As representatives of more than 100 nations prepare to convene in Rome on June 15 in a bid to create a permanent international criminal court, the Pentagon has stepped up its objections to the proposed tribunal, according to diplomats and others.
Defense Department officials have discussed their misgivings with NATO military representatives and others, these sources say, and appear to be acting independently of the U.S. delegation to the negotiations, which includes State Department officials.
William Pace, the normally low-key coordinator of a coalition of human rights organizations that back the court proposal, speculates that the Pentagon may be trying to sabotage the negotiations by misrepresenting how the international court would work.
But one European diplomat immersed in the negotiations says the Pentagon objectors merely illustrate the divisions within the Clinton administration over whether a permanent international war crimes tribunal is a good idea. The State Department is generally seen as more supportive than Defense.
Reflecting the view of other delegates to the talks, he added that he believes there is only "a 50-50 chance" the United States will sign the treaty, scheduled to be completed by July 17.
"Who will prevail: the State Department or the Pentagon?" he asked. "If it's the State Department, that's the 50% chance the U.S. will sign. If the Pentagon prevails, that's the 50% they won't."
The divide is similar to one that gripped the administration last year over the proposed treaty to ban antipersonnel land mines. In that instance, President Clinton refused to override military objections to the pact, and the U.S. declined to sign.
The administration, however, regards the proposed criminal court as much more significant than the land-mines agreement. Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright repeatedly have endorsed the idea of a standing international court. Washington has also been one of the strongest supporters of temporary U.N. war crimes tribunals established to punish those responsible for atrocities in the former Yugoslav federation and Rwanda.
Moreover, if the U.S. delegation--headed by David Scheffer, the State Department's top official on war crimes prosecution--walks away from Rome without agreeing to the court treaty, it will leave the U.S. outside an international body that could rank in importance with the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, all organizations in which the U.S. exercises leadership.
A U.S. boycott, in turn, would raise serious questions about the effectiveness of a world tribunal, which is intended to punish international pariahs such as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The tribunal would take charge of a case only when national courts could not, or would not, prosecute.
Reacting to Pentagon fears that Washington's foes will misuse the court to sabotage U.S. military missions, Scheffer is pressing for a court full of checks and balances and firmly linked to the U.N. Security Council.
The U.S. is one of five countries with the power to veto any action in the council.
Another factor in U.S. support for a narrowly defined court is the shaky backing for the proposed tribunal in the Senate, which would have to ratify the Rome treaty. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has advised Albright that a treaty he does not like will be "dead on arrival" at the committee.
But critics say the court envisioned by the U.S. would be so constrained as to be virtually impotent.
"A court that is safe from Jesse Helms' point of view is a court that also is safe for . . . Saddam Hussein," Pace said.
"There has to be a middle road. You can't have a court that only applies to small, militarily weak countries that don't have a close relationship with one of the big powers."
Some diplomats predict that an emerging coalition of European, Latin American and African states may break with the U.S. and force through a more activist tribunal, even if that means the U.S. balks.
Western diplomats say that another group of countries--Norway, Sweden, Canada and Britain--is trying to find ways to reconcile these two visions.
That task, however, is formidable.
The draft treaty is 210 pages, and there still is no formal agreement on such fundamental issues as whether the 18 to 24 judges would be elected by the states party to the accord or by the U.N. General Assembly; how long the prosecutor's term of office should be; what constitutes a war crime; and how the court should be funded.