White House Renounces A Measure of Justice

In an era when the United States needs to maintain a strong international alliance against terrorism and is seeking a worldwide consensus against the spread of weapons of mass destruction, George W. Bush still insists on outdated unilateralism. His announcement on May 6 that he intends to “unsign” the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court shows that he and his advisers have learned little from the terrible events of last September.

What is most worrisome about this administration’s foreign policy is not its supposedly tough-minded practicality, but its blind confidence. Only the most naïve optimist would suggest that the United States can exempt itself from the standards we impose on others without doing great damage to our own credibility and prestige.

Among the 66 nations that have signed and ratified the I.C.C. treaty are nearly all of the United States’ most supportive friends in Europe and the Americas, and not a few from other regions. Consider for a moment how those democracies must regard Mr. Bush’s decision to cast aside this treaty, signed by Bill Clinton on Dec. 31, 2000. Then consider how they felt about the insulting postscript ordering American diplomats and law-enforcement officials to refuse any cooperation with the court after it is established this summer.

What can our allies possibly think about a superpower that reserves the authority to conduct military tribunals for members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, while at the same time telling the world that its own citizens won’t be subject to judicial proceedings under a treaty signed by an American President less than two years ago? What can those governments tell their own people about a superpower that demands cooperation against states deemed dangerous to the international order, when that same superpower so casually abandons one of the most important international projects of the past century?

Dating back to the historic trials that concluded the Second World War, American leaders of both parties have broadly supported the concept of bringing war criminals to justice. If the proceedings at Nuremberg and Tokyo were not merely a formalized version of victors’ revenge, a new forum to punish the perpetrators of genocide and other crimes against humanity had to be created. It took more than 50 years to accomplish that task. In the meantime, the United States has supported the interim tribunals that arraigned mass murderers in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

Mr. Bush’s rejection of those long-standing principles is worse than useless, because more than 60 nations have ratified the treaty and it will thus take effect despite his “unsigning” of it. He has only ensured that the United States will have no influence whatsoever concerning the selection of the court’s judges and prosecutors.

What Mr. Bush has accomplished by his latest action is to lend undeserved weight to the rhetoric of Slobodan Milosevic. The former Yugoslav dictator has repeatedly protested that he is the victim of a legal process that would never be applied to his hypocritical NATO adversaries. As far as the United States is concerned, Mr. Milosevic’s dark accusation is now officially confirmed.

Contrary to the assertions of the State Department, Senator Jesse Helms and sundry generals, the International Criminal Court will amply protect the rights of American soldiers. Its writ only applies where the native country of the accused fails to prosecute, and its rules are carefully designed to prevent political abuses of its mandate. Remarkably enough, those rules have been accepted by states such as Argentina, Cambodia, Croatia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yugoslavia, many of whose citizens may well find themselves in the dock at The Hague someday.

In rejecting the court, the United States has embraced the position of its adversaries. Other states that have refused to sign the treaty include the notorious “axis of evil” as well as Libya, Syria and China. There can scarcely be worse company for a democracy that regularly proclaims its devotion to law and human rights.

Appropriately enough, Mr. Bush’s denunciation of the I.C.C. treaty carried an ironic footnote. In an address that very day to the ultra-right Heritage Foundation, Undersecretary of State John Bolton declared that the U.S. will direct “firm international condemnation toward states that shelter, and in some cases directly sponsor, terrorists within their borders” and would act “against proliferators, middlemen and weapons brokers by exposing them, sanctioning their behavior and working with other countries to prosecute them or otherwise bring a halt to their activities.”

And which countries did he have in mind? His speech, titled “Beyond the Axis of Evil,” mentioned several of the same rogue states that have likewise rejected the I.C.C. treaty. Mr. Bolton, of course, is the ideologue whose arguments against the I.C.C. have prevailed within the administration. Hearing his threats to “work with other countries” to “prosecute” weapons proliferation and terrorism, it is impossible to stifle a bitter laugh.