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By Carlos Fuentes

Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist and diplomat whose books include the seminal ''The Death of Artemio Cruz,'' serves on the editorial advisory board of New Perspectives Quarterly ( This article will appear in the fall issue of NPQ.

-- My first diplomatic experience occurred in a now very distant 1950 when I served in Geneva as secretary to the Mexican member of the Commission on International Law of the United Nations, Ambassador Roberto Cordova, a stellar career diplomat in a Mexican foreign service corps which at that time had, like MGM, ''more stars than the sky.''

Those events echo today in my memory because the principal theme that occupied Cordova and the Commission on International Law in 1950 had to do with the legitimacy of the processes initiated by the victorious powers of World War II against conquered Nazi Germany. The dispute was clear. Did an ex-post-facto tribunal -- that is, a tribunal created after the crimes themselves -- have the right to judge the deeds of the past? Didn't Nuremberg violate the cardinal principle of criminal law established since the Romans, nullum crimen nulla poena sinae previa lege penale -- that is, no crime and no punishment without a law that precedes it? Or, on the contrary, didn't the fact that the crimes being judged -- atrocities, massacres and executions without due process -- were already crimes before World War II give full legitimacy to the Nuremberg Tribunal? And in any case, weren't the crimes of the Nazi regime so repugnant as to justify an ad hoc tribunal to judge the Hitler regime as well as the individuals who committed these crimes in its name?

The principal promoter of Nuremberg and of the legislation of war crimes in 1945 was the United States of America. Soviet reticence was understandable, and its categorical demand to cut off the heads of the leaders of the Nazi regime, including those who had escaped the hanging noose, was a cover up of Stalinist crimes. Meanwhile, England, with absolute phlegm, didn't allow the deeds of ''Bomber'' Harris, the destroyer of Dresden and the promoter of the allied air victory with losses that were greater for Britain than for Germany, to prick its conscience in the least.

The United States, on the contrary, arrived at Nuremberg and later to the Commission on International Law as the flag bearer of international criminal jurisdiction, an integral part of a global order founded in and on the law. Undimmed by Hiroshima, the United States emerged from World War II as the luminous conscience of the ''good war,'' the moral war, won thanks to its resolute participation against the Axis -- this, of course, of Evil -- Rome-Berlin-Tokyo. In victory, the United States became the principal promoter of international organizations as an indispensable ballast against the repetition of the atrocious events of 1939 to 1945.

The Cold War warmed this American internationalist enthusiasm, giving it a defensive turn. In the deaf combat against communism and its citadel, the Kremlin, Washington needed allies: allies willing (Western Europe, situated on the borders of Soviet power) or allies by force (Latin America aligned for better or for worse with the anti-Soviet politics of Washington).

President Ronald Reagan called the U.S.S.R. ''The Empire of Evil.'' Good or evil, it was an empire with feet of clay that shattered nosily with the Berlin Wall in 1989. President George Bush the elder declared at that time that an era of ''a new international order'' was beginning, that is, a multilateral order with various centers of power (above all, the United States, Europe and Japan, the economic locomotives of the new order) and the supremacy of international law.

It has not been so. The disappearance of a comparable adversary, the U.S.S.R., has left the United States as the only super power.

A clear consciousness of the limits of imperial power, legal barriers and treatment of allies with trust and respect distinguished the presidency of a true statesman, President Bill Clinton. Today, any notion of limits to the unilateral will of the White House has disappeared. And nothing demonstrates that better than the frontal attack of the American government against the International Criminal Court which has just been established by the immense majority of the global community, opening up, as Quentin Peel wrote in London Financial Times, ''the most dangerous and divisive dispute between Europe and the United States, after Sept. 11.''

The International Criminal Court is the result of the terrible experiences of the 20th century: massive violations of human rights; the Nazi Holocaust; the Stalinist gulag; the savage dictatorships of Latin America, Africa and Asia; apartheid in South Africa; My Lai and the American atrocities in Vietnam; more recently, the crimes against humanity in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia (not to mention Chechnya).

The community of nations has been responding to these crimes since the judgments at Nuremberg, but always departing from this principle: Criminal trials are always in the first instance exclusive to the internal laws of each nation. Only when these crimes affect citizens of a third country (the assassination of a Spaniard by the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile) or if they are committed outside the territory of the crime's author (the assassination of the Chilean Socialist Orlando Letelier in the streets of Washington by agents of Pinochet) does the action proceed from an external jurisdiction against an external accused as the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon has been doing.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) adheres entirely to these principles; even in instances specific to the United States, its statute clearly states that neither internal American jurisdiction nor the safeguards of American military personnel are affected.

