April 27, 2001

The Crime of Aggression: What Is It and Why Doesn’t the U.S. Want the International Criminal Court to Punish It?

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From February 26 through March 8, the Preparatory Commission for the International Criminal Court met in an attempt to forge agreement on defining and punishing the crime of aggression. The Rome Statute for the ICC, written in 1998, will take effect after ratification by 60 states. It specifies the Court will hear charges of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression. But the drafters, unable to agree on a definition and scheme for punishing aggression, left that to an amendment process which allows statutory changes to become operative seven years after the Statute takes effect.

The United States has sought to ensure the ICC’s legal processes do not jeopardize its role as global superpower by subjecting U.S. leaders to prosecution. It has consistently resisted definitions and jurisdictional provisions that may challenge U.S. impunity for wars of aggression.

Following the Holocaust, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg called the waging of aggressive war “essentially an evil thing . . . to initiate a war of aggression . . . is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Associate United States Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, one of the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Tribunal, labeled the crime of aggression “the greatest menace of our times.”

At Nuremberg, for the first time, individuals were held criminally accountable for waging a war of aggression. The Nuremberg Charter proclaims the principle that “individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience imposed by individual states.” The fact that a defendant acted under orders from a superior did not absolve him of responsibility, although it was considered in mitigation of punishment.

The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal was also established following World War II, to try Japanese military and political leaders accused of committing atrocities. United States leaders who were responsible for at least two of the most heinous war crimes in the history of the world – the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – as well as unrestricted submarine warfare in the Pacific and the “Great Turkey Shoot,” were never brought before these two tribunals.

Only the vanquished Germans and Japanese were held accountable for their war crimes and crimes of aggression. In the words of Justice Radhabinod Pal of India, dissenting at the Tokyo Tribunal, that was “victor’s justice.”

The United States and its “victorious” allies are once again escaping responsibility for war crimes, this time for those committed against the people of Yugoslavia. For although several war criminals have been brought before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, it has refused to indict NATO leaders, in spite of criticism from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Walter Rockler, another Nuremberg prosecutor, has said the United States initiated a war of aggression against Yugoslavia. He wrote in the Chicago Tribune: “The notion that humanitarian violations can be redressed with random destruction and killing by advanced technological means is inherently suspect . . . This is mere pretext for our arrogant assertion of dominance and power in defiance of international law.”

More than 50 years before, in his report to the State Department, Justice Jackson wrote: “No political or economic situation can justify” the crime of aggression. He also said: “If certain acts in violation of treaties are crimes they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.” An impartial international criminal tribunal is necessary to prevent “victor’s justice.”

The major points of contention at the recent ICC PrepCom Working Group on Aggression centered around the definition of the crime of aggression (a legal question) and the jurisdictional authority to decide when aggression has occurred (a political question).

Many of the countries at the PrepCom advocated a definition set out in 1974 in General Assembly Resolution 3314, which was passed in the wake of Vietnam. It provides: “Aggression is the use of armed force by a state against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations, as set out in this definition.”

The Resolution contains a non-exclusive list of actions that would constitute aggression, including the invasion or attack by armed forces of a state of the territory of another state; bombardment or use of weapons by the armed forces of a state against the territory of another state; and the blockade of ports or coasts of a state by the armed forces of another state.

Some countries, like Libya, argue that aggression should be defined to include the confiscation of property and the establishment of settlements in occupied territories. The United States continues to freeze Libyan assets and Israel persists in building settlements on the West Bank. Aggression could also conceivably be defined to outlaw preemptive strikes and the kind of naval blockade President John F. Kennedy used during the Cuban Missle Crisis.

The most controversial issue dealt with at the PrepCom was specifying which body will make the determination that a state has committed an act of aggression, if indeed such a finding is a condition precedent to individual liability. The United Nations Charter grants the Security Council primary responsibility to maintain international peace and security. Article 39 says: “The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression.”

The dispute centers around what happens if the Security Council doesn’t make a determination that an act of aggression has occurred, either because one of the five permanent members (United States, Great Britain, France, China and the Russian Federation) vetoes such a finding, or because the Security Council simply fails to act.

Many countries, including the United States, feel that that ends the matter. Others believe an independent judicial finding of individual criminal liability could be made, even if the Security Council does not find as a threshold matter that a state has engaged in aggression. They fear that a Security Council veto would effectively block the ability of the ICC to act to punish aggression.

One possibility is that, in the absence of Security Council action, the General Assembly (the U.N.’s democratic organ) could ask the International Court of Justice (the World Court established in the U.N. Charter) for an advisory opinion on whether aggression has occurred. The ICJ doesn’t have authority to hear criminal charges against individuals. But if the ICJ were to find a state had engaged in aggression, the ICC prosecutor could proceed against individuals in that state for the crime of aggression.

The United States is, of course, vehemently opposed to this procedure. It wants to maintain the prerogative to exercise its Security Council veto over a finding that the United States has committed aggression.

But there is precedent for General Assembly action in the absence of direction from the Security Council. It is the “Uniting for Peace” resolution. During the Korean War, the Security Council would not mandate a U.S.-led effort into North Korea, because of the Soviet veto. Secretary of State Dean Acheson secured the passage of the Uniting for Peace resolution in 1950, to legitimize the General Assembly’s authority.

The Resolution reads: “If the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to members for collective measures. These recommendations can include in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations proclaims the goal of suppressing acts of aggression “in conformity with the principles of justice and international law.” The International Criminal Court, which will serve a crucial purpose in the system of international justice, should be empowered to punish those who commit the supreme crime, the crime of aggression, regardless of their country of origin.