Saturday, August 20, 2005

A “two-tiered” system of justice? 

The U.S., the worlds sole superpower, constantly carries on about international law, the sanctity of treaties, countries living up to their “international obligations”, etc. The hyperpower U.S. is very quick to find fault with others and assert that they need to comply with the dictates of the United Nations Security Council, or the dictates of NATO, or the dictates of the G8, or, failing all of that, the dictates of George W. Bush. Persist in “non-compliance” and you’re likely to find yourself on the receiving end of a cruise missile. Having seen this U.S. government mentality in action of the past number of years it was interesting to read the following New York Times article on what happens to countries who think the U.S. should be subject to international law:

Bush's Aid Cuts on Court Issue Roil Neighbors

BOGOTÁ, Colombia, Aug. 18 - Three years ago the Bush administration began prodding countries to shield Americans from the fledgling International Criminal Court in The Hague, which was intended to be the first permanent tribunal for prosecuting crimes like genocide.

The United States has since cut aid to some two dozen nations that refused to sign immunity agreements that American officials say are intended to protect American soldiers and policy makers from politically motivated prosecutions.

To the Bush administration, the aid cuts are the price paid for refusing to offer support in an area where it views the United States, with its military might stretched across the globe, as being uniquely vulnerable.

But particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, home to 12 nations that have been penalized, the cuts are generating strong resentment at what many see as heavy-handed diplomacy, officials and diplomats in seven countries said.


Most of the penalties, outlined in a law that went into effect in 2003, have been in the form of cuts in military training and other security aid. But a budget bill passed in December also permits new cuts in social and health-care programs, like AIDS education and peacekeeping, refugee assistance and judicial reforms.

Though the amounts are a pittance for Washington, their loss is being sorely felt in small countries.

In an outburst, in June, President Alfredo Palacio of Ecuador told a Quito television station that he would not yield to Washington. "Absolutely no one is going to make me cower," he said. "Neither the government, nor Alfredo Palacio nor the Ecuadorean people need to be afraid."

His nation has one of the region's largest American military bases and has become increasingly important as a staging ground for American surveillance of everything from the cocaine trade to immigrant smuggling. Still, Ecuador has lost $15 million since 2003 and may lose another $7 million this year.

When the International Criminal Court's 18 judges took their oaths in March 2003, the tribunal was backed by 139 countries and heralded by supporters as the most ambitious project in modern international law.

It was intended to replace the ad hoc tribunals addressing atrocities in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. This year the Security Council, with the United States abstaining, gave the court approval to prosecute cases related to atrocities in Darfur, Sudan.

Many legal scholars say it is unlikely that Americans would ever face the court because its focus is on the most egregious of war crimes, like systematic genocide, and the court is intended to try cases from countries where the judicial systems are unable or unwilling to handle such cases. There are also safeguards that would give the United States' own military and civilian courts jurisdiction over Americans.

But Bush administration officials, including some at the State Department, assert that the court could still move against American officials.

"The exposure faced by the United States goes well beyond people on active duty and it includes decision-makers in our government," said a high-ranking State Department official who was authorized to speak about the policy but only if he was not identified. "We're not hallucinating that our officials are at risk."


Others, like Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch, acknowledge that there are countries that may want to use the court "as a political battering ram."

"What's in dispute," said Mr. Dicker, director of international justice for the group, "is what kinds of safeguards are necessary to prevent these kinds of distortions. The United States has adopted a solution that's inimical to the rule of law, that says because we're the most powerful state in the world, we'll create a two-tiered system of justice."


In all, 53 countries, from Kenya to Ecuador to some European nations, have declined to sign the agreements, saying Washington's effort undermines their commitment to the court. Not all have been penalized and some, like Paraguay and Dominica, later yielded to American pressure and signed agreements.

In Latin America the immunity agreements, and the sanctions, have been especially hard to swallow for left-leaning governments who have come to power by rejecting American-backed economic policies.

"It's a contradictory policy and it's ungrateful," said Luis Hernández, a retired Ecuadorean Army colonel who was educated at the United States Army War College.

American budgetary records show that Uruguay, whose new left-leaning government has vocally declined to sign an immunity agreement, has lost $1.5 million since 2003. Costa Rica has lost about $500,000, and unstable Bolivia has lost $1.5 million.

In addition, the United States International Military Education and Training program, which pays for Latin American military officers to study in the United States, has cut its rolls by 770 officers a year, from an average class of 3,000, military officials said.

Most nations that have lost money are cash-strapped, like Dominica, a Caribbean island which lost $400,000 and was unable to operate its only Coast Guard boat for two years. That meant no drug patrols or searches for fishermen lost at sea, said Crispin Gregoire, Dominica's ambassador to the United Nations.

"We were reeling from the impact of lost aid, and our economy was not in the greatest shape," he said. "The government decided to yield and we ended up signing."

Peru, a close Bush administration ally, has lost about $4 million "You feel the cuts, yes," said Congressman Luis Ibérico, president of the committee that oversees military spending and the antidrug campaign. "These are small amounts, but nevertheless, they're necessary to support our military personnel."

Painful as the cuts are, many countries say they will not budge before American pressure.

"We will not change our principles for any amount of money," said Michael I. King, the Barbados ambassador to the Organization of American States. "We're not going to belly up for $300,000 in training funds."

Many officials argue that existing treaties already protect American soldiers. The new agreements go too far, they say, by adding protections for ordinary Americans, like tourists, and non-American contractors who work for American companies.

Here in Colombia, where the American military has rotated 8,000 soldiers in the past five years as part of its largest mission in the region, a new immunity agreement two years ago has upset some officials. Colombia already had a 1974 treaty protecting American soldiers from criminal charges.

"These treaties say that everyone in Colombia must respect the law, Indians, Chinese, the Colombians," said a Colombian senator, Jimmy Chamorro, who considers them illegal. "Everyone except the Americans."

Lets see, where to start on this. First of all, I guess this means that the money the U.S. give to countries to fight AIDS, or provide clean drinking water, or fixing their judicial systems really isn’t about the U.S. trying to make the world a better place. Rather, it seems to be giant influence peddling scheme whereby countries must vote as they are told to vote, do as they are told to do, and sign whatever piece of paper the U.S. tells them to sign. Either do as your told or the U.S. will all of the sudden the U.S. will decide it doesn’t care how many people die from AIDS, or don’t have clean water, or don’t have place to live, or hope for getting justice. Well, I guess at least its good to know what the U.S.’s true feelings and motives are. That way one can make an informed decision about whether to ever take this money in the first place.

Then we have the small matter of why the U.S. seems to be so afraid of having to stand before international justice just like everyone else is expected to do. Is the U.S. planning to carry out actions that would be considered crimes against humanity or egregious violations of international law? One would hope not. Or maybe, contrary to all its public assertions, it knows it already is engaged in crimes that could have it brought before an international court?

But even if that is the case, what is it afraid of? Presumably these are real courts, filled with real and highly competent jurists who will be deciding the cases brought before them based solely on the law. If that is the case then the U.S. should have no reason to fear any of its citizens being brought before this court. The U.S. has had no problem seeing other countries such as Yugoslavia have its political leaders brought before these tribunals. So if its a good enough court to be giving Slobodan Milosevic a fair trail isn’t it a good enough court for, say, Paul Wolfkowitz or Donald Rumsfeld or even whichever lowly GI they decide to scapegoat prisoner torture scandals with?

Maybe the what the U.S. is really arguing here is that this ICC cannot really be trusted to fairly apply international law. Maybe it is saying the court is subject to political pressures and will try people for political, not legal reasons. But if that is the case then why are others, from Serbia to Darfur, expected to stand before these courts? Why does the U.S. consider these to be legitimate tribunals for others to be brought before? If they can’t be trusted to administer justice fairly shouldn’t the U.S. be insisting that these courts either be fixed or abolished, rather than simply exempting U.S. citizens.

The U.S. position on this really has me stumped. The only thing that would seem to explain this is that the U.S. has some sort of double standards on these matters – something along the lines of “everyone in Colombia must respect the law... except the Americans”. Double standards? That just couldn’t be it, could it?


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