The Human Rights Blame Game

Article excerpt

Half a century after the notion was first proposed, the International Criminal Court last week became a reality. It is the first permanent tribunal empowered to try individuals responsible for the most heinous crimes a state can commit: genocide, war crimes, torture, mass murder and rape. It evolved from Nuremberg and continued with the ad hoc tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia--before which Slobodan Milosevic now finds himself a defendant.

Among the last of the 60 required ratifications were, symbolically, those of Bosnia and Cambodia. Yet one nation was conspicuously absent: the United States. Not only has America refused to ratify the treaty establishing the court; it has gone into virulent opposition. Congress has denied funding for any cooperation with the ICC. Last year 78 senators voted to permit the use of "any and all means"--including force--to free U.S. personnel brought before it. (International NGOs immediately dubbed it the "Hague Invasion Act.") This despite protections the United States had written into the treaty that virtually guarantee that no American soldier will ever be called before the court. Now it appears that the Bush administration will "withdraw" the signature President Clinton affixed to the treaty in the waning hours of his administration--an unprecedented step that David Sheffer, the former chief U.S. negotiator, calls "bizarre and dangerous."

Now begins the finger-pointing. Angry Europeans, in particular, view America's opposition to the ICC as only the latest instance of flagrant unilateralism. The United States and Somalia are the only U.N. members not to sign the convention protecting children's rights. The U.S. death penalty offends most educated Europeans. Its ambivalence about applying the Geneva Conventions to Guantanamo has deepened Europe's reservations about the U.S. war on terrorism. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently warned Colin Powell that attacking the ICC would provoke a "head-on clash." Barring an American invasion of Iraq, human rights has emerged as the single most severe irritant in U.S.-European relations.

It is a curious discord. For when it comes to human rights, few real differences divide the United States and Europe. America's support for global human rights is every bit as vigorous as Europe's. It just takes a different form. Since 1985 the United States has used trade sanctions to promote human rights twice as often as EU governments. It has led military interventions, most recently in Kosovo. Pierre-Richard Prosper, the Bush administration's war-crimes envoy, boasts of a room in the State Department devoted to collecting evidence for a future trial of Saddam Hussein. The United States played a constructive role in creating not just the ICC itself but numerous other ad hoc tribunals--though the Bush administration is now reversing policy. …