U.S. to attend Hague court meeting as observer

NAIROBI (Reuters) - The United States will attend an International Criminal Court (ICC) meeting this week as an observer for the first time since the Hague court was set up in 2002, President Barack Obama’s war crimes envoy said Monday.

Stephen Rapp, U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, addresses a news conference in Kenya's capital Nairobi, November 16, 2009. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Stephen Rapp, U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, said Washington wanted to engage more with the world’s first permanent war crimes court -- even though any debate about the United States joining the court could be many years away.

“Our government has now made the decision that Americans will return to engagement at the ICC,” Rapp told a news conference in Nairobi, adding that this was consistent with a shift toward greater engagement that started in 2005.

The United States signed the ICC treaty when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s husband Bill was president, but it was never ratified by Congress. Clinton’s successor as president, George Bush, later rejected the idea of joining the court.

Secretary of State Clinton said during a visit to Kenya in August that it was a “great regret” the United States was not yet a full ICC signatory.

“We are not a ratified state. The question of whether the United States would move forward on that is still, I think, many years away,” Rapp told reporters in the Kenyan capital.

“But we certainly are looking to engage with the ICC to ensure that in places where there are no other avenues for accountability that it will be an effective instrument for ensuring that individuals are brought to justice,” he said.

The court has jurisdiction only over crimes committed after July 1, 2002, in countries that have ratified its treaty.

With the addition of the Czech Republic, 110 countries have now ratified the Rome statute. Absent from the list are the United States, Russia, China and Israel.

Rapp said he would be leading the U.S. delegation attending the Assembly of States Parties (ASP) on November 18-26 in The Hague. The ASP is the ICC’s management oversight and legislative body.

One factor behind Washington’s decision not to ratify the treaty was concern that U.S. officials or servicemen and women could risk ICC investigation for their roles in wars.

“There remain concerns about the possibility that the United States, upon whom a great deal of the world relies for security, and its service members might be subject to politically-inspired prosecutions,” Rapp said. (Editing by David Stamp)