(Rome) - As the final week of the Rome conference to create an International Criminal Court (ICC) approaches, Human Rights Watch today condemned a threat by the United States to sabotage the establishment of an independent and effective court.
 
In a statement this morning, the head of the United States delegation, Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes David Scheffer, stunned diplomats from more than 150 nations with a warning that the US would "actively oppose this Court" unless Washington's restrictive position on the Court's jurisdiction prevails. He insisted that a suspect's own government should be required to ratify the ICC treaty before the Court could investigate any national of that country. In a remarkably blunt address, Scheffer also reiterated U.S. opposition to an independent ICC prosecutor who could initiate cases, arguing that only states or the Security Council should be allowed to refer cases to the court. Most delegations in Rome support the independent prosecutor.  
 
"This is a new low in the Clinton Administration's approach to the ICC," said Richard Dicker, who leads the ICC campaign for Human Rights Watch, an international monitoring organization based in New York. "It is outrageous that the US is trying to force other states to choose: either they keep the US happy and create a meaningless court, or they establish an effective institution and risk American efforts to sabotage it."  
 
Today the US also proposed a two-tier jurisdictional system under which the ICC would only have automatic jurisdiction over genocide. For crimes against humanity and war crimes, which will form the great bulk of the ICC's docket, states that have already ratified the treaty could then still decide whether to allow the Court to bring cases against their nationals. The American proposal differs from the position that a majority of delegations in Rome support: that once states ratify the treaty, they automatically accept the Court's jurisdiction for all core crimes.  
 
"The system proposed by the United States reduces the act of ratifying the treaty to a photo opportunity for states," said Dicker. "It would allow states to ratify the treaty, but still prevent the Court from pursuing most investigations if they prove politically embarrassing to the state."  
 
US opposition to an independent prosecutor is also a minority position. "Unless the prosecutor can initiate cases, this court will be dependent on political decisions by states and the Council and thus will be powerless to investigate many serious crimes," said Dicker. "We know from experience that states rarely file complaints, and the Security Council reacts only selectively."  
 
The US finds itself in the company of a minority of states opposed to an effective Court, including Russia, China, Iraq, Libya, India and Mexico. A growing majority of states, including the 60-member "like-minded" group comprising Canada, Australia and virtually all European countries, as well as key democracies such as South Korea, South Africa, Senegal, Argentina and Chile, support a court with an independent prosecutor, full jurisdiction over war crimes in internal armed conflicts, free from Security Council control and with the ability to investigate cases when any one of several interested states has ratified the court's statute.  
 
The ICC will be different from the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which addresses only disputes between states, and different from the ad-hoc tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, which are temporary and involve only specific countries. The International Criminal Court will be a permanent forum to prosecute and punish individuals who commit egregious human rights violations.  
 
The establishment of an effective ICC will be a significant milestone in the enforcement of human rights worldwide. "A genuinely effective and independent ICC could dramatically transform the human rights landscape in the next century," said Dicker. "But not if the U.S. gets its way."