- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

THE HAGUE | The Obama administration is likely to announce a change in policy toward the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the next few months, but it may be years before the United States joins an institution that the Bush administration at first disdained but later came to appreciate.

That change likely will be in the form of an affirmation of the U.S. signature, first offered by President Clinton in 2000, diplomats and experts say.

The signature was “withdrawn” by his successor, President George W. Bush, less than a year later because of concerns that U.S. soldiers and officials might be subject to ICC prosecution for political reasons.

“If they don’t announce a change of policy, there will be real questions about the administration’s support for the ICC” and its prosecution of war crimes in Sudan’s Darfur region and elsewhere, said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program.

The State Department has said that policy toward the court is, like many other issues, “under review.” When asked to elaborate, the department’s Office of the Legal Adviser, which is responsible for ICC-related matters, declined comment.

In private, officials say any announcement would only come after a serious consideration of the consequences of ICC membership.

“We want to be very careful and cautious and make sure that we’ve looked at all potential ways that joining the ICC could affect our troops around the world,” said a senior U.S. official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Even if Mr. Obama restores the U.S. signature, membership in the court has to be approved by Congress, which could take years. Mr. Dicker noted that it took the Senate four decades to ratify the U.N. Convention on Genocide.

Kim R. Holmes, vice president for foreign- and defense-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation - and assistant secretary of state for international-organization affairs during Mr. Bush’s first term - said that reaffirming the U.S. signature “would be a mere gesture.”

“Despite the Democratic majority in the Senate, it would still not get two-thirds for ratification if submitted for advice and consent,” he said. “The Obama administration knows this. Reaffirming would be a typical half-step gesture to mollify his base without actually having to follow through with the full measure.”

Mr. Holmes said the American Service-Members’ Protection Act “prevents direct cooperation with the ICC,” and if reaffirming the signature “implied some more direct cooperation with the court, then this could be a problem with Republicans in Congress.”

Human Rights Watch’s Mr. Dicker said: “It’s important for the president to talk about ratification as a goal. One would expect that, before year’s end, the administration would have completed its review and articulated much closer cooperation with the ICC.”

Washington “needs to join this court” because “accountability for serious crimes, coupled with a fair trial, are values that have deep resonance” in the U.S., he said.

Although many human rights and international justice experts say the ICC can only benefit from U.S. membership, court officials are careful not to comment on any particular country joining or staying away.

“It’s not our job” to recruit new members, said Sonia Robla, head of the ICC’s public information and documentation section. “Of course, we would like to be a universal court. We hope that by doing our work well, by conducting fair trials, we’ll get the support of more and more countries.”

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