President Barack Obama has made no secret of his love affair with international organizations and we-are-the-world handholding. Yet he has not been equally vocal in the defense of America - especially in instances when multinational bodies might transgress the nation’s sovereignty and work against our self-interest. These issues are now once again in the spotlight as the new administration provides a wholehearted endorsement of the world’s first permanent tribunal, the International Criminal Court in The Hague. While the court might be able to do much good in bringing to justice some of the world’s most notorious human-rights abusers, American support for the tribunal’s activities must be counterbalanced with a prudent regard for our unique needs as the world’s preeminent power and defender of orthodox western values. Some of the world’s most egregarious human-rights violaters have called for indictments against a U.S. president, military leaders, corporate executives, and others under outlandish interpretations of “law.”
Mr. Obama and his representatives have now gone further than any other previous administration in empowering the ICC. On Thursday, top Obama administration officials offered support for implementing the war crimes indictment issued in July against Sudanese President Omar Bashir for his role in the genocide and war crimes - crimes that have resulted in the deaths of over 300,000 people and the displacement of 2.5 million. A panel of judges is deliberating whether to issue Mr. Bashir’s arrest warrant.
In tandem, Ambassador Susan Rice’s first speech to the United Nations Security Council signaled that the new administration would throw its weight behind the ICC. The ICC “looks to become an important and credible instrument for trying to hold accountable the senior leadership responsible for atrocities committed in the Congo, Uganda and Darfur,” she said, winning accolades from other foreign envoys. U.S. support for the ICC comes as it began its first trial on Monday of former Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, accused of recruiting children in 2002 and 2003 to fight wars in eastern Congo. The court also has two other Congo militia leaders in its custody and has filed a host of war crimes charges against suspects in Sudan, Uganda and the Central African Republic.
Democratic and Republican leaders have differed on the value of the international tribunal. Bill Clinton initially signed the 1998 treaty that created the court. However, George W. Bush took a much harder line: In 2002, he revoked America’s signature and later, along with Ambassador John Bolton, was vociferous in keeping America out of the court’s reach. Currently, 108 nations have accepted the ICC - but not countries such as the U.S., Russia, China, Pakistan, India and Israel that fear (not without plausibility) that indictments might be politically motivated and used to violate their sovereignty.
Mr. Obama said he will fully consider, in consultation with American military leaders, how the court might be used by our enemies and rivals to reduce its military effectiveness with flimsy or malicious prosecutions. Yet we urge Mr. Obama to deliberate long and hard - for several more years, if necessary - before tying America into another international knot. The Bush administration wisely promoted bilateral immunity agreements (BIAs) with individual nations in order to protect U.S. soldiers from the ICC. Mr. Bush even withheld aid to nations that refused to sign such an immunity agreement. The former Republican president - less doe-eyed than Mr. Obama and more realistic about the potential for harm that international bodies can inflict - decided American tribunals are sufficient to ensure our wars are fought according to American laws and international conventions.
Mr. Obama wants to show the world that the United States is serious about protecting human rights. But our commander-in-chief must be even more zealous in showing Americans that he will first and foremost - and at all times - safeguard us from our rivals and opponents whose primary motives might very well be to hamstring and diminish our current global preeminence in making the world safer.