- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

The International Criminal Court, a permanent judicial body to prosecute war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, will come into being today despite U.S. objections.

The United Nations plans a ceremony today to inaugurate the court, an event made possible by 10 nations that have agreed to join more than 50 others in ratifying a treaty to set it up.

"Our closest and most powerful allies have ratified. Every NATO country except the United States and Turkey are participating," said Michael Scharf, who worked on the issue at the State Department during the Clinton and first Bush administrations.

The United States opposes the court, fearing it will become a vehicle for politically motivated charges against U.S. soldiers and civilians.

Canada, Australia, most European nations and Latin American democracies, however, back the court.

Today, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ireland, Jordan, Mongolia, Niger, Romania and Slovakia are expected to ratify the document. The court would begin its work July 1.

"Nuremburg was a baby step. This is a major evolution," said Michael Posner, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "It is a global court. It has all the world's great legal traditions. It is permanent. It will change the way the world deals with human rights violators," he said yesterday.

President Clinton, who described the court as "flawed," nevertheless directed an envoy to sign the treaty, provoking outrage on Capitol Hill, where senators have vowed that the document would never be ratified.

Since that time, there has been a raging debate in the Bush administration over whether to formally withdraw the U.S. signature.

"We have made the decision that we will not be a part of this process. This day will come and go," said a State Department official on the condition of anonymity. "What is clear is that we are prepared to take steps to protect our interests."

The State Department official said that the option to "unsign" was still on the table, and that it was a matter for President Bush to decide.

"It is a real loss, very sad that the United States is not part of this initial group," Mr. Posner said. "We have such a strong history and tradition going back to the Nuremburg tribunal after World War II, as an international leader for justice."

He said the tribunal would open July 1 but not really be up and running until mid-2003. He tried to assure critics that the court would be going after only truly heinous human rights violators, on the scale of Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot.

And he expressed hope that the United States would eventually take part.

Critics said they would work to make sure that never happened.

"I think that signing a treaty that could turn around and bite you in the rear end is wrong," said Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican, who has lobbied the State Department and Mr. Bush to "unsign" the treaty.

Opponents of the treaty fear an independent tribunal, accountable to no one, could become an international "Star Chamber" prosecuting U.S. servicemen and civilians for involvement in U.S. policy abroad.

For example, the war on terrorism and ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan, in which innocent civilians were killed, might be construed as a war crime in some anti-American circles.

The American Servicemembers' Protection Act, sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, mandates the use of force to rescue Americans brought before the court. Differing versions of the bill have been approved by the House and Senate.

Supporters claim that there are built-in regulations to protect Americans from politically motivated prosecution and that unsigning the treaty would set a terrible precedent.

"According to our research, it has never been done before, not once in 200 years," said Mr. Posner. "It would open the door to other countries to unsign treaties that we have an interest in."

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