International Criminal Court (ICC)--the proposed forum for trying alleged perpetrators
of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity--moved a major step closer
to reality this week when the government of Estonia became the 50th country to
ratify the court's founding 1998 treaty.
Estonia's action means that only 10 more countries must ratify and deposit
their ratifications with the United Nations before the Rome Statute for the International
Criminal Court takes effect and the ICC comes into existence.
"This is quite a milestone," said Richard Dicker, who has been following progress
in establishing the ICC for New York-based Human
Rights Watch. "I think we'll have 60 before the end of June and possibly a
good deal sooner," he added.
Europe is so far the region with the largest number of countries that have
ratified the statute, including all but a small handful of members of the 15-nation
European Union. A substantial number of nations in West and Southern Africa, the
Pacific, Latin America, and the Caribbean have also deposited their ratifications.
The statute has been signed by 139 nations to date, and, in addition to the
50 who have ratified it, about two dozen more are in the process of gaining ratification
powers from their parliaments.
When the statute was first presented, only seven countries voted against it,
including China, Israel, Iraq, and the United States.
In his last days in office, however, former President Bill Clinton--who had
opposed it largely as a result of pressure from Republican lawmakers and the Pentagon--changed
his mind and signed it to "reaffirm our strong support for international accountability
and for bringing to justice perpetrators of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against
But Clinton did not submit it to the Senate for ratification, and his successor,
President George W. Bush, has indicated no interest in doing so.
Nonetheless, his administration has not actively lobbied other governments
against ratification, as many ICC advocates and human rights activists had feared.
Indeed, the administration last month helped persuade Republicans in Congress
to drop the so-called American Servicemembers Protection Act (ASPA) from the Defense
Appropriations bill that would have barred all cooperation by local, state, or
federal authorities with the ICC.
The ASPA also barred committing U.S. troops to peacekeeping missions unless
they were explicitly exempted from possible prosecution by the ICC in advance.
The act even authorized the president to use force in order to free U.S. and allied
officials or troops if they were detained by the ICC.
Congress, however, did pass other legislation, later signed into law by Bush,
that bans the use of government funds to cooperate with the ICC during the current
Republicans and some Democrats have opposed the ICC on the grounds that there
are not enough safeguards in the statute to protect U.S. soldiers and officials
from frivolous or politically-motivated prosecutions.
But advocates have argued that elaborate constraints on prosecuting powers
were included in the statute precisely to reassure Washington about those concerns.
Among other provisions, the ICC would only be able to take up a case after it
had concluded that the government involved was either unable or unwilling to investigate
or prosecute it on its own.
With the exception of Turkey, all of Washington's closest military allies
in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have signed the statute and either
ratified it or are actively pursuing ratification. After initially opposing it,
Israel has also signed the statute.
Still, several significant powers, especially in Asia, have declined even
to sign the statute. Besides China, they include Japan, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia.
ICC supporters are hoping that, as the goal of 60 ratifications gets closer,
many countries which have been hostile or on the fence, including even the U.S.,
will come around.
"If America wants to remain a leader in pursuing international justice for
the victims of genocide and other heinous crimes, the U.S. government must figure
out how to work with this court, not against it," said Heather Hamilton, program
director at the World Federalist Association, which chairs a coalition of groups
that favors U.S. ratification.
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