Senior State Department officials said Wednesday they have been given a warm reception at the Kampala review conference of the International Criminal Court, which they are attending as observers. It is another sign of U.S. re-engagement with the 12-year-old ICC, which was rejected by the Bush administration.
State Department officials say the decision to send a team to Kampala does not mean the United States is ready to revisit the issue of full ICC membership.
But they say the gesture is meant to underscore U.S. support for war crimes prosecutions in Africa and elsewhere by the ICC, and that it has been welcomed by other delegations in the Ugandan capital.
Former President Bill Clinton signed the Rome Statute setting up the ICC. But the treaty was never sent to the U.S. Senate for ratification amid conservative concern about politicization and judicial over-reach by the court, and the Bush administration rescinded the U.S. signature in 2002.
However, a warming process began when the Bush administration endorsed ICC jurisdiction for war crimes in Darfur in 2005. It has gained momentum since last year when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed an end to hostility toward the court.
The dispatch of senior U.S. delegates to the ICC review meeting is the first such engagement in years.
In a telephone hook-up with Washington reporters from the Ugandan capital, State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh said the U.S. initiative has been well-received.
"It's hard to emphasize how happy countries are to see us here," said Harold Koh. "They felt very distressed at the period of U.S. hostility to the court. They're very excited about the Obama administration and its renewed commitment to international law and engagement. And they're just thrilled that we're here as an observer country."
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Stephen Rapp stressed American support for ICC African war crimes probs in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and most recently against the Lord's Resistance Army group that has terrorized northern Uganda and neighboring states.
But cautioned against expectations of an early move by the United States to ratify the Rome Statute and become a full ICC member.
"The United States takes a long time when it comes to international treaties and conventions, and studies these things very carefully and a long track record before presidents of either party have put these matters forward in terms of U.S. ratification," said Stephen Rapp. "And we're no where near that point. What we're here talking about is ways that we can support this court constructively when it works in our interest. And so far in the cases it is taking on, they are in our interests and in the interest of all of human kind."
The U.S. delegates said they are lobbying against proposed amendments to the Rome Statute that would allow the ICC to prosecute the crime of aggression.
In a policy statement to the review conference Tuesday, U.S. war crimes envoy Rapp warned that pushing ahead on the issue, despite a lack of consensus on the definition of aggression, could undermine the ICC.
In the talk with reporters, State Department legal adviser Koh likened the ICC to a wobbly bicycle, and said adding the weight of controversy-ridden aggression cases might topple it.
The review conference is due to continue through June 11 and the fate of the amendments is unclear.