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Mary Robinson is the former United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights and the former president of Ireland. She spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels in New York on June 22.

NATHAN GARDELS: The United States has been insisting again on a yearly exemption from jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court for any U.N. Security Council-related activity in which its troops are involved, which will be the case with Iraq after June 30.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that, especially after Abu Ghraib, he wont' support this waiver because it compromises the global rule of law. What is your view?

MARY ROBINSON: When the United States originally applied for this exemption, I opposed it at that time because I thought it was detrimental to the rule of law and the standing of the International Criminal Court (ICC). My feeling is even stronger now because of the U.S. ambivalence in clarifying the status of prisoners under the Geneva Conventions and bending the rules in relation to torture.

This is not a time for exemptions, therefore. Much ground has to be made up for the damage done already to the rule of law. It is a time for the United States and the international community as a whole to assert the importance of standards and principles for all, with no exceptions.

I welcome the fact that the Secretary-General has strongly expressed his view against the U.S. waiver. And I firmly and strongly agree with him.

GARDELS: From a human-rights standpoint, are you satisfied with the extent of the U.S. investigation into Abu Ghraib? Isn't this just the kind of case where the ICC would apply?

ROBINSON: The jurisdiction of the ICC is applicable in principle if there were a Security Council resolution, even though neither the United States nor Iraq is a signatory. Because of the certainty of U.S. veto, obviously, this is not very realistic.

The responsibility therefore lies at the moment with the United States itself, which is investigating what happened. Hopefully it is carrying out a thorough investigation along the whole chain of command -- not only in Iraq but with respect to Guantanamo Bay -- to bring those responsible for abuses to justice.

Am I satisfied? More issues are coming to light -- and it is important they are coming to light. It is a work in progress. We have to closely monitor what is happening.

GARDELS: The U.S. argument is that without an exemption from the ICC, it could be subject to politically motivated prosecutions wherever it has a military presence, which will lead to its withdrawal from U.N. peacekeeping efforts. That, in turn, will end the effectiveness of peacekeeping. How do you respond to the U.S. worry?

ROBINSON: I've never felt this argument holds weight. The ICC has a very respected, credible prosecutor. It has very distinguished judges. If there are allegations of serious crimes, the first responsibility is with the accused country before the court comes into play. If that country carries out its responsibilities to investigate and bring justice, the ICC wouldn't come into play anyway.

As High Commissioner, I welcomed the statutes promulgated at the (founding) Rome Conference as the greatest contribution any international institution would make to human rights in the 21st century. It is very important in this world of ours, where there is so much impunity and such a lack of recourse on the part of the victims, that there is a court that can bring egregious violators to justice. That far outweighs any other arguments against it, particularly arguments about things never likely to happen. It is sad indeed that the superpower is not 100 percent behind this court.

I hope that the consequences of lowering of standards of human rights in recent months by the United States will cause thoughtful people in the American Congress and administration to reflect on the importance of the court.

GARDELS: What do you mean "the lowering of standards"?

ROBINSON: I mean the U.S. ambivalence on the status of prisoners and not fully complying with the provisions of the Geneva Conventions. I mean the ambivalence on the use of torture in the war on terror. I mean the legal advice to the president of the United States that, under certain circumstances, he would not be bound by either the laws of the U.S. Congress or international law.

From my experience as High Commissioner, I know all this is read by many other countries as a signal that standards have changed, that the bar has been lowered. In fact, the standards haven't changed. It is the country that the world has seen as the standard bearer of human rights that has changed. That has consequences.

That is why, again, this is not a time for exceptions, waivers, exemptions or special treatment. It is a time to be firm on standards.

GARDELS: During the Kosovo war, your concern over human rights and civilian casualties led you to call for an investigation into the U.S. bombing of Belgrade. Isn't that exactly the kind of thing the United States is worried about happening if its troops are engaged in war of any kind, even if its aim was to stop genocide?

ROBINSON: My concern at the time, in the context of the war in Kosovo, was whether the extent of the U.S. bombing campaign fit with the principle of proportionality, a principle of just war. As High Commissioner, I was concerned about reminding people that, in modern warfare, it is really civilians who are on the front line. And they must be protected. Careful monitoring of the use of force in war is even more important than in peacetime.

(c) 2004, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 7/23/04)