Contempt of Court

By Tepperman, Jonathan D. | The Washington Monthly, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Contempt of Court


Tepperman, Jonathan D., The Washington Monthly


How Jesse Helms and the State Department are helping future Milosevics escape justice

ON MAY 17, TROOPS LOYAL TO THE government of Sierra Leone finally captured rebel leader Foday Sankoh in the capital, Freetown. Sankoh, head of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), had led a brutal rebellion against the government and was infamous for tactics like press-ganging children into his militia and hacking off the hands of thousands of civilians.

After his arrest, the United States government was one of the first to call for an international tribunal to try Sankoh for war crimes. Since no such permanent court exists, however, an ad-hoc one would have to be created--a difficult, expensive, and time-intensive process.

Setting up such international courts has in fact proved so complicated in the past that in the summer of 1998, diplomats from around the world gathered in Rome for a historic event: the creation of a permanent, standing International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC was envisioned as a global judicial body capable of prosecuting the perpetrators of atrocities such as genocide in Rwanda or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, when nations are unable--or unwilling--to do so themselves.

Given its stand on Sierra Leone, one would expect the U.S. to be leading the charge to create the ICC. And indeed, the U.S. did back the international court--at first. But in 1998, something went very wrong at the Rome conference, and the U.S. ended up siding with a rogues' gallery of just six other nations, including human rights scofflaws such as Libya, Iraq, and China, in rejecting the ICC treaty. In ongoing negotiations since, the U.S. has by turns tried to weaken the court and strangle it in its crib.

Now the stage is set for a final showdown between America and the nascent court. On November 27, when diplomats next meet to hammer out the ICC's details and to finalize the relationship between the court and the United Nations, U.S. delegates will make a last push to amend the Court's founding treaty. Washington has one key demand: that all U.S. service members be excluded from the tribunal's jurisdiction.

American negotiators promise to cooperate with the court if they get their way, but warn they will abandon the ICC if they don't. The rest of the world, however, is outraged by the notion of American immunity from what was meant to be a universal tribunal. As a result, diplomats now predict that the U.S. measure will be soundly defeated. Along with it, Washington will lose the chance to participate in the greatest advance in international justice in the last 50 years, and the world's best shot at bringing criminals like Sankoh and Slobodan Milosevic to justice. And what should have been one of the last triumphs of this administration's foreign policy will have ended in a rout.

Diagram Of A Foreign Policy Disaster

Washington's current stance has undermined the country's public commitment to the international rule of law--something it regularly touts when urging other countries to step in line. This has sapped American credibility and damaged the country's reputation abroad. And the issue now threatens to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its closest allies. By most measures, then, the ICC negotiations have been a serious policy failure. This has left the ICC's supporters at home and abroad scratching their heads, wondering what exactly went wrong. And whose fault was all of this?

The answers to those questions lie in some obvious quarters: the Pentagon and the Capitol Hill office of Washington's most infamous foreign-policy spoiler, the fiercely isolationist Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC). But responsibility also rests with the White House, which not only dithered in the face of military opposition to the court, but also squandered its opportunity for diplomacy by leaving too many details--and the ICC's defense--to a mid-rank civil servant named David Scheffer. …

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