I will try to summarize the principles that govern the court:
-- The ICC will only hear ''widely spread and systematic atrocities.''
-- In the first instance, these crimes will be investigated and judged by national authorities.
-- The ICC will act only if the national courts cannot or will not.
-- The judges and lawyers of the ICC will be selected on the basis of competency and impartiality. Given that any political trial can hide vendettas or be a cover up for the internal incompetence of a given nation, the signatory countries have the right to remove any partial judges or prosecutors.

In this way, the court offers the maximum guarantees within a framework of laws to the United States of America, the only superpower in a world that differs so greatly from that imagined by the elder Bush at the end of the Cold War. The trauma of Sept. 11 has given international relations a new turn. Profoundly wounded, the United States demands and receives international support in its battle against terrorism. Europe responds by aiding the United States in Afghanistan. But when Europe asks the United States to support a worldwide legal body that can be an effective weapon against terrorism, the United States refuses to participate.

This is the danger, this is the anguish, this is what astounds. Despite all the aforementioned safeguards, President George W. Bush's government says no. And it says no in order to affirm that the United States not be subject to a law or jurisdiction above or beyond those of the United States itself. Paradox of paradoxes: in an era of globalization, when the death of national sovereignty is celebrated or lamented, whatever be the case, the maximum world power affirms its own sovereignty to a degree without precedence, at least since the era of the Roman Empire.

Without limiting powers or potential balance, the United States tells the world: My sovereignty is inviolable. Yours isn't. Or, there is one rule for the USA and another for the rest.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has spelled it out. It is a question of ''defending our people, defending our interests, defending our way of life.'' Against Al Qaeda? Against terrorism? Against crime, subversion, Martian invaders, mutants planted like cabbage heads in the American suburbs, even against local terrorists like Timothy McVeigh?

No. Where Rumsfeld sees the greatest danger for the American people is in the International Criminal Court. Are the enemies of the United States the 74 states that have signed their commitment to the court? Is the entire world the enemy of the United States? Obviously it is, for the right wing of the government in Washington. The battle against the court has little to do with its merits (abundant) or its dangers (nonexistent). It has to do with the internal struggle for power within the Bush administration and signifies the triumph of the most reactionary faction of the administration (that of Vice President Richard Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, and Attorney General John Ashcroft) against the isle of internationalist reason represented today by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Read the virulent rightist rejection of the court as a rejection as well of Powell, whose days, according to the general opinion of European diplomacy, are numbered.

The Americans can leave the court, but we cannot. The decisive words of Javier Solana, charged with the security and foreign affairs of the European Union, should be the guide not only for the Europeans but for all of us. For our own benefit and for that of the United States, he says, it behooves us to remind Washington that the more imperial its politics, the more vulnerable it will be. That if it can't rely on the international community beginning with its own allies, the United States will build its power on air. That nothing is better for the United States after Sept. 11 than to strengthen the empire of law.

But you can't bank on that. The International Criminal Court is only the last in a long series of irresponsible decisions against the elder Bush's ''new international order'' that the younger Bush has ordered decapitated. Everyone is familiar with the list: against the Kyoto Protocol and in favor of the noxious emission of gases; against the acts on biological arms; against the prohibition of nuclear experiments; against the Treaty on Landmines; in favor of oil exploration in the Alaskan ecological zones; in favor of protectionism for steel and gigantic subsidies for agriculture.

We Latin Americans complain about the scant attention paid to our countries by the Bush administration. On the contrary, we should congratulate ourselves. At this moment, to be out of Washington's radar range is almost a health certification.

But my memory returns to Geneva, to the Commission on International Law, to the immediate post-war period and the image of the United States as an active promoter of international law and organization, including penal law. The atrocious crimes of Sept. 11 have more victims than those innocents assassinated by a blind and destructive intolerance. The United States has victimized itself by turning its back on the best defense against terror, which is the law. And Al Qaeda has victimized us all, in crushing the construction of a global legal order, the only avenue against terror, but also against the explosive seeds of terror itself: ignorance, hunger, disease and the poverty of 2 billion human beings on the planet.

(c) 2002, NPQ. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 7/24/02)