Clinton Seeks Aid to Change Views on a World Criminal Court


President Clinton waded into the contentious negotiations to create an international criminal court Wednesday, writing to Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi to urge him to press other governments to make concessions to Washington.

Clinton’s intervention underscored the importance the United States has attached to the talks, which have entered their crucial phase with the Americans on the defensive.

The president’s letter to Prodi surfaced even as special envoy David Scheffer, head of the U.S. delegation here, warned that the United States will walk out of the conference without signing a treaty if its final text fails to include U.S. limits on court prosecutions.

The U.S. has been at odds with most Western democracies, which favor a more powerful tribunal than what Washington will accept.


If the other countries’ view prevails, though, and the treaty is adopted today or Friday, indications are that China, Russia, India, most Mideast nations and perhaps France will join the United States in rejecting the court, delegates here said. Washington contends that the absence of U.S. support will undercut the tribunal’s ability to enforce its decisions.

But such an outcome also would place the United States in embarrassing opposition to close allies such as Britain, Canada, Australia, Argentina and South Africa, and much of the rest of Europe.

Clinton wrote to Prodi, replying to the prime minister’s request for a “constructive American attitude” in the talks, U.S. officials confirmed. The president thanked Prodi for Italian support on some U.S. positions but added, according to Reuters news service: “I am concerned that your views are not shared by a majority of the governments most actively engaged in the negotiations.

“Thus, I believe your leadership in moving other delegations toward these positions is crucial,” he wrote. “It would go a long way toward addressing critical U.S. concerns and would enhance the prospects for a conference outcome that enjoys broad international support.”


Delegates to the Rome conference are trying to agree on establishing a permanent international tribunal, based in The Hague, to prosecute national leaders and others charged with war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. The panel would be patterned on the postwar Nuremberg trials and on more recent United Nations tribunals prosecuting war crimes in the Balkans and genocide in Rwanda. It would take charge of a case only after national courts failed to act.

Since Monday, delegates have bargained behind closed doors on a final text to be considered by the full conference today or Friday. The treaty language is being negotiated by a committee headed by Philippe Kirsch, a Canadian diplomat and legal expert.

U.S. officials have lobbied hard here and in global capitals to persuade nations to accept the American view, and a senior U.S. official late Wednesday expressed cautious optimism. But it is far from clear that Washington will prevail on its key issue: the threshold for court prosecution.

And Scheffer, earlier Wednesday, was downbeat, saying: “We fear that governments whose citizens make up at least two-thirds of the world’s population will find the emerging . . . treaty unacceptable. The world desperately needs this mechanism for international justice, but it . . . will need the cooperation of governments to operate effectively. . . .


“The United States and other countries,” he added, “have critical responsibilities around the world that are crucial to the protection of civilian populations. A scheme that ignores these responsibilities is not going to serve the vital interest of the court.”

Although the Clinton administration has endorsed the idea of the court, it wants to guard against the possibility of politically motivated charges being brought against U.S. soldiers on duty overseas. It also wishes to retain strong oversight of court actions by the 15-member U.N. Security Council.

Scheffer on Wednesday repeated a fundamental U.S. demand--that the court have no jurisdiction over citizens of countries that refuse to ratify the treaty. The only exceptions would be if the country involved voluntarily cooperated or if the prosecution were directed by the Security Council. There, the United States and four other permanent members--Britain, China, France and Russia--have veto power over actions.

But such a provision could effectively exempt the United States from court jurisdiction for years, because, even if Clinton signs the treaty, it could take a long time for the Senate to ratify it.


The court’s strongest backers believe that sets a bad example for the rest of the world, and they point out that, since most of the world’s pariah states, such as Iraq, Libya and Sudan, are not expected to join the court, they too could largely escape its jurisdiction.

“The government of Iraq would have to agree that Saddam Hussein was a war criminal before he could go before the international criminal court,” complained the chief delegate of one longtime U.S. ally. “What kind of court would that be?”

Times staff writer Tyler Marshall in Washington contributed to this report.