Jesse Helms must be turning over in his grave.

As ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda looked on, the US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Stephen Rapp announced yesterday a new American initiative to offer up to $5 million of US taxpayer money for information leading to the arrest of four individuals wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. One of those four includes the notorious Joseph Kony.

Helms was a US Senator and longtime leader of the Senate Foriegn Relations committee who stridently opposed the ICC in late 1990s and early 2000s as the court came into being. He crafted anti-ICC legislation in 2002 called the American Service Members Protection Act, which prevented the US government with cooperating with the ICC in any way. The legislation was so intense in its hostility to the ICC it contained a clause authorizing the president to use “all means necessary and appropriate to bring about the release of any US or allied personnel being detained or imprisoned by, on behalf of, or at the request of the International Criminal Court”. That provision earned it the moniker of the “Hague Invasion Act.”

It was a piece of legislation that reflected Helms’ spiteful regard for international institutions. For the next 3 years, Helms acolyte John Bolton made it his solemn duty as under secretary of state for arms control and international security to use American power and prestige to undermine the young court at every turn. Bolton lead the Bush administration’s efforts to secure so-called bi-lateral immunity agreements with American allies who were members of the ICC. If the US ally refused to sign these agreements with the USA, the Bush administration would withhold military or economic aid to the county. This forced governments to chose between their moral and political committments to the ICC and their ally, the USA.

This lead to some terribly absurd scenarios. For example, as I reported at the time Latvia–a card carrying member of Bush’s coalition of the willing — had its US military aid suspended for a time because it refused to sign one of these agreements.

It was stupid policy, but the ICC clearly survived this onslaught and eventually began to prove its worth. In 2005, the Bush administration made a fateful decision  not to veto a Security Council resolution authorizing the ICC to investigate war crimes in Darfur. That signaled a big shift away from a policy of actively undermining the ICC to learning how to live with it.

The USA under president Obama is now deep in a new phase of its relationship with the ICC. Two years ago, the USA pressed for the ICC to investigate Muammar Ghaddafi and secured the necessary Security Council votes to make it happen; just last week a fugitive wanted by the ICC turned himself in to the US Embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, and was promptly handed over to the Hague; and now we have the US Rewards for Justice Program being used to send war criminals to prison in the Hague.

The USA is finally using taxpayer dollars to put people in the Hague, not keep them out.

It will probably be many, many years before the US Senate ratifies the ICC treaty and makes the USA a full fledged member. But the Obama administration seems to have figured out how to advance interests shared between the ICC and the US State Department. That’s progress.  

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