U.S. Takes Stock Of War Crimes Court

The U.S. is not a part of the International Criminal Court and unlikely to sign up anytime soon, but the Obama administration is making an effort to cooperate more with it. Top State Department lawyers are taking part in a review conference meant to take stock of the court's proceedings so far. The court needs countries to help get some of the indicted war criminals to face trial. Another issue to be discussed is how the court defines "aggression." U.S. officials are worried that the U.S. could be exposed to prosecutions if the crime of aggression is too broadly defined.

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Legal experts from around the world have gathered in Kampala, Uganda this week to talk about one thing: The International Criminal Court. The U.S. is not a part of the court is unlikely to sign up any time soon. But the Obama administration did send a high-level team as observers to help with plans to bring the world's war criminals to justice.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: For people who have made a career out of trying to bring war criminals to justice, the conference in Kampala is a key milestone. David Tolbert, who is a prosecution in the international tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, says it's hard to believe that the International Criminal Court has been working for seven years now with 111 member states.

Mr. DAVID TOLBERT (President, International for Transitional Justice): When I started in this business in the mid-'90s, I think it was in our wildest imagination that we'd have an International Criminal Court that is actually functioning and covered this many countries.

KELEMEN: It may seem early to take stock of the court, no trials have been completed and there are plenty of outstanding arrest warrants, including one for Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, and for Ugandan guerilla leader Joseph Koney - the head of the Lord's Resistance Army. Tolbert, who now runs the International Center for Transitional Justice, says it will take time and more cooperation by member countries to get such high-profile figures to court.

Thats one of the many topics being discussed in Kampala. Another is how to define acts of aggression and what it would take for the ICC to prosecute that type of crime. The U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Stephen Rapp says he's worried that the ICC could be drawn into political battles or border disputes, rather than staying focused on the tough job it has already to prosecute crimes that shock the world's conscience.

Mr. STEPHEN RAPP (Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes): This court has not yet scratched the surface of doing that effectively. And to now cross into this other area, I think runs the risk of it becoming less effective.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has other reasons to worry if the ICC starts prosecuting acts of aggression. U.S. personnel involved in military operations could theoretically be exposed. Rapp told the American Society of International Law this is another reason why the U.S. wanted to attend the conference in Uganda, to be there when they talk about this issue of aggression.

Mr. RAPP: We've seen how important it is to be present at the table. And some of whats happened on the crime of aggression and some of the ways things have been defined we think probably wouldnt have happened had it been possible for us to be more engaged before 2009.

KELEMEN: The Bush administration shunned the court, though toward the end it did allow the U.N. Security Council to refer crimes in Darfur, Sudan to the ICC.

Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch has high expectation of the Obama administration, though not to actually join the court.

Mr. RICHARD DICKER (Director, Human Rights Watch): If it's going to be serious in its commitment to mark a change from the previous administration, it needs to ramp up its support and its involvement. We haven't seen that to the extent that we would like, quite frankly, and Sudan is a case in point.

KELLY: Reached by phone in Kampala, he complained that the administration has sent mixed signals about the ICC arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

Mr. DICKER: That's unacceptable.

KELEMEN: Just last week, a U.S. consular official attended Bashir's inauguration, though a State Department spokesman insisted that the young official's presence there should not take away from the U.S. calls for accountability for crimes in Sudan.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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