The utter subservience of international institutions to the United States was confirmed on July 12, when the UN Security Council accepted American terms for its recognition of the newly-established International Criminal Court (ICC). In a resolution passed after days of intense negotiations, the Security Council voted to exempt US troops from the ICC’s jurisdiction for one year, with an unofficial guarantee that the exemption would be renewed annually. The time-limit is a flimsy attempt to disguise the reality that the US had achieved exactly what it wanted. Immediately after the vote the US lifted its veto on the extension of the UN mission in Bosnia, whose mandate was renewed. The US had blackmailed the UN by threatening to veto all UN peacekeeping operations if its terms were not met.
The compromise resolution allows for a one-year exemption from investigation or prosecution for peacekeepers from countries, such as the US, that do not support the ICC. The US had initially demanded that the exemption be permanent, and then that it be renewed automatically every year. These demands the UN resisted, and the US — faced with massive negative publicity because of its stance, and criticism even from western allies — agreed to the one-year exemption. However, the US ambassador to the UN warned of “serious consequences” if the ICC ever took action against any American.
The anger at the US’s stance of its own Western allies was expressed by Canadian ambassador to the UN, Paul Beinbecker, who said that the UN had exceeded its powers by interfering with multilateral treaties concluded through other bodies. “We think this is a sad day for the United Nations,” he said. “We don’t think it’s in the mandate of the Security Council to interpret treaties that are negotiated somewhere else.” Canada took the lead in opposing the US position, but it was supported by several other countries, particularly Latin American and African ones.
Other Western leaders, however, supported the US. Britain’s ambassador to the UN defended the compromise, saying that the US was absolutely entitled to defends its rights by any means necessary, and that the deal offered “a time out for the right action to be taken by the member state whose nationals are accused or indicted.” The French ambassador to the UN said that the compromise was “absolutely in line with the Statute of Rome.”
The ICC has been established in accordance with the Rome Statute agreed in July 1998. It came into effect on July 1, and is expected to begin processing charges in the Hague in about a year. The US signed the Statute at the time, but in May George Bush took the unprecedented step of “unsigning” the treaty, and notified the UN that the US has no intention of ever ratifying it. At the time he said that “the US is a democratic country, and its soldiers never commit war crimes.”
Considering the US record, this assertion is laughable indeed. Even now, Afghans are continuing to die virtually daily under US attack, the recent attack on a wedding party that killed 48 people being just one example. Everywhere that the US has sent troops in recent years, there have been complaints about their behaviour, Somalia being a clear example. But in the absence of any force capable of taking the US to account, such issues are seldom raised, nor taken seriously when they are raised.
There is also no accounting for crimes committed during the US air attacks that preceded the fall of the Taliban, or for that matter for the US’s ongoing war against Iraq, which has killed well over 2 million people in the last decade. But these issues demonstrate the US’s use of the UN as a legitimating instrument: because these aggressive actions are approved by the UN, they are legal by definition.
Despite this reality, the US appears determined to equate the ICC’s creation with an international conspiracy against US sovereignty. At the same time, it also reflects the Bush administration’s attitude that the US can achieve its objectives by the unilateral use of political power against allies and enemies alike, and military power against those who refuse to give in to political power.
Opposition to the court began late last year when the American Servicemembers Protection Act was passed by an overwhelming majority of the US Senate. This legislation — subsequently killed in committee — barred all cooperation with the ICC and vetoed US involvement of any kind in UN missions unless US troops were exempted from war crimes law. It also threatened to cut off military ties with non-NATO countries which ratified the ICC, and authorised the president of the US to use “all means necessary”, including military force, to free US and allied personnel being held at the court at the Hague.
The US’s apparent fears were certainly not based on a realistic reading of the ICC’s role. The architects of the tribunal, mainly American and European, took care to ensure that there was little risk of any Westerner ever being held accountable before it. The language in which the treaty is couched makes it clear that ICC prosecutors are unlikely to look into any war crime allegation unless they are specifically instructed to do so by the UN security council. Even when an investigation is under way, the security council will be able to suspend it for up to a year at a time. British foreign minister Robin Cook, defending the ICC, also pointed out that the treaty prevents the court from pursuing any case that has been adequately investigated by the state whose forces are accused of wrongdoing, even if the investigation has not resulted in any charges being brought.
All this makes it perfectly clear that the ICC is designed primarily for use against the West’s enemies and others that it finds convenient or politically useful to prosecute. Only cases which governments are “unwilling or unable” to investigate would trigger ICC involvement, and these would generally be those countries invaded or attacked by the US or other Western or international forces, and which have the audacity — as did the Taliban in Afghanistan — to resist.
The US now appears to have decided that it is capable of running the world by force alone on its own, without recourse to inconvenient legitimising instruments such as international bodies, unless such bodies are willing to be absolutely subservient to US control. Its preferred methods have been demonstrated in Afghanistan, with its establishment of illegal military tribunals for foreign citizens, and its flagrant violations of international law and human rights, such as its internment of prisoners at Camp X-Ray at the Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba.