Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

US Presidential Hopefuls Tight-Lipped on ICC

Candidates refuse to be drawn on their general stance towards the court, but pledge continued support over Darfur indictments.
As US president George Bush serves his final year in office, many ICC watchers look forward to his successor, hoping a new administration will increase support for the court.

Yet the three presidential candidates - Republican Senator John McCain, Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton and Democratic Senator Barack Obama - have all been vague when quizzed about the ICC, only committing to continued backing for the court’s work in Sudan.

“We’ve got three leading candidates, all of whom have made favourable remarks about the court but with considerable caution,” said John Washburn, convener for the American Non-Governmental Organisations Coalition for the International Criminal Court, AMICC.

“[With] all three candidates you don’t find any ideological opposition to the court the way you do with the current administration.”

The Bush presidency was originally hostile to the ICC. It was concerned it would conduct politically motivated investigations and prosecutions against its citizens, and urged numerous countries to sign bilateral agreements requiring them not to surrender American nationals to the court.

The government’s position has begun to soften in recent years, raising hopes that the next president may be more inclined to give the ICC full American backing. But the three candidates all seem content to take a “wait-and-see” approach.

In response to a questionnaire in October 2007, Obama said that “many questions still remain” about the ICC. If elected, he said he would “consult thoroughly with our military commanders and also examine the track record of the court before reaching a decision”.

In an equally vague answer on November 12, 2007, Clinton said, “I will, as president, evaluate the record of the court, and reassess how we can best engage with this institution.”

McCain echoed the indecision of his fellow candidates when in 2005 he said simply, “I want us in the ICC, but I’m not satisfied that there are enough safeguards.”

None of the candidates responded to repeated calls from IWPR to clarify their positions.

The non-committal answers are not surprising, as the ICC and human rights in general receive scant attention in the US presidential elections. The Center for American Progress Action Fund, which tracked the presidential debates throughout December 2007, found that only about 5.1 per cent of the questions posed to candidates concerned human rights.

This general disregard has continued, even though polls suggest that a clear majority of the American people - up to 74 per cent of the public in a May 2006 poll by and Knowledge Networks - favour US engagement with the court.

A major catalyst for the turn around of feelings towards the court in the Bush administration has been the ICC’s continued work in Africa, said Matthew Heaphy, AMICC’s deputy convenor.

Indeed, where the US has shown the most support for the ICC has been on Darfur. In 2005, Washington abstained from a United Nations Security Council resolution to refer the situation in Darfur to the ICC Office of the Prosecutor, instead of sticking to their policy of opposing the court.

Since then, Washington has supported the ICC case in Darfur, even passing a resolution in the House of Representatives calling on the Sudanese government to enforce arrest warrants put out by the ICC.

Yet a more deeply involved US may not make as large an impact on the crisis as some hope. Because of China’s close ties to Sudan, the US has little influence over the country.

But Washington could be helpful to the court on Darfur in other ways, said Heaphy, such as offering satellite imagery to build a stronger case against those who have been indicted.

US support of the ICC in relation to Darfur shows no signs of slowing any time soon. The three presidential candidates have all pledged to back the court in this regard and have consistent voting records on the issue.

Both Clinton and Obama have co-sponsored multiple pieces of national legislation calling for action in western Sudan, including a non-binding resolution urging the UN to deploy peacekeeping troops and the president to work with NATO and the UN to enforce a no-fly zone.

McCain co-authored an impassioned Washington Post editorial with former Kansas senator Bob Dole in 2006, which read in part, “US and allied intelligence assets, including satellite technology, should be dedicated to record any atrocities that occur in Darfur so that future prosecutions can take place. We should publicly remind Khartoum that the International Criminal Court has jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes in Darfur and that Sudanese leaders will be held personally accountable for attacks on civilians.”

The US should also consider supporting the court in two other countries it is currently engaged with - Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, say observers.

In the case of Uganda, they say increased pressure by the US on the Ugandan government to execute arrest warrants - such as that for Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony who has evaded the ICC for nearly three years - could produce results.

“I don’t think that they will send someone to go and apprehend [Kony],” said Hafiz Mohammed, program director for Sudan at the NGO Justice Africa. “I think that by helping the Ugandan government to have the means by which they can apprehend him, this involvement will definitely help the process, but how to do that is the question.”

If Kony or others were caught, US technical skills and equipment could become important.

“Prosecuting the LRA and the Sudanese regime are not open and shut cases as many outsiders believe,” said Patrick Smith, the editor of the respected news website Africa Confidential. “The nature of these organisations is they don’t keep records and so there isn’t always a lot of evidence that can be used in judicial proceedings.”

Evidence-gathering could also play an important role in helping ICC prosecutors build cases against Congolese suspects.

“Perhaps there would be some information that US intelligence gathering agencies might have that the prosecutor was interested in - [although] I’m just speculating here,” said Richard Dicker, the international justice director at Human Rights Watch.

But with or without US support, there’s a feeling amongst some in the international justice field that the ICC is gradually establishing itself as an effective court.

“I don’t think the US is the make or break factor with regard to the ICC,” said Dicker. “There’s no doubt the ICC would be strengthened by US support, but US opposition didn’t stop it before and US indifference toward it won’t stop it now.”

Erica Beinlich is an IWPR reporter in London.

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