U.S. to join ICC as an observer

Big news for the cause of international justice, human rights, and deterring war crimes:  the United States has agreed to participate, as an observer, in a meeting of state parties to the International Criminal Court.  The news emerged from a press conference in Nairobi, Kenya with the U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues, Stephen Rapp. Via Reuters:

“Our government has now made the decision that Americans will return to engagement at the ICC,” Rapp told a news conference in Nairobi, adding that this was consistent with a shift towards greater engagement that started in 2005.


“We are not a ratified state. The question of whether the United States would move forward on that is still, I think, many years away,” Rapp told reporters in the Kenyan capital.”But we certainly are looking to engage with the ICC to ensure that in places where there are no other avenues for accountability that it will be an effective instrument for ensuring that individuals are brought to justice,” he said.

To be sure, simply participating as an observer to the Assembly of State Parties (which is sort of like a board meeting for the ICC) is something of a baby step. But the reason I am so enthused–and as I take it, other proponents of international justice are as well– is because this move represents very tangible evidence of American engagement with the ICC.

This is a relief because for much of the past eight years, the United States treated the ICC as if it were some sort of international boogeyman. The Bush administration famously “unsigned” the United States from the treaty founding the ICC.  The Bush administration then waged an all out diplomatic campaign against the ICC, even threatening to withhold funding from American allies that supported it.  That said, during the second half of the Bush administration, there was less overt hostility to the ICC.  In 2005, for example, the administration abstained, rather than vetoed, a Security Council resolution giving the ICC jurisdiction in Sudan.  

Still, it refused to take that next step towards active engagement with the court that the Obama administration seems to be cautiously embracing.  There is really no reason, though, for the United States to remain on the outside.  The court, in its first six years, has launched four criminal investigations, including crimes in Northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo,  the Central African Republic and Sudan.  In each of these places, local authorities were unwilling or unable to prosecute serious war crimes (and in the case of Sudan, genocide) on their own.  And in those places, the ICC has been working as it was intended. 

The fact is,  the ICC has emerged as an important institution that in many ways compliments American foreign policy objectives.  The Obama administration seems to realize that the United States has more to gain from engaging with the ICC than pretending it does not exist.