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An International Criminal Court Comes Into Being; U.S. Stays Away

Law: Tribunal is ratified and a new era in human rights declared. Bush administration will seek a 'divorce' from treaty.


UNITED NATIONS — As dignitaries from around the world gathered here Thursday to celebrate the ratification of the International Criminal Court, State Department officials said the United States will take steps to "divorce" itself from the new global tribunal.

"A page in the history of humankind is being turned," Hans Corell, the U.N. undersecretary for legal affairs, said as the U.N. received ratification documents from 10 more nations in a ceremony here, passing the threshold of 60 countries needed to put the court in business.

The Bush administration would like to see that page turned back, U.S. officials said a few hours later. The "crimes against humanity" that the new court intends to prosecute--including genocide and war atrocities--would be better handled nationally, argued Pierre-Richard Prosper, the U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues, in a conference call with reporters covering the ratification.

In the packed U.N. chamber where delegates gathered Thursday morning to witness the ceremony, the U.S. seat was left conspicuously vacant--a deliberate signal, Prosper said, of U.S. disaffection. "We felt there was no role for us to play, and no need for us to attend," he said. "Our intention is to be divorced from the process."

President Clinton signed the treaty three weeks before leaving office. The Bush administration said almost immediately that it would not submit the treaty for Senate ratification, and now says that it will not cooperate with the new court.

"An action that is under consideration is annulling the signature," Prosper said--a move "making clear that we continue to oppose the treaty, and do not intend to become a party."

Other U.S. officials said privately that the administration has already decided to revoke Clinton's signature but out of deference to allies here agreed to postpone the action while the U.N. continues its weeklong preparatory meetings for the new court.

The United States could also use its veto power in the Security Council to prevent the council from exercising its treaty option to refer cases to the new court, Prosper said.

With 66 national ratifications now deposited with the U.N., the International Criminal Court will come into effect legally July 1 and physically in the spring of 2003, when judges should be ready to hear cases in their new chambers in The Hague.

"I know there are countries who have reservations and have indicated that they will not sign on," Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary-general, said in a simultaneous ceremony in Rome, where the treaty was negotiated and adopted in 1998. "But I think it should not hold back those countries that are determined to go ahead and ensure that this missing link in international law is established. I also believe that those who today are not enthusiastic will over time come to recognize the importance and usefulness of the court."

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