CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Coalition MPs revolt against the ICC
, June 29, 2002
The controversy over Australia's participation in the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the split it has caused in the ranks of the Liberal Party, represents some of the hidden tensions which are pulling at the conservatives parties over recent months.
A Howard Government decision to proceed with committing Australia to the ICC appeared to be a case of "Game, Set and Match" until a few weeks ago when a backbench revolt began errupting practically out of nowhere.
Until then it had not been even an issue in the mainstream media in general, and the Canberra Press Gallery in particular, both appearing to overlook the mounting dissent in government ranks.Concerns
Objections to the proposal to join the ICC - which starts business next month - mainly came from the Returned Services League, Dr Ian Spry of the Council for National Interest, Adelaide-based commentator Christopher Pearson, and influential Sydney radio talk-back host, Alan Jones.
The revolt and a potential humiliation of the Attorney-General Daryl Williams, the Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and the Canberra 'internationalist' establishment should have been a major political story.
After all Williams had described it as one of the priorities for the Howard Government's third term, while Downer described the ICC as one of the government's "key human rights objectives".
The backbench revolt against Australia joining the ICC was first discovered when Liberal MPs lined up one after another to express their various concerns about the proposal.
Prime Minister John Howard gradually moved from being broadly in favor, to being ambivalent, and his recent trip to the United States (which has notably refused to sign up) increased his scepticism about the ICC.
Mr Howard had no wish to take on his backbench over a 10th order issue, but also knew it would be a serious veto of his Foreign Minister who had staked his personal reputation in support of the ICC.
Mr Howard said he had heard "very powerful" arguments against the court during his trip to Washington, and these were similar to those being put by Liberal MPs in the party room in Canberra.
The International Criminal Court project has been developing with Australia's enthusiastic support for about ten years, and the idea behind the institution was to replace the ad hoc tribunals that have been set up to investigate instances of mass murder and ethnic cleansing from Rwanda and Yugoslavia, with a permanent body.
But alarm bells have been ringing about the role of UN-based NGOs in politicising the new court; vagueness of the definitions of what would constitute a "war crime"; misuse of the court for political and other purposes; ethnic groups using the court to attack Western governments; and about another international bureaucracy being set up.
The ICC proposal is in fact not too different from a raft of other treaties and bodies Australia has signed up to in recent years - just the latest in the myriad little steps Australia and other Western governments have taken along their inexorable path of voluntarily ceding sovereignty to an international administration.
However, this time, and especially within the Liberal Party ranks, it came to be a symbol for a frustrated backbench fed up with being ignored by the ministry.
One of the leading opponents has been former minister Bronwyn Bishop who has seen the ICC has her 'cause celebre' and chance to stamp her authority and conservative credentials on the party once again.Inquiry
The sudden turnaround in Coalition sentiment follows a long-running and exhaustive Parliamentary inquiry headed by Western Australian Liberal Julie Bishop which gave it the nod (apart from a few muffled reservations from dissenting Liberal members of the committee).
According to some reports, the Federal Cabinet has apparently signed off on ratifying the treaty twice without a dissenting voice.
It also had bipartisan support from the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Democrats which had both long supported the concept of a world court.
However, the more closely Liberal MPs looked at the proposal and its potential to do harm to the countries which were least likely to commit international war crimes, the more loudly they began to express their concerns.
Definitions of what constituted "war crimes", "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" were so vague, MPs argued that Australian Governments, officials, MPs and our brave soldiers could conceivably hauled before the court on trumped-up charges.
At the most recent party meeting the Liberal Party was split roughly down the middle on the issue, and the proposal was to go back to Cabinet for consideration for a third time.
As a face-saving measure for Williams and Downer compromise proposals were also being considered to provide more safeguards to protect Australia's sovereignty and to prevent Australians facing "charges" based on political and other dubious grounds.