BARBARA CROSSETTEUS resists war-crimes court as Canada conforms
July 22, 2000
UNITED NATIONS, July 21 -- When a majority of the world's nations decided two years ago to establish a permanent court to try those charged with the most serious war crimes, political opposition emerged in both the United States and Canada.
President Clinton and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien were early supporters of the permanent tribunal, now taking formal shape as the International Criminal Court. But both faced problems in their respective legislatures, where members had to approve the countries' participation.
In early July, Canada ratified the treaty creating the court, and announced that it was the first nation to have brought its national laws in line with the new tribunal.
The United States, on the other hand, is fighting a last-ditch battle to prevent Americans from falling under the court's jurisdiction. Clinton administration officials say America will not join the court in the foreseeable future because the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- especially its chairman, Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina -- has warned that its members will never approve the treaty.
But the Canadian and American situations are different. Most important, Mr. Chrétien has a majority in the Canadian Parliament, while President Clinton must deal with a Congress controlled by Republicans. Although Canada is active in peacekeeping around the world, the United States, as the world's most powerful nation, would be a bigger target for frivolous or politically motivated lawsuits.
In a recent interview here, Canada's foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, said that the Canadian government, unlike the United States, decided nevertheless to take no chances with public opinion. It opened a national debate about the court and began a campaign of "public diplomacy" to build support.
"It was a good debate," he said. "One party raised a number of objections to it, about national sovereignty and individual rights, but it got approved overwhelmingly."
"Our view," he said of the government's position, "was that if you have a functioning national court system, then the international court is simply a court of last resort."
Mr. Axworthy said that government leaders made acceptance of the court -- designed to bring trials on charges of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity -- a top political priority.
"We sponsored a national forum across the country," he said. "Plus we have a major Web site on the issue. Most important -- and I underline this -- is that we enlisted the support of a number of key parliamentarians to do our work internationally."
These members of the Canadian Parliament not only support the court in their constituencies but also go to international meetings to build up wide backing in organizations like the Inter-Parliamentary Union or NATO. Canadian diplomats also promote the court, he said.
Canada also recently appointed a member of Parliament who is considered an expert on the international court, Erwin Cotler of Montreal, as a special envoy for this issue. "He's there to do the speeches, do the schmoozing," Mr. Axworthy said. "He's a very popular spokesperson."
For Canada, the campaign is over domestically, and officials can turn to the vexed questions of how to build more support in the United States for a court that could be functioning within a year or two.
"It is no longer something that's going away; in fact it's probably something that's coming quicker than most people would anticipate," Mr. Axworthy said. "It's now taking form, shape and movement, plus some energy. That in itself should be a message.
"Our strategy is to keep the U.S. engaged," said Mr. Axworthy, who meets regularly with a dozen of his counterparts from around the world to discuss issues of "human security," an area where the court ranks high, he said.
"Let's continue to work and massage and accommodate," he said of Washington's fears. "But there has to be flexibility on the U.S. side. They have to adjust their sights now too and recognize that they are not going to get an exemption from this court. That's pretty clear. They've been told that."
Mr. Axworthy said that Canada and others would like to see a shift in American thinking, but he added that they are aware that the American public is not high on this issue. "It is so important, so crucial that the debate here shift its focus from how you thwart it, frustrate it or stop it to how do we make sure that your interests are looked after and that you can support probably what will be the most significant new institution of this century."