Romney Is Confused About The World Court

During last night’s final presidential debate, Governor Mitt Romney repeated a goal listed on his website: to have Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad charged with promoting genocide. The statement, intended to illustrate how much tougher Romney would be in confronting Iran over its nuclear program, instead shows several ways in which he and his campaign team neither understand the political structure of Iran nor the international justice system.

Romney was clear last night about the steps he would take diplomatically to ensure Iran’s isolation, saving his harshest terms for Ahmadinejad:

ROMNEY: Secondly, I’d take on diplomatic isolation efforts. I’d make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it. I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariah they are around the world. The same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa.

When asked after the debate about Romney’s genocide declaration, his advisers suggested that Ahmadinejad could be tried at the “World Court“:

According to Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, successfully indicting Ahmadinejad would be more than just a symbolic victory.

“I think it would remove probably one of the most anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, pro-genocide members of that regime in Tehran,” he told TPM after the debate. As to whether he would actually be arrested: “I’m hoping that he would be indicted and that action would unfold following that indictment. Absolutely.”

The Romney team seems discouragingly uninformed when it comes to international law, which their candidate reflected on stage. The World Court, another name for the International Court of Justice, was founded as part of the United Nations in 1945, with its headquarters in the Hague. A continuation of the Permanent Court of International Justice under the League of Nations, the ICJ settles legal disputes between states on matters such as border disputes and the use of force. Unfortunately for the Romney team, the ICJ only tries states, not individuals like Ahmadinejad.

What the campaign could have been referring to instead is the International Criminal Court, created in 2002 for just such a purpose. Its founding document, the Rome Statute, does indeed cover incitement of genocide as one of the crimes against humanity that it is able to hear. An indictment of a sitting President, such as that of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir in 2009, could take place under the Rome Statute, or the 1948 Genocide Convention as Romney seems to wish.

The only problem with that hypothesis? Neither the United States nor Iran have signed onto the Rome Statute, meaning that both states deny the jurisdiction of the Court over their actions. While the U.S. still continues to oppose entry into the Court’s mechanisms, there is another way to get Ahmadinejad before the ICC. Romney would need to secure a referral of Iran by the U.N. Security Council, as recommended for Syria. Where the ICC would get the power to “arrest” Ahmedinijad following an indictment is more questionable, given the relative freedom of movement granted to Sudan’s al-Bashir by sympathetic states.

Also, as the Washington Post points out, among the detractors of the very concept of the ICC is top Romney foreign policy advisor John Bolton. In a March 2011 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Bolton slammed the Obama administration’s decision to refer Libya to the ICC:

The ICC is one of the world’s most illegitimate multilateral institutions. The court’s vast prosecutorial authority is unaccountable to any democratic polity. […] Mr. Obama’s ready embrace of the International Criminal Court exemplifies his infatuation with handling threats to international peace and security as though they were simply local street crimes. It also reflects his overall approach to international affairs: a passive, legalistic America, deferring to international bodies, content to be one of 15 Security Council members rather than leading from the front.

Moreover, even in the event of a successful referral, taking the current President of Iran before the Court would do little to affect Iran. Ahmadinejad is the definition of a lame-duck president, leaving office five months after the U.S. inauguration. Already he is being denied such requests as visiting a former aide of his in prison, as befitting his role as a public figure for the actual power structure in Iran.

In exposing their lack of insight into both international structures and the way Iran actually works, the Romney camp is doing little to bolster the opinion the majority of Americans had about his debate performance.