THE HAGUE - U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues Stephen Rapp made a debut appearance for the United States at the world's war crimes court Thursday and said the U.S. remained wary of politically driven prosecutions.
The United States is not a signatory to the 2002 Rome treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, and Rapp's attendance at meetings this week and next is the clearest sign yet of Washington engaging with the court.
"Our view has been and remains that should the Rome Statute be amended to include a defined crime of aggression, jurisdiction should follow a Security Council determination that aggression has occurred," he said.
Rapp said however that the United States was keen on "gaining a better understanding of the issues being considered and the workings of the court."
"The court itself has an interest in not being drawn into a political thicket that could threaten its perceived impartiality," he said.
Rapp's attendance comes after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in August it was a "great regret" the United States was not a full ICC signatory.
But Rapp, the former chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, said the United States remained concerned about the issue of the crime of aggression since U.S. officials or servicemen and women could risk ICC investigation for their roles in wars due to politically inspired prosecutions.
That was one factor behind Washington's decision not to ratify the Rome Statute.
The issue of crimes of aggression is to be addressed next May in Uganda at a review of the Rome Statute.
William Pace, one of the conveners of a coalition of groups supporting the ICC, said although the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama was not calling Rapp's attendance at the ICC meeting a policy change, he welcomed what was "essentially a constructive speech of re-engagement."
"We are not surprised that every permanent member of the United Nations Security Council wants to keep as much control over the power to determine whether an act of aggression has occurred as they interpret the U.N. charter to give them," he said.
But Pace said most other countries do not believe the Security Council's permanent members should have sole control over determining whether an act of aggression has occurred.
Rapp is leading the U.S. delegation attending the Assembly of States Parties (ASP), which is made up of 110 countries that have ratified the court's founding treaty. The ASP oversees the ICC's activities.
The United States, along with Russia, China and Israel, has not yet ratified the treaty.
Elizabeth Evenson, counsel at the international justice program at Human Rights Watch, dismissed the United States' concerns, stressing the independence of the prosecution and ICC judges.
"We are hoping the U.S. will see that there is nothing in the experience of the ICC that would give them the hesitation to think that this is a politically motivated court," she said.
(Editing by Louise Ireland)