22 Dec Scott Horton’s Odd Comment About the ICC
Scott Horton has a typically excellent post today at Harpers.org discussing the perversity of right-wing commentators who defend the use of torture. But I was troubled by the following comment about the ICC, which he offers in agreement with an old editorial by David Rivkin and Lee Casey:
Rivkin’s history is much like that of Reynolds and Goldberg. Back when the Democrats were in power, in 2000, he offered this: “As an alternative to expansive universal jurisdiction and the International Criminal Court, the United States should promote a renewed commitment to the prosecution of ‘international’ crimes in national judicial systems.” (”The Rocky Shoals of International Law,” National Interest, Winter 2000, co-authored with Lee Casey). I happen to agree with this perspective. That is, the International Criminal Court cannot be a forum for the enforcement of the laws of war against the great powers; if that happens, the support upon which it depends for its credibility will collapse. The great powers, and particularly the world’s paramount power, the United States, must enforce the laws itself.
It’s always dangerous agreeing with Rivkin and Casey, whose knowledge of the ICC could fit comfortably on the head of a pin. And indeed, Scott’s comment seems misguided in a number of important respects. To begin with, many of the world’s “great powers” have agreed that the ICC can indeed be a forum for “enforcement of the laws of war” against them: the UK, France, Germany, Japan. To be sure, those countries would be less than thrilled if the ICC prosecuted one of their nationals — but there is no evidence whatsoever that they would abandon the Court in such a situation. On the contrary, they would almost certainly rely on the principle of complementarity (Article 17 of the Rome Statute) and prosecute the perpetrators themselves, divesting the Court of jurisdiction. And that would be a very good thing: as Moreno-Ocampo pointed out when he was sworn in as the ICC’s prosecutor, “the absence of trials before this Court, as a consequence of the regular functioning of national institutions, would be a major success.”
And therein lies the fundamental problem with Scott’s comment. The great powers that have joined the ICC have an incentive to enforce the laws of war against their nationals: the unpleasant prospect of an international prosecution if they do not. By contrast, the “paramount” power, the US, has no such incentive. (Apart from “expansive universal jurisdiction,” that is, the propriety of which Scott doesn’t discuss.) So it should come as no surprise that the members of the Bush administration who ordered, solicited, and countenanced the systematic use of torture will go unpunished for their many crimes. It’s the logical consequence of the American exceptionalism that Scott seems (unusually, for him) to endorse.