NEW YORK - In what human rights advocates hailed as a ''historic step forward for global justice,'' President Clinton yesterday authorized the United States to sign a treaty creating the first permanent international criminal court to hold the world's tyrants accountable for genocide and other heinous war crimes.
The president, whose unexpected action came just hours before the Dec. 31 deadline for signing the treaty expired, said his decision reflected the nation's historical commitment to international justice, one held since the 1945 Nuremberg military tribunal.
''We ... reaffirm our strong support for international accountability and for bringing to justice perpetrators of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity,'' Clinton said in a statement yesterday. The United States joins more than 130 countries in signing the treaty.
Clinton's announcement - which reversed the opposition his administration has had to signing the treaty since the 1998 vote establishing the court - was nonetheless taken with several reservations. Noting that the administration was not ''abandoning our concerns'' about the court, Clinton urged that the treaty not be submitted to the US Senate for ratification until ''significant flaws'' are addressed.
Ratification is needed for US participation to become final. Critics of the treaty include Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, who has vowed a Senate battle and is pushing a bill that would limit US cooperation with the court.
The Pentagon also has strongly opposed the permanent international criminal court, fearful that there are inadequate protections against the prosecution of US soldiers serving overseas.
The Clinton administration has been campaigning, without success, to exempt US soldiers and governmental officials from prosecution by the international criminal court.
Advocates remain uncertain about President-elect George W. Bush's position on the permanent tribunal. ''The question is whether the Bush administration assumes an attitude of benign neglect, or whether it will be engaged in it, or oppose it,'' said Bill Pace, convenor of the Coalition for an International Criminal Court.
Clinton's announcement nonetheless gives a powerful boost to the court and brings nearer to reality the dreams of human rights advocates who have pushed for a permanent war crimes tribunal for nearly half a century.
''Clinton has made history,'' said Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch, which has lobbied for the court. ''This signals US support for the most important court since Nuremberg. It is a real step forward for global justice.''
In another positive sign for the future of the court, Israel indicated yesterday that it would sign the treaty. The decision, taken after consulting US officials, reversed a Cabinet decision taken earlier in the day. Israel and the United States were among the few countries that had not signed the 1998 treaty creating the permanent court.
The court will come into being when 60 countries have ratified the treaty. So far, 27 countries have done so, including Germany, Spain, and South Africa. With ratification by dozens more slated for next year, advocates predict that the court will begin its work in the summer of 2002.
It would be the first permanent court to try those accused of the world's most heinous crimes. The two current war crimes courts, one for the former Yugoslavia and the other for Rwanda, are temporary courts, expected to finish work within the decade.
The international criminal court would intervene only when a nation itself fails to prosecute war crimes by its citizens. Its jurisdiction includes ongoing or future war crimes, rather than those in the past.
Even if it is largely symbolic, last-minute US approval comes at a crucial time, with the arrival of the Bush administration. While the Clinton administration had been opposed to certain elements of the permanent criminal court, it has taken an active role in shaping the court's development.
Clinton's approval to some degree obligates the Bush administration to continue to participate and work to address key concerns. ''With signature, we will be in a position to influence the evolution of the court,'' the president said in his statement, issued from Camp David in Maryland. ''Without signature, we will not.''
If anything, Clinton's approval will help the Bush administration in negotiations over the court's future.
''The signature puts the incoming administration in a better position vis-a-vis the court and the ongoing negotiations,'' said Dicker of Human Rights Watch. ''The US is now a player in good standing.''
This week, dozens of countries raced to sign the treaty and transmit it to the United Nations, which will oversee the court. After yesterday, the only way a country could show support for the treaty would be to go through the more complicated ratification process.
Those signing will now undoubtedly weigh in for the next planning session for the court, slated for February.
So far, international committees have hammered out many decisions on how the court will look, including adopting rules of procedure and evidence. Significantly, they also adopted the first-ever definition of war crimes, which will help determine more precisely what constitutes genocide.
Still ahead are tricky questions of the court's financing and other administrative issues.
As human rights advocates celebrated Clinton's decision yesterday, they predicted that clear American support for the permanent court will push the court along more speedily toward completion.
Even if the treaty never comes before the US Senate for ratification - and many expect that not to happen for many years - they see the administration's announcement as a victory.
''This is cause for hope and encouragement,'' said Dicker. ''There are no losers today.''
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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