It appears that the United States is inching towards a much closer legal, political and institutional relationship with the International Criminal Court (ICC). This may come as a surprise given that the US is currently mired in another tumultuous Presidential election season. Nevertheless, it appears likely that the US will soon expand its Rewards for Justice Program to include ICC indictees. This would mark a significant – and welcome – development in the ICC-US relationship. How it became possible, however, is just as fascinating.
As readers will know, the relationship between the US and the ICC has generally grown more cooperative during the life-span of the Court’s existence. Of course, it didn’t really have anywhere to go but up after John Bolton famously ‘unsigned’ the Rome Statute and the administration of George Bush sought to undermine the Court wherever and whenever it could.
Despite improved relations, however, there is also a growing sense of discomfort with a United States that commits itself to a half-way house relationship with the ICC. Not long ago, I wrote of my concern that America’s position of engaging with the Court but remaining a non-member state could entrench the US’s selective support of international criminal justice, support based not on the interests of justice but the particular political interests of the US government. Indeed, I think there is already palpable evidence of this occurring. As a result, I was rather skeptical when told that Democrats, led by Stephen Rapp, the Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, had been working tirelessly to expand the US government’s Rewards for Justice program.
The Rewards for Justice program, as its name suggests, doles out monetary awards to individuals who produce information which leads to the arrest and/or prosecution of terrorist suspects. While the focus is almost entirely on terrorism, under its rubric the program also currently covers individuals wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). According to its website, the program offers $5 million for information which leads to the detention of individuals wanted by either of the ad hoc tribunals. It is generally accepted wisdom that the program contributed positively to both the ICTY and ICTR gaining custody of most (in the case of the ICTY all) its indictees.
Perhaps, then, it was only a matter of time before someone sought to expand the reach of the Rewards for Justice program to cover individuals wanted by the ICC. That someone was Stephen Rapp who, David Scheffer has argued, “has worked tirelessly on apprehension initiatives to assist the ICC”. A few weeks ago at a conference in Nuremberg, Scheffer added that Rapp has done a “heroic job in Washington” on expanding support for the Court. He also noted that the expansion of the Rewards for Justice program is well on its way, having cleared numerous political committees in Washington.
It now appears that putting ICC indictees under the remit of the Rewards for Justice program is all but inevitable. What is so remarkable about this development is that it has received almost no criticism or resistance in US domestic circles. One would be excused for thinking: “Well, what about all of those Republicans that have worked tirelessly to undermine the ICC?” Indeed, surely those pesky anti-ICC politicos have made a fuss, right? Not really. According to Scheffer, there has been no significant opposition on Capitol Hill. A few developments may help explain this.
First, in a rather genius political move, the amendment of the Rewards for Justice program has adopted the most unpopular ‘mascots’ to make its case: Joseph Kony and Bosco Ntaganda. Highlighting Kony and Ntaganda as the key individuals who need to be brought to justice has helped to make it virtually impossible to argue against the expansion of the program. After all, it is unimaginable that a senior politician would rise up to speak against the arrest of either Kony or Ntaganda.
The second issue is perhaps less overt but nonetheless an important dynamic to highlight: the role of religious groups and conviction in US policy-making on the ICC. Many politicians in Washington enjoy the support of religious (often evangelical) groups which have, in one way or another and for better or worse, become a key market for fighting international impunity in places like Darfur, northern Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Invisible Children, for example, benefits from a staunchly religious base of supporters. Likewise Save Darfur. This, of course, is nothing new. But an indirect and seldom highlighted result is that politicians who may otherwise be skeptical (or worse) towards the ICC find it difficult to actively undermine the Court. These potent and, let’s face it, powerful domestic groups fervently support bringing individuals like Kony and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to justice. To speak out against the ICC or to be seen to undermine the Court thus becomes a surefire way to alienate a pocket of well-organized and highly mobilized supporters. That’s not something that someone who wants to remain a someone would want to do.
So is the expansion of the Rewards for Justice program a positive development? I would certainly think so and the reason is rather simple: there appear to be no political caveats, no obvious capacity for future administrations to rule that only some ICC cases – those with which the US agrees – can be covered. In other words, it does not appear that greater selectivity would be a by-product of putting the ICC under the remit of the Rewards for Justice program – at least for the moment. Still, perhaps even more interesting are the political twists and turns that continue to shape the relationship between the United States and the International Criminal Court.