International Papers

Trick or Treaty?

The world’s editorial writers mostly sneered after President Bill Clinton signed the international war crimes tribunal treaty Sunday. The Khaleej Times of Dubai explained the change of heart not as an act of conscience but rather as a PR move: “Bill Clinton does not want to leave the White House with a bad boy image.” Britain’s Daily Telegraph dismissed it as “mischievous politicking.”

According to an informative piece in Spain’s El País, the International Criminal Court called for in the treaty would investigate individuals accused of heinous human rights violations, war crimes, or genocide. Earlier, there was talk of including international crimes such as terrorism or drug trafficking in the statute, but they didn’t make it into the final draft. The court would have no power to investigate alleged war crimes committed before the treaty went into effect. Nevertheless, the United States was one of seven states—along with Israel, China, Iraq, Libya, Qatar, and Yemen—that opposed the treaty when it was formulated in Rome in 1998. With the United States, Israel, and Iran signing Sunday—just hours before the deadline—the number of signatories rose to 139. But the treaty will not come into effect until 60 countries ratify it; so far 27 have done so. The Age of Melbourne declared, “If the permanent criminal court works properly, it will mean that the culture of impunity that has protected the Pinochets and Milosevics of this world will be ended.”

The United States opposed the treaty because it feared that it would expose U.S. military personnel to politically motivated charges, but the Sydney Morning Herald claimed “because of the size, experience and professionalism of the US armed forces, its personnel are least likely to engage in genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity.” The Herald also called for fairness: “If it is good enough for other countries to submit to an agreed system of international accountability, it should be good enough for the US. … It is hard to see why the US would want to protect its soldiers from genuine allegations of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity in any circumstances.” This argument was echoed in Britain’s Independent, which diagnosed another American problem:

[T]he country’s political autism—its failure to see that its view of the world is not the only view—is dismaying and ludicrous. [Sen. Jesse] Helms is worried that the establishment of the court … would make US citizens liable for prosecution. Well, yes. Why should Americans think they are different? Mr Helms seems to believe it is acceptable for Americans to make decisions about citizens of other countries, while US citizens should remain untouchable.

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post said signing the treaty “will set the seal on [Clinton’s] second term of office by reinforcing the strong moral leadership the United States prides itself on giving the rest of the world.” Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the U.S. Senate will ratify the treaty—indeed Clinton recommended that it refuse to do so until “significant flaws” have been addressed. Britain’s Daily Telegraph, anti-Clinton to the end, supported non-ratification:

As the world’s only superpower, America is better served by the establishment of special tribunals on an ad hoc basis … than by a permanent court that could be used to undermine its hegemony. Having taken office, Mr Bush should inform the UN that the American signature to the convention is being withdrawn. The foreign policy legacy vaingloriously sought by Mr Clinton at the eleventh hour deserves decisive rejection.

Brit bride for Bashar: The Times of London broke the news of Monday’s “secret” wedding between Syrian President Bashar Assad and London-born computer science graduate Asma Akhras. Akhras, who left her post as an economist at JP Morgan to become Syria’s first lady, is from a “prominent” Sunni Muslim family, while al-Assad is from the minority Alawite sect. According to the Times, “their union is being interpreted as a possible reconciliation between the rival communities.” (Sunni-Alawite conflict was widely predicted following the death of Bashar’s father, Hafez, last June; see this “International Papers” column for more details.) An editorial in the paper vacillated between mockery of the bride’s hometown—the rather unfashionable West London suburb of Acton—and pride in still another Middle Eastern ruler taking a British bride. Britons “have had the knack of putting the right woman in the right place” since the Holy Roman Empire, the Times proclaimed. It concluded, “Mrs al-Assad brings a breath of cleaner foreign air to the clannish ruling Alawites; and a corner of Damascus will be for ever Acton.”

Shown in the wrong light: A Zimbabwean lighting engineer has been charged with inciting hostility against President Robert Mugabe after he shone a spotlight on a portrait of the 76-year-old leader during a concert performance of a popular song about old age. The Independent of South Africa reported that the song title, “Bvuma Wachembera,” means, “accept that you are now old” in the local Shona language. Zimbabwe’s Daily News said, diplomatically, “The song has been the subject of different interpretations, with many taking it as a political message about leaders who cling to power.”

Holiday fatigue: An English academic has a solution to the feelings of gloom people experience when returning to work after the New Year break: Make Jan. 2 a public holiday too. The Daily Telegraph quoted Cary Cooper’s claims that “People who start work on January 2 feeling tired after the festivities could end up with [post-holiday depression syndrome] because they are returning before they are fully revitalised.” The article claimed Britain “does poorly in the public holiday league, with nine a year compared with the European average of 10.9. Italy has 16 public holidays, Germany and Spain 14 and France 11.” (According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the United States has 10 federal holidays per year.)