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So many nations are violently at odds with one another that reason for optimism is becoming ever harder to find. Yet on Thursday morning there was just such a moment: The treaty for the International Criminal Court received the ratification it needs to go into effect.

At a dignified ceremony at the United Nations in New York, representatives of several small countries filed papers certifying that their governments have ratified the treaty. That lifted the number of nations that have done so to more than 60, the number necessary for this important new international institution to begin operations.

This is a remarkable achievement: the most important human rights institution created in the last half century.

To reach this point, the treaty has needed two levels of approval. The first came at a 1998 meeting of governmental representatives in Rome when 120 nations signed the document, a number that ultimately grew to 139.

That started the second approval process in which representatives of the governments of at least 60 additional nations also had to formally ratify it.

The United States did not sign the treaty at the Rome meeting, largely on the grounds that U.S. soldiers or civilians could be subjected to politically motivated prosecutions.

But President Clinton, in the last days of his administration--and despite calling the treaty flawed--decided to sign on. It was a reasonable move, if only because it allowed the U.S. to remain engaged in shaping this new institution.

Even though it has signed, the U.S. is not expected to ratify the treaty any time soon. The assumption had been that Washington would wait to see how the court operates before moving forward.

But now it appears that President Bush is considering the unprecedented step of revoking the U.S. signature on the treaty.

That would put the U.S. sharply at odds with its closest allies. Britain, France, Germany, and Canada have all ratified the treaty and are urging the U.S. to do the same.

At a time when Washington is asking for law enforcement cooperation against terrorism, it hardly seems the moment to undermine an historic new law institution to deal with crimes that are every bit as heinous.

The court's concept is simple. It establishes a permanent tribunal to prosecute individuals--not nations--accused of genocide, war crimes, and of crimes against humanity.

The idea for such a court reaches back to the early days of the 20th Century. It gained special urgency as the century concluded against the backdrop of massacres in Rwanda, Cambodia and the Balkans.

On the one hand, it is hard to imagine taking a position against an institution that could help prosecute future Pol Pots and Saddam Husseins.

But that is precisely what appears to be happening when the U.S. stands alongside Libya as the only two nations speaking out against the court.

Largely with American concerns in mind, the court has been designed to prevent its being used for unfair prosecutions. For example, the International Criminal Court will step in only if a nation fails to carry out investigations and--if appropriate--prosecutions, of crimes that fall under the court's jurisdiction.

Good-faith efforts to discover the truth and hold accountable those who are accused will prevent the court from intervening. When individuals are brought before the court they will receive the highest standards of due process and fair trial guarantees, including the right to counsel, the right to remain silent, the presumption of innocence, and the right to multiple appeals.

These safeguards, of course, still depend on the quality and expertise of the people who are applying them. That is why it is so important for the U.S. to stay engaged with the court.

Even as a nation that has not ratified the treaty, the U.S. can exert influence over selection of prosecutors and judges and, equally important, the creation of the court's culture.

The positive influence of the U.S. in setting up the tribunals dealing with allegations of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda was significant. The same could hold true for the International Criminal Court--but only if the U.S. participates.

The International Criminal Court will begin to function with or without U.S. participation, but it will have much greater weight if the most powerful nation on earth stays engaged. It would be a mistake for President Bush to isolate the U.S. by removing its signature from the treaty.

Many nations of the world have worked hard to bring themselves to this moment of celebration. By staying involved in the International Criminal Court, even if only by leaving this nation's signature on the treaty, the U.S. will stay on the right side of history.

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