Courting Trouble?

ROME — Last month, the Bush administration unexpectedly dropped its bid to have the U.N. Security Council renew for one more year the immunity the U.S. previously enjoyed from prosecutions by the International Criminal Court.

Many hailed the move as a necessary acknowledgement of the court's jurisdiction, particularly in light of the recent abuses of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers.

However, although it agreed for the time being to drop its campaign for an ICC exemption, the Bush administration is still opposed to the tribunal because it believes it could be used for politically motivated lawsuits against the American military and even against U.S. government leaders. Underlying this is a general American skepticism of international bodies like the ICC, widely seen as part of a growing trend to create undemocratic global bodies that encroach on domestic law and undermine national sovereignty in order to push controversial social agendas, under the guise of protecting human rights.

These concerns were given a full airing recently at a conference entitled “International Law, Democratic Accountability and Moral Diversity,” held in Rome June 13-14 and hosted by the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), the Culture of Life Foundation, the Federalist Society, the Ave Maria School of Law and the journal The National Interest.

Held at the residence of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, and at Rome's Santa Croce University, it was attended by Vatican and Church officials, law professors, representatives of interest groups and journalists.

Judge Bork

The opening address was given by Judge Robert Bork, a former solicitor general under Richard Nixon who was once nominated for the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan, and is a recent convert to the Catholic Church.

Judge Bork said that left-leaning intellectual elites, which he termed “Olympians,” were bypassing domestic constitutional laws and instead resorting to international tribunals and laws. Commonly, he said, these elites push their platforms through nongovernmental organizations that hold broad influence at the U.N. and with other international bodies.

Their agenda, Bork said, is “much the same domestically as in the U.S., except that it is perhaps more extreme.” The “Olympians” seek to achieve their vision on a “global scale by forging the people of the world into a single community based on the universal enjoyment of human rights.”

But given that their definition of human rights commonly embraces left-wing economic doctrines, radical environmentalism and controversial social policies such as on-demand abortion and homosexual rights, Bork explained that the internationalist ideologues “need coercion” to achieve their goals. Consequently, they want to establish international tribunals that can impose these agendas through the centralizing power of international bureaucracies.

Another speaker, John McGinnis of Northwestern University School of Law, believes that such a development is particularly dangerous and likely to result in higher costs for citizens because the international arena is “opaque” to most people and therefore largely unaccountable.

Judicial Tyranny

Also discussed was the increasingly unchecked power of the domestic judiciary and its challenge to democracy.

William Saunders of the Family Research Council cited a growing tendency for American courts to refer to international courts and tribunals in making decisions that reflect the same radical social vision shared by the intellectual elites that make up the majority of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Bork also alluded to this, saying that the Supreme Court justices have “begun to see themselves as participants in a worldwide constitutional conversation.”

According to another participant, Fernand Keuleneer, a practicing lawyer in Brussels, there is “nothing wrong” with a worldwide respect for the dignity of the human person, but seeking to enhance human dignity does not necessarily translate to the need to create a global legal system.

“Such a system,” he explained, “does not generally serve to achieve the goals which its promoters, of different political persuasion, seek to achieve.”

Rather, Keuleneer concluded, it “serves to redistribute power, to the detriment of autonomous and sovereign states and for the benefit of global players, sometimes of doubtful legitimacy.”

But outside the conference, some were quick to oppose this critique of international law, especially in reference to human rights.

According to Geraldine Mattioli, an international justice advocate at Human Rights Watch, in the case of the ICC, there are “many safeguards” to prevent anti-Western or anti-American bias from interfering with the judicial process.

“The court is there to prevent or prosecute people for serious war crimes such as genocide which are currently banned in customary law,” Mattioli said. “The ICC makes it more likely that the perpetrators will be brought to justice.”

Pro-family U.N. lobbyists who participated in the1998 negotiations that resulted in the ICC's Rome Statute counter that left-wing NGOs actively sought to write their agendas into the statute. In particular, they point to the successful campaign by radical feminist NGOs to include the term “forced pregnancy” as a “war crime” and “crime against humanity” falling under the jurisdiction of the ICC.

In legal arguments before U.S. courts, the same feminist lawyers who fought in Rome for the inclusion of “forced pregnancy” have defined the term to mean any denial of abortion access. A leading feminist activist admitted in a private meeting in Geneva two months before the Rome negotiations began that feminists had deliberately introduced the term into U.N. discussions as a subterfuge for advancing abortion rights.

In the context of the ICC statute, determined efforts by the Holy See and pro-life national delegations resulted in a final definition of “forced pregnancy” that states that it cannot be used to overturn national laws regarding that limit or ban abortion.

But pro-lifers warn that abortion activists continue to press for a redefinition of “forced pregnancy” at the U.N. level that would allow the term to be used as a club to force Catholic and Muslim countries to rewrite their abortion laws.

The Catechism of the Catholic

Church states that in reference to the principle of subsidiarity, “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activities with the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (No. 1883).

In the opinion of the delegates at last month's conference in Rome, international legal bodies such as the ICC have yet to prove that they intend to conform with this Catholic understanding of subsidiarity and the common good.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.

(Register staff contributed to this report.)