Point of View
Published: Mar 24, 2006 12:30 AM
WAR CRIMES GO ON TRIAL, WITHOUT OUR HELP
On Monday, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague asked the first defendant in its history to step forward to hear the charges against him. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, leader of a political and military movement called the UPC (Union of Congolese Patriots), said there was no need to read the charges.
His trial began with testimony about how Lubanga and his followers kidnapped small children and forced them to serve as soldiers, sex slaves and camp servants, while his militia raped, looted and murdered its way across the Ituri region of Democratic Republic of Congo.
It's a first in the annals of international rule of law. Yet the Bush administration has actively campaigned against trials such as the one taking place in the Hague.
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For the first time, an international court will weigh evidence and adjudicate the men accused of massacring entire families and villages; torturing people to death; raping women, men, children and even small babies; extorting money and weapons from adults by cutting off the lips, ears and hands of their children; and sending tiny children into the front lines of conflict as cannon fodder. Witnesses will show photographs of Lubanga's men gleefully chopping the limbs off women and children, and tell of militia members who cannibalized children to force family members to comply with their demands for soldiers, weapons and support.
Most would agree that such actions should be subjected to an international rule of law. But in May 2002, the Bush administration actively withdrew the U.S. signature from the charter establishing the International Criminal Court after failing to negotiate a permanent exemption to keep U.S. personnel from being tried for war crimes.
However, the administration was able to wrangle a one-year exemption for U.S. personnel participating in U.N. peacekeeping missions or U.N.-authorized operations. This exemption has been renewed, and is expected to be renewed again in June.
The Bush administration has also pressured other nations to approve "impunity agreements" not to surrender American nationals to the international court. Countries that do not sign such agreements are subject to sanctions. China has been taking advantage of these US sanctions, offering military training to South American countries that are now receiving less U.S. support because of their refusal to sign impunity agreements.
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Our benighted Congress has assisted this process by passing the American Servicemembers' Protection Act (ASPA). Some provisions in it:
* A prohibition on U.S. cooperation with the International Criminal Court;
* An "invasion of the Hague" provision authorizing the president to "use all means necessary and appropriate" to free U.S. personnel (and certain allied personnel) detained or imprisoned by the court;
* Punishment for states that join the court's charter: refusing military aid to states party to the treaty (except major U.S. allies);
* A prohibition on our participation in peacekeeping activities unless immunity from the court is guaranteed for U.S. personnel.
How is our interest being served by allowing people like Thomas Lubanga to rampage across Africa, forcing children into slavery and violent death, and populating countries with begging hordes of war-scarred children who have no lips, no ears, no hands?
In very simple terms, the act also allows the U.S. to conduct military and intelligence operations against whomever it wants in whatever manner it wants for whatever purpose it wants, without oversight or consequence.
War crimes don't just happen. They're not accidents. If we don't agree to submit our own tactics to the scrutiny of international justice, we're giving tacit approval to the abuses that have already taken place and may escalate in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and many other locations where the administration is waging its "war on terror" by permitting or even encouraging inhumane tactics, and then sweeping them under the rug in the name of "national interest."
As the International Criminal Court begins the first hearings in its four-year history, Lubanga's crimes aren't the only tactics on trial in the Hague. Justice begins when we say it does; savagery begins when we say nothing.
(Kimberly Yaman is a writer/editor on education issues and children's welfare and justice.)
Originally written as a dKos diary earlier this week, my opinion piece on the Bush administration's aggressive opposition to the International Criminal Court in the Hague was published today by The News & Observer.