Even as the United States relies on a United Nations-sanctioned peacekeeping force to help ensure order for an incoming Washington-backed government in Afghanistan, U.S. lawmakers are poised this week to deliver a sharp blow to the United Nations and its plans to set up an international court to try war criminals.
Members of Congress are to consider a bill which, if signed into law, would unilaterally exempt U.S. armed forces from prosecution by a proposed International Criminal Court and ban military aid for developing countries that ratify its creation.
The American Servicemembers' Protection Act (Aspa) forbids any U.S. cooperation with the court, including the provision of intelligence information needed to prosecute war criminals. It also authorizes the use of military force to gain the release of any U.S. or allied personnel detained or imprisoned by the court, leading some of its critics to call it "The Hague Invasion Act," after the city where the court is to be based.
An initiative backed by a coalition of human rights groups, developing countries, and some of Washington's closest European allies, the court is likely to open for business next year, after 60 countries ratify an underlying treaty, the 1998 Rome Statute. Forty-seven countries, including most of the European Union, had already ratified it as of the end of last month.
Although Bill Clinton signed the treaty on his way out of presidential office a year ago, the administration of President George W. Bush has said it has no intention of submitting it to the Senate for ratification.
Some right-wing lawmakers believe the international court still poses a threat to U.S. sovereignty and the constitutional rights of any U.S. soldier who might come under its jurisdiction.
"[T]he International Criminal Court has the unbridled power to intimidate our military and other citizens with bogus, politicized prosecutions," warned Senator Jesse Helms, who successfully attached the Aspa to the Senate version of a defense bill last week.
Supporters of the court--including human rights, church and other groups--have argued that such fears are groundless given the procedural safeguards included in the treaty, as well as Washington's veto power in the UN Security Council, which would oversee the court's work.
In their view, the Aspa and opposition to the court are simply the latest manifestations--along with the rejection of a number of multilateral arms-control agreements and the Kyoto Protocol to fight global warming--of a fierce determination to put U.S interests before those of the international community.
The Bush administration, however, has not gone as far as some of his right-wing supporters would like. It agreed in late September to support the Aspa, but only if the law gave the president the authority to waive key provisions if he found that doing so would serve the national interest.
In the interests of getting some version of the Aspa passed this year, Helms and other Aspa supporters agreed to those conditions and incorporated them into an amendment passed by the Senate last week. It is that version of the Aspa which will be taken up by a joint Senate-House of Representatives conference committee this week.
Still, even this watered-down version threatens to add to tensions with Washington's European allies who have protested other actions by the administration thought to be unilateralist.
In a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell in October, German foreign minister Joschka Fischer asked the administration to reconsider its position.
"Adopting the ASPA would open a rift between the U.S. and the European Union on this important issue," he warned. "In view of the international effort against terrorism... it is particularly important for the United States and the European Union to act in accord in this field, too," he added.
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