WASHINGTON – The United States said Monday it wants nothing to do with a treaty creating the first permanent international war crimes tribunal, a decision immediately criticized by human rights groups and some lawmakers. Others welcomed the move.
"We believe that states, not international institutions, are primarily responsible for ensuring justice in the international system," Marc Grossman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, said in announcing the Bush administration decision.
As constituted today, Grossman said, the international criminal court "claims the authority to detain and try American citizens, even though our democratically elected representatives have not agreed to be bound by the treaty."
That threatens U.S. sovereignty, he said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the tribunal's planned July 1 start-up "means that our men and women in uniform — as well as current and former U.S. officials — could be at risk of prosecution.
Particularly in the midst of the war against terrorism, Rumsfeld said, the flaws in the treaty are "particularly troubling."
Although nations have the authority to try non-citizens who commit crimes against their citizens or on their territory, "the United States has never recognized the right of an international organization to do so" without its consent or without a U.N. Security Council mandate, Grossman said.
The International Criminal Court gained the necessary international backing to come into being last month when 10 nations joined 56 others in ratifying the treaty, negotiated in Rome in 1998.
President Clinton signed the treaty, but never submitted it to the Senate for ratification. The Bush administration has made its opposition clear.
Pierre-Richard Prosper, the U.S. ambassador for war crimes issues, said the United States has no intention of ratifying the treaty and now considers itself "no longer bound in any way to its purpose and objective." The declaration was contained in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan delivered to U.N. headquarters in New York.
Grossman, in a speech Monday in Washington, said President Bush wanted to formally renounce the treaty to avoid creating expectations of U.S. involvement in the future.
Instead, the United States favors working with nongovernment organizations, private industry and universities and law schools to help individual countries set up tribunals when needed, officials said.
But Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was dismayed by the decision.
"Beyond the extremely problematic matter of casting doubt on the U.S. commitment to international justice and accountability," Feingold said, "these steps actually call into question our country's credibility in all multilateral endeavors."
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said Bush "sent a clear message we do not support this rogue court ... an institution of unchecked power that poses a real threat to our men and women fighting the war against terror.
Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said, "We simply cannot accept an international institution that claims jurisdiction over American citizens."
But Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, described the decision as an empty gesture that will further estrange Washington from its allies.
The Washington Working Group on the ICC, a coalition of organizations that support the tribunal, said the decision "signals to the world that America is turning its back on decades of U.S. leadership in prosecuting war criminals since the Nuremberg trials."
The coalition includes human rights organizations such as Amnesty International-USA and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The court, to be formed this summer, will fill a gap in the international justice system first recognized by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948 after the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials for World War II's German and Japanese war criminals.
Tribunals have been created for special situations — like the 1994 Rwanda genocide — but no mechanism existed to hold individuals criminally responsible for serious crimes such as genocide.