U.S. Relations With Tribunal May Be Warming

For five years, the International Criminal Court has tried to prosecute the world's war criminals — despite consistent opposition from the Bush administration. But there are signs that America's relationship with the court is warming.

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The prosecutor at the International Criminal Court is expected to call for the arrest of Sudan's president tomorrow. He and other Sudanese officials will be accused of crimes against humanity in Darfur. It would be a big step for the court, a five-year-old war-crimes tribunal that the U.S. has not supported.

But that could be changing as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch recently issued a lengthy report about the successes and missteps of the world's first-standing war-crimes tribunal, and he says there's a message for the U.S.

Mr. RICHARD DICKER (Director, Human Rights Watch): This court ain't perfect, not by a long shot, but it is trying to bring justice to victims in northern Uganda and eastern Congo and in Darfur, etcetera, and it's not the bogeyman some in government, for ideological reasons, tried to make it out to be.

KELEMEN: The ICC's prosecutor has faced some procedural issues in his first case, against Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, a case meant to shine the spotlight on the use of child soldiers, but that pales in comparison to his troubles on Darfur, a case that has highlighted what Richard Dicker calls the Achilles' heel of the court.

Mr. DICKER: This court has no police force to carry out its arrest warrants. It is totally dependent on governments, and in a situation as in Sudan, where the government is deeply associated and implicated in the alleged crimes at issue, the government isn't about to arrest the charged individuals and turn them over for trial at the ICC.

KELEMEN: The ICC's prosecutor already brought charges against two people in Sudan, one of whom is a government official in charge of humanitarian affairs. Sudan has refused to hand them over. Juan Mendez, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, says the U.N. Security Council needs to press Khartoum harder on this.

Mr. JUAN MENDEZ (President, International Center for Transitional Justice): It doesn't make any sense for the security council to refer a case to the ICC and then leave the ICC to its own devices. At some point, the bluff is called, like it has been by Khartoum.

KELEMEN: The case of Darfur is an interesting one for the Bush administration. It called Darfur a genocide, but it's not a supporter of the court or the Rome statute that set it up. Still, Washington did allow the U.N. Security Council to refer Darfur to the ICC. Many saw that as indicating a changed U.S. attitude. Another sign was this speech in April by the State Department's legal advisor, John Bellinger.

Mr. JOHN BELLINGER (Legal Advisor, United States Department of State): Even if we disagree over the means chosen by the Rome statute, and I believe that this is a disagreement that is likely to continue under future administrations, unless U.S. concerns are addressed, that nevertheless we do not disagree over the statute's end goals, and we are prepared to work with those who support the court in appropriate circumstances.

KELEMEN: Bellinger told his audience at DePaul University College of Law that he wouldn't describe this as a warming of U.S. relations with the International Criminal Court, but it was a far cry from the early days of the Bush administration, when the U.S. sent diplomats around the world to pressure countries to give Americans immunity from the court or lose valuable U.S. military aid. Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch has some choice words for those years.

Mr. DICKER: It was a dark and shameful moment of diplomatic history.

KELEMEN: There is still legislation on the books that limits the U.S. ability to spend money to help the court, much to the dismay of supporters like Juan Mendez.

Mr. MENDEZ: The statute is still in the books, and it's still difficult for American officials to even talk to the ICC. So that's an anachronism that has to be taken off.

KELEMEN: The next U.S. administration and Congress can expect some pressure on this point from international justice groups like his.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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