U.S. to attend conference held by war crimes court
Administration will engage with ICC but not join it, official says


By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

For the first time in nearly eight years, the United States will participate in a conference with members of the International Criminal Court, a decision that signals growing U.S. support for a war crimes tribunal the Bush administration once shunned.

Stephen J. Rapp, the U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes, told reporters in Nairobi on Monday that the "United States will return to engagement with the ICC." But he said that the United States has no intention of joining the court in the forseeable future and that it will not allow an international prosecutor to try American personnel.

Still, the decision marked a significant step by the Obama administration in showing its willingness to engage with the rest of the world on difficult negotiations, according to court supporters. Rapp and the State Department's top legal adviser, Harold Koh, will lead a U.S. delegation of observers to the Assembly of States Parties meeting in The Hague starting Wednesday and running through Nov. 26. The United States will also attend a major treaty review conference in Kampala, Uganda, in late May and early June.

The world's first international criminal court was established in 2001 to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Its chief prosecutor is pursuing war crimes cases in Congo, Uganda, the Central African Republic and the Darfur region of Sudan.

Member nations are considering adding the crime of aggression -- unprovoked military action by one state against another -- to the court's jurisdiction. The United States prefers that the U.N. Security Council have that authority.

Human rights advocates welcomed the U.S. decision to reengage the court but said a push for greater authority by the Security Council would dilute the power of the court. "That's a chokehold that would undercut the court's legitimacy," said Richard Dicker, a court advocate at Human Rights Watch.

Although U.S. officials have come to support prosecutions of specific cases, such as in Darfur, they have long worried that an international criminal court might seek to constrain U.S. military action around the globe by carrying out politically motivated prosecutions of American soldiers. "There remain concerns about the possibility that the United States . . . and its service members might be subject to politically inspired prosecutions," Rapp told reporters in Nairobi.

Despite such concerns, the Clinton administration signed the treaty establishing the court in Dec. 31, 2000, about two weeks before President Bill Clinton left office. The Bush administration actively sought to derail the court during its first term. In 2002, it sent a letter to the United Nations stating that the United States had no intention of joining the court and had no legal obligations to it.