Once again we're in bad company, rubbing shoulders with some of the world's worst human rights violators and international pariahs in opposing the creation of a permanent war crimes tribunal.
Just how bad we'll never know, because it was a secret ballot. But ours was one of only seven nations that voted against a treaty establishing the International Criminal Court. It was approved by 120 countries in Rome last week, including all our West European allies, while 21 abstained.Those who spoke out against the ICC, besides U.S. Ambassador David Scheffer, included China, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Algeria and Israel. European Humanitarian Affairs Commissioner Emma Bonino called it ''a coalition of bad losers.''
The new court is designed to prosecute what the treaty calls ''the most serious crimes of international concern'' - genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and aggression. The treaty will define ''aggression'' at a later date.
Ironically, the United States had taken the lead in four years of negotiations leading up to the Rome conference. Last September, President Clinton challenged negotiators to reach agreement by the July 17 deadline, saying the world needed a permanent venue to prosecute its Pol Pots.
An even greater irony: The Senate has just passed a resolution urging that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic be tried as a war criminal responsible for ''the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the torture and rape of tens of thousands and the forced displacement of nearly 300,000'' in the Bosnian conflict, as well as the bloody crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Serbia's Kosovo province.
Why, then, did the American team go into the final round of negotiations trying to curb the powers of the war crimes court? It was driven in part by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who said he was ''unalterably opposed'' to the ICC, and the Pentagon, which wants to protect American troops abroad.
With 200,000 GIs permanently stationed in 40 countries and engaged in ''temporary'' peacekeeping missions of various duration, Washington fears they could become targets of politically motivated charges.
But human rights groups say this can't happen; in democracies such as ours, the domestic judicial system - including military courts - remains the first line of accountability. The ICC will step in only when a country fails to bring its own war criminals to trial.
Such safeguards weren't good enough for Mr. Scheffer. He wanted a U.S. right to veto prosecution of Americans, either through the U.N. Security Council or some other mechanism. And he used every carrot and stick to get it.
Nothing worked. The final vote was a stunning diplomatic setback for the world's only superpower and, perhaps, the undermining of a principle established a half century ago at Nuremberg: that tyrants and mass murderers cannot go unpunished lest others be tempted to follow in their footsteps.
The treaty must be ratified by at least 60 nations for the ICC to become a reality. The ratification process is expected to take five years.
Speaking of bad company, why did Israel join nations like Libya and Iraq in opposing the ICC? One would think that its people, having suffered the world's worst genocide, would be all for it.
Alan Baker, legal adviser to Israel's Foreign Ministry, explained that it was because settlement building, which ''has no place in a list of what is considered to be the most serious, grievous and heinous war crimes known to international law,'' had been added to the list of offenses the court can prosecute ''purely for political reasons.''
Not so. The Geneva Conventions outlaw the transfer of civilian populations to territories captured in war. Thus, settling 160,000 Jews in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, which were captured by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967, is in fact a war crime.
Anyone involved in building settlements or adding to them must be arrested by any country that ratifies the ICC and accepts its jurisdiction. It could make travel difficult for the entire Israeli government.