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U.N. raps U.S. for shunning court

LONDON, England -- U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson has criticised Washington's abandonment of a new international court for the world's worst crimes.

Joining a chorus of international condemnation, she said on Tuesday the U.S. decision was "regrettable and worrying."

But she insisted that even though the U.S. stance on the International Criminal Court set a bad precedent, the new institution should survive without backing from the world's only superpower.

"I believe it has been a remarkable success story ... the International Criminal Court will go forward strongly and will make a great difference in accountability and ending impunity," Robinson told a news conference during a visit to London.

Her comments followed Monday's announcement by U.S. President George W. Bush's government that it would pull out of the treaty setting up the court, due principally to fears it could be used against U.S. military personnel, Reuters news agency reported.

Major allies of the United States, like the European Union and Canada, were disappointed by the decision.

The move also infuriated human rights organisations, who have accused Washington of ending a decades-old tradition of leading the prosecutions of war criminals since the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II.

"It's worrying and I'm concerned that the United States has not just let the matter rest as it was -- that they were unlikely to ratify -- but has actually taken symbolically a much more serious step of disengaging from this whole process" by repudiating a treaty it had signed in 2000, Robinson said.

"I do regret this step," she added.

Court plan 'will go ahead'

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton's government had signed the treaty setting up the court, so Washington could participate in talks on arrangements for the new body.

But both administrations had said they did not intend to ask the Senate to ratify the treaty on the grounds it could be used for politically motivated prosecutions of U.S. officials or military personnel.

The move to renounce any obligation to cooperate with the court -- meaning the United States could, for example, ignore extradition requests -- "could have worrying implications" for other nations bound by treaties, Robinson said.

"The court is a huge step forward in having accountability at the international level... to have those who commit gross violations of human rights know that they will not get away with it any more, that there is a court before which they can be brought," she added.

Adverse international reaction to the U.S. decision continued on Tuesday.

"By taking the harsh and very rare step of revoking a signature which had already been put to paper, Bush's government -- in the eyes of its critics -- is adding to its reputation for practicing 'multilateralism a la carte,"' the German liberal newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung commented.

Chibli Mallat, a leading Lebanese human rights lawyer who last year initiated a war crimes case in Belgium against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the U.S. decision would marginalise the new court's influence.

"This is a shameful withdrawal from a legal commitment for which the United States was a leading protagonist as a nation governed by law," he told Reuters.


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