World court proposal is deeply flawed War crimes: U.N. parlay proposes free-standing court with broad mandate but few controls.

July 22, 1998

HOW SENSIBLE it would be not to wait until after a crime has been committed to set up a court to prosecute perpetrators. Yet that's how nations of the world have pursued criminals linked to the Holocaust, the Rwanda genocide and Bosnia's ethnic cleansing.

Globalization is here; institutions must catch up.

A United Nations conference in Rome last week adopted a treaty creating an International Criminal Court. The United States, a prime mover in the three ad hoc international war-crimes courts, was among seven nations opposing the new court.

Washington is right this time. The treaty is deeply flawed. Countries voting for it will not necessarily sign and ratify. The court will not be created until 60 countries have ratified, which fortunately requires years of scrutiny and reflection.

The court is to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and aggression, when that has been defined. The prosecutor would have autonomy in determining what to prosecute.

Washington wanted prosecution to be subject to approval by the U.N. Security Council, on which the United States wields a veto. Senate isolationists and the Clinton administration share a fear of frivolous and politically manipulated prosecutions of peacekeepers and U.S. troops abroad.

The conference proved Washington's doubts right when it adopted a proposal to define Israel's settlements in the West Bank as a war crime. It is one thing to oppose Israel's policy as unwise or unhelpful to the peace process, but a cruel abomination to equate it with the worst crimes against humanity.

Acknowledging that the world needs such a court is not the same as being ready to conduct it. The politicization and trivialization are proof that progress is needed first. A prerequisite should be greater success in prosecuting war criminals of Bosnia and Rwanda.

When a standing court is created, it should begin with a short leash, as the U.S. proposes. Meanwhile, the best course is for the nations supporting the new court -- including Britain and Canada -- to amend its flaws.

Better a limited court that the world's most powerful nation supports than a phony utopianism capable of great harm.

Pub Date: 7/22/98

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