 has been signed by 139 nations and ratified by 100. Though with reservations, the U.S. signed the treaty during the last days of Bill Clinton's presidency. But that position was reversed soon after George W. Bush entered the White House. The U.S. does not recognize the court's authority anymore.

However, during the recent international efforts to resolve the Darfur crisis in Sudan, the U.S. did show some signs of flexibility. In March, the U.S. delegation not only abstained from the vote on the Security Council resolution referring the Darfur situation to the ICC, but also indicated its willingness to assist the court, a move many perceived as a welcome change in the U.S.'s diplomatic behavior. "The United States stands ready for any assistance," Jedayi Frazer, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told an International Relations Committee hearing last month, regarding the Security Council's Darfur referral to the ICC.

But that was last month. The latest about-face of the U.S. position has caught some observers by surprise, particularly those who saw Washington's response to the Darfur resolution as a positive sign in favor of multilateral diplomacy. "I think it's ambassador (John) Bolton who is responsible," William Pace, convener of the U.S.-based Coalition for the International Criminal Court (ICC), told OneWorld. "He's personally opposed to the ICC." Pace, who has been closely watching Security Council deliberations and decisions on the ICC for years, sees the shift in U.S. view regarding the role of the ICC in armed conflicts as "inconsistent" with that of the State Department.

"It's true that Condoleezza Rice (the U.S. Secretary of State) and others do criticize the Court, but somehow they have adopted a conciliatory tone," he said. Ambassador Bolton has consistently opposed the world court and its jurisdiction, arguing that it would undermine U.S. sovereignty and that any future trial of U.S. soldiers could be politically motivated. But independent legal experts, such as Pace and others, who have spent years studying various aspects of the international laws governing the world court on war crimes, consider such fears misleading and baseless.

"Hypocrisy towards impunity devalues the United States' leadership," said Pace, "and is inappropriate for the government that claims to be the leading permanent member of the Security Council."

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the International Criminal Court in the Security Council
More Information on US Opposition to the International Criminal Court
More Information on International Criminal Court Investigations


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