Bush to reject treaty signed by U.S.

Clinton administration backed plan for court to try war-crime suspects

May 05, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has decided to renounce formally any involvement in a treaty creating an international criminal court and is expected to declare that the signing of the document by the Clinton administration is no longer valid, government officials said yesterday.

The "unsigning" of the treaty, which is expected to be announced tomorrow, will be a decisive rejection by the Bush White House of the concept of a permanent tribunal designed to prosecute people in genocide, crimes against humanity and other war crimes.

The administration has long argued that the court has the potential to create havoc for the United States, exposing soldiers involved overseas and U.S. officials to capricious and mischievous prosecutions.

"We think it was a mistake to have signed it," an administration official said. "We have said we will not submit it to the Senate for ratification." The renunciation, officials said, further means that the United States will not recognize the court's jurisdiction and will not submit to any of its orders.

In addition, other officials said, the United States will assert that it will not be bound by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, a 1969 pact that outlines the obligations of nations to obey other international treaties.

Article 18 of the Vienna Convention requires signatory nations, such as the United States, to refrain from taking steps to undermine treaties they sign, even if they do not ratify them. As with the treaty for the International Criminal Court, the United States signed but did not ratify the Vienna agreement.

A government official said the administration planned to make its decision known tomorrow in a speech by Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman in Washington and in a briefing for foreign journalists by Pierre-Richard Prosper, the State Department's ambassador for war crimes issues.

Human rights groups said they expected the decision, which was reported by the Reuters news service on Friday, to be announced then.

New clash with Europe

The pointed repudiation of the International Criminal Court, while not unexpected, is certain to add to the friction between the United States and much of the world, notably Europe, where policy-makers have grumbled ever more loudly about the Bush administration's inclination to steer away from multinational obligations.

Despite the strong stance by the United States, the International Criminal Court will begin operations next year in The Hague, Netherlands. More than the required number of 60 nations had signed the treaty as of last month, and the court's jurisdiction will cover crimes committed after July 1 of this year.

It will become the first new international judicial body since the International Court of Justice, or World Court, was created in 1945 to adjudicate disputes between nations. Until now, individuals were tried in ad hoc or specially created tribunals for war crimes like those now in operation for offenses committed in Rwanda and the countries that formerly made up Yugoslavia, both modeled on the Nuremberg trials of Nazi officials after World War II.

Harold Hongju Koh, a Yale University law professor and a former assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, said the retraction of the signature on the treaty would be a profound error.

"The result is that the administration is losing a major opportunity to shape the court so it could be useful to the United States," Koh said. "Now that the court exists, it's important to deal with it. If the administration leaves it unmanaged, it may create difficulties for us and nations like Israel."

He described the opportunity as similar to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1803 Marbury vs. Madison decision that courts could subject the other branches of government to its jurisdiction, decisively defining its role in the new nation.

John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control, who has been a leading voice in opposing U.S. participation in the International Criminal Court, wrote extensively about the subject before he took office, calling it "a product of fuzzy-minded romanticism" and "not just naive, but dangerous."

Bolton wrote in The National Interest in 1999 that the court would force the United States to forfeit some of its sovereignty and concept of due process to a foreign and possibly unrestrained prosecutor.

He said that it was not only U.S. soldiers who would be in great jeopardy but also "the president, the cabinet officers who comprise the National Security Council, and other senior civilian and military leaders responsible for our defense and foreign policy."

Decisive action

Palitha Kohona, chief of the treaty section for the United Nations, said it was unheard of for a nation that signed a treaty to withdraw its signature.

David J. Scheffer, who was ambassador at large for war crimes and who signed the treaty for the Clinton administration, said the Bush administration's actions would undermine international justice and damage U.S. interests.

"The perception will be that the United States walked away from international justice and forfeited its leadership role," he said. "It will be a dramatic moment in international legal history."

Most democratic nations and all European Union countries have ratified the treaty - except Greece, which is in the process of doing so. So have Canada, New Zealand and a number of African, Eastern European and Central Asian countries. Israel has signed it but not ratified. Egypt, Iran and Syria have signed. India, Pakistan and China have neither signed nor ratified. Russia has signed but not ratified.

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