Once upon a time, there was a government with an acute sense of justice. This self-proclaimed “world leader of democracy” joined a few others that felt morally obligated to find a way to punish those who commit atrocities against their own people. After some deliberation, they decided to create an international court in which such criminals could be brought to justice. More than 120 countries, small and large, poor and rich, signed and ratified the agreement establishing such a court. And then something strange happened: this self-proclaimed leader of democracy that was so intent and instrumental in forming the court had a change of heart and refused not only to ratify the international treaty but also bullied smaller nations into granting it immunity for its own actions. Without further ado, I present to you the United States of America.
As countries are experiencing sweeping political changes, the global political arena is shifting. From the Middle East and North Africa to Myanmar, the US attempts to maintain its leadership status. However, its chance to assert democratic ideals of transparency and accountability is blighted by a refusal to join 121 nations. Although the US orchestrated the Rome Statute, it refuses to ratify the doctrine, which puts it in a precarious position of being a leader of a cause it cannot bring itself to support.
The Rome Statute is the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court at The Hague, and countries that have ratified it are considered “States Parties” and are therefore subject to its jurisdiction. By refusing to officially recognize the court, which it played a key role in designing, the US acts like this arm of justice is good enough for others — just not good enough for it.
The US refusal to officially back the International Criminal Court (ICC) undermines the authority of the UN Security Council and peacekeeping missions in general. The US seems to be in bed with Russia and China when it comes to international law: by joining them in not ratifying the treaty, it is telling the world that it shares the priorities of these governments. Although US ratification would do little to motivate Russia and China to make the same move, it would send a clear message to the world that the US is ready to accept accountability for its actions and separate its record of human rights from those of Russia and China. The move would further ostracize Russia and China, both of whom face intense criticism today for their reluctance to reprimand the Syrian government. Furthermore, US ratification of the Rome Statute would create a bigger dichotomy between states that actively condemn human rights abuses and those that do not. The political pressure of isolation can prove such a strong diplomatic tool: it is crucial to publicly and globally separate the nations that are committed to prosecuting crimes against humanity and those that are not. Were the United States to officially recognize the ICC, states would no longer have easy justification for failure to accede to the only established system of international due process. The US and North Korea would no longer be partners in their refusal to recognize the international rule of law.
In addition to strengthening the resolve of multilateral institutions such as the UN, ratification of the Rome Statute would reinforce the unilateral professed missions of the US. Presently, there exists an overwhelming contradiction in US efforts to bolster democratic ideals in the Middle East: how can the US not only preach, but also attempt to impose, democratic ideals, such as transparency and due process, when it fails to fill the gaping holes in its own realization of them? To legitimize its alleged goals in the Middle East and do away with the blatant double standard, the US must ratify the Rome Statute. In doing so, it will elevate the rule of law over the rule of force. It is clear that the US wants the right to assert unilateral force. However, globalization and rising interdependence solidifies the need and legitimacy of an international rule of law, the enforcement of which must be multilateral and cooperative.
Bringing the subject of the ICC to the public stage in the US would be very healthy for its own democracy. It would force a national discourse that has been lacking—one that embraces the topics of law, immunity and US exceptionalism. Furthermore, such a discussion would force both government and citizens to reassess the costs and benefits of establishing international norms and the effects of opposing or complying with them. The United States is in far too comfortable a position regarding international due process, as it refuses to match it goals and ideals with actions.
The opportunity to ratify the Rome Statute presents the Obama Administration with a concrete way to dispel a significant portion of US exceptionalism in the case of human rights policy. Formal acceptance of the treaty would mark the beginning of a veracious commitment to upholding human rights and justice. US diplomacy should not be hinged on special interests, namely those of the military-industrial complex. Instead, foreign policy should align with the ideals of a peaceful and just world order. Obviously, the ICC must tread a fine line, as it is a judicial body operating within a highly political realm. The rhetoric of international law and justice often flows into abstraction. However, the full-fledged support of the US would make the goal of universal jurisdiction much stronger.
If the US judicial system is as sophisticated and pervasive as it is touted to be, then the fear of politically motivated indictments of US military officials and servicemen by the ICC is unfounded. Under the Rome Statute, domestic courts wield the primary authority, and only when they are unwilling or unable to prosecute crimes against humanity does the ICC have jurisdiction. The US judicial system would, one would hope, respond with alacrity to violations of humanitarian law committed by the US and allied nationals, thereby eliminating the ability of the ICC to prosecute. Furthermore, the statute ascribes ICC jurisdiction to only the most egregious and systematic crimes against civilians, not to individual accusations of ill doing.
If the US continues to act as though ratifying the Rome Statute is beneath its dignity, it perpetuates hypocrisy on a global scale. The message the US risks sending to the world is thus: we want the authority to dictate a system of international justice, but are too mighty to be subjected to its terms. Wake up, America: you cannot confer legitimacy or leadership through a series of half-hearted pleas for international justice only in the instances that bolster your image or advance your interests abroad.
Promote individual responsibility, justice without violence and the rule of law. Defend human rights, end conflicts and impunity and deter future crimes against humanity. These are the goals of The Hague. The US played a leading role in setting up tribunals at Nuremberg, in Japan, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda to bolster these goals. Aren’t they in line with US values, at least in principle? So why does the US continue to refuse to back them?