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Why Did the U.S. Say No to the International Criminal Court?

Professor Robert Brigham and Ford Scholar Hannah VanDemark '15 research the International Criminal Court. Photo © Vassar College/Madeline Zappala ’13.

In July 1998, the United Nations established the International Criminal Court, a war crimes tribunal spawned by atrocities in the civil wars that erupted in Bosnia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia.

Since then only seven countries have declined to join the court: Israel, Iraq, Yemen, Qatar, Libya, China, and the United States.

“It’s definitely a list you don’t want to be on, said Vassar history professor Robert Brigham. “Since most of our allies have signed the treaty, it’s a drag on our credibility when we intervene in other conflicts; the rest of the world doesn’t trust us.”

Why didn’t the U.S. sign the treaty and join the court?

That was the subject of a research project undertaken by Brigham and Hannah VanDemark ’15, one of 16 Ford Scholars doing research in the humanities and social sciences on the Vassar campus this spring and summer.

Brigham and VanDemark’s research showed then-President Bill Clinton faced stiff opposition to the treaty from some in the Pentagon and members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who feared the country’s sovereignty could be compromised and the court could be used to try American soldiers for alleged war crimes.

But the President’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky also played a role in Clinton’s failure to gain support for the treaty, Brigham and VanDemark said. The scandal exploded just as Clinton had begun to lobby Congress for support. VanDemark said she found one document that showed Clinton had to cancel a meeting on the war crimes treaty because he was conferring with his private attorneys on the Lewinsky affair.

The scandal eventually led to Clinton’s impeachment by the House of Representatives, and the President’s waning popularity probably contributed to his failure to get the treaty approved, Brigham said.

“We’ll never know what would have happened, how much political capital he would have been able to use (to advocate for the treaty) if the scandal had not happened,” Brigham noted.

Brigham and VanDemark presented their findings this month at conferences at the University College at Dublin and at the University College at Cork.

Brigham said Ireland has long played a key role in fostering discussions and debates on human rights.

“If you’re working on human rights issues, you’ll eventually go to Ireland,” he said.

VanDemark helped Brigham acquire and analyze documents from the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, the Office of the U.S. Ambassador for War Crimes, the State Department and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Brigham and VanDemark also used information contained in a recently published book by David Scheffer, All the Missing Souls. Scheffer was U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues from 1997 to 2000 and was an advocate of the treaty establishing the war crimes court. He will speak at Vassar next spring.

VanDemark, said her research had provided her with a deeper understanding of how government works—or fails to work.

“It’s really given me some breadth and depth on how foreign policy decisions are made, how the interactions take place and how things can go wrong,” she said.

—Larry Hertz