Trial by Fire: The International Criminal Court Pushes Ahead. (Global Notebook)

By Arnold, Anthony | Harvard International Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview
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Trial by Fire: The International Criminal Court Pushes Ahead. (Global Notebook)


Arnold, Anthony, Harvard International Review


On September 3, 2002, the Assembly of States Parties, the governing body of the International Criminal Court (ICC), convened its inaugural meeting.

Although the ICC will not be completely operational until the second quarter of 2003, this initial gathering marked an achievement in the pursuit of international justice all the more remarkable in light of the harsh and unremitting opposition the Court has faced from the United States.

In May 2002, the Bush administration unceremoniously announced that the United States had withdrawn its signature from the treaty that would create the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal. Since that time, Washington has embarked on a campaign to undermine the Court's jurisdiction and frustrate its backers. The United States has raised several objections: that the Court would have the power to violate the sovereignty of countries that had not ratified the treaty; that its lack of accountability could result in politically motivated prosecutions of US officials; and that the Court could disregard or even undermine the power of the UN Security Council. These misgivings have been voiced repeatedly by an increasingly influential faction in the Bush administration that includes US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Conservatives in Washington have used the attacks of September II and the war on terrorism to underscore US exceptionalism and to justify unilateralist policies.

Underlying this viewpoint is the fear that US military action and participation in peacekeeping efforts would be severely limited if it were bound by any standard of international law. This fear is hardly justified, considering that countries with high rates of participation in UN peacekeeping missions, such as the Scandanavian states and Bangladesh, are largely supportive of the ICC. Nevertheless, this remains the primary reason for the US rejection of the Court. US officials argue that any US citizen, even a civilian leader, operating in a country subject to the Court would be vulnerable to allegations of criminal acts and could be unduly prosecuted. The Bush administration says that this would make the United States reluctant to put its citizens in situations where they could be at risk. As a result, the US diplomatic corps has fought vigorously to exempt US citizens from the Court's jurisdiction.

In July 2002, after threatening to reject all peacekeeping operations by using its veto power in the UN Security Council, the United States secured a one-year grace period in which none of its citizens can be investigated or prosecuted by the Court.

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