U.S. Congress is wrong to target the U.N.


NEW YORK — The threat by the U.S. House of Representatives to withhold $582 million in funds for the United Nations is the wrong action against the world body.

Congress wants to force the White House to agree to legislation designed to undercut the International Criminal Court and to serve as a kind of retaliation for the United States’ ouster from the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

If all leading industrialized nations were to follow the U.S. example and withhold their dues every time they disagree with the U.N., it would augur badly for this international body, and for its unique and difficult role in maintaining world peace.

The White House wants Congress to release the funds and pay U.S. arrears to avoid embarrassing President George W. Bush during his address to the U.N. General Assembly in late September. Conservative lawmakers want approval of the American Service Members’ Protection Act, which is aimed at exempting Americans from trials by the ICC, the tribunal being established at The Hague to prosecute war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

This act would also cut off U.S. military assistance to any non-NATO country that ratified the ICC treaty, and would prohibit U.S. soldiers from serving in any U.N. peacekeeping forces unless the U.N. Security Council gives American soldiers immunity from ICC prosecution.

What these lawmakers appear to ignore is that the ICC clearly establishes the primacy of national courts on those issues. It is only when national prosecutions don’t take place or are not carried out in good faith that the crimes may fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC. The preamble of the court’s statute unequivocally affirms that, “it is the duty of every state to exercise its criminal jurisdiction over those responsible for international crimes.”

In spite of that statement, the Bush administration is considering how to “unsign” the treaty, which it perceives as a threat to U.S. military personnel. The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties states that a country that has signed but not ratified a treaty “is obliged to refrain from acts that would defeat the object and purpose” of that treaty.

Moreover, as David Scheffer, head of the U.S. delegation to the talks on the ICC during the Clinton administration, stated in this regard, “If we ‘unsign’ the ICC, we give a signal that a new practice is acceptable, and we lay the groundwork for undermining a whole range of treaties.”

As for the ousting of the U.S. from the Human Rights Commission, this serious measure reflected a growing frustration within the U.N. toward what members considered was America’s ill-advised stance on international organizations and treaties.

In addition to Washington’s lack of support for the creation of the International Criminal Court, its rejection of the Kyoto Protocol and its stance on issues such as children’s rights and the outlawing of “disappearances” signal America’s growing isolationist tendency on critical world issues.

The vote dropping the U.S. from the Human Rights Commission is probably also a consequence of the administration’s laissez-faire attitude toward diplomacy and foreign policy. The U.S. still does not have an ambassador to the U.N. Bush’s choice for that job, John Negroponte, a career diplomat, has provoked severe criticism from human rights advocates in the U.S. and in Latin America.

When Negroponte was U.S. aambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, he helped the “Contras” wage war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, contributed to a stronger rule by Honduras’ military dictators and condoned their human-rights abuses.

Negroponte not only ignored the abuses, but regularly filed State Department reports from Honduras that gave the impression the Honduran military respected human rights. In spite of that, no other candidate to represent the U.S. at the U.N. has reportedly been considered by the Bush administration, eight months after coming into office.

The U.S. can either feel antagonistic toward the U.N., or take advantage of the present situation by reappraising its policies, renewing its commitment to strengthening that world body and paying back its dues in full without preconditions.

Ohio Rep. Tony Hall believes a decision to withhold its dues could backfire on the U.S. in the long run. He stated: “I oppose linking the back payment of U.N. dues to any cause. I believe that great nations must honor their commitments.”