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World Court Should Take Center Stage to Settle Disputes

Increasingly persuasive arguments suggest that there is time for a new look at the International Court of Justice by nations who should know that both sides will be losers if they cannot settle their problems peacefully. It is time for the Clinton administration to recognize this and recommend it whenever possible.

An instructive example to rule-of-law believers was supplied recently by two eastern states, successors to members of the Warsaw Pact.

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Hungary had been aggrieved by a projected Czechoslovak diversion of the Danube River. The two could not agree on possible remedies, and since neither had agreed to compulsory submission to the court at The Hague, Hungary's petition for a remedy by adjudication was fruitless. But after the separation of Slovakia, in whose territory the problem with the Danube was situated, things changed. The newly seceded state signed a treaty with Hungary for judicial resolution of the dispute. The case was added to the

World Court's calendar on July 5, 1993.

Since 1986, a flood of new cases from almost every continent has come to the court - more than at any time in its history.

American diplomats reportedly have sought to aid, by mediation, dispute resolution among the former Soviet republics. They could help by politely reminding President Boris Yeltsin of the words he delivered at the United Nations in early 1992.

Speaking at the Security Council's so-called super-summit meeting, he proposed that "to consolidate the rule of law throughout the world," the prestige of the court at The Hague, "as an effective instrument for the peaceful settlement of international disputes," should be enhanced.

In this he was expressing agreement with an initiative taken five years earlier by President Mikhail Gorbachev of the then-Soviet Union. Yeltsin's views were echoed at the meeting by the leaders of Venezuela, Austria, Japan, and Zimbabwe. But President Bush was silent.

United States diplomats are said to have been instructed to mediate among the former Soviet states. They should be told that when doing so they should not forget the availability and desirability of the World Court as a forum for the settlement of disputes that have knotty legal problems.

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THE International Court of Justice was brought into being primarily as a result of American leadership. In this effort both the presidents and the peace movements of the early years of this century collaborated.

The US failed to participate in the work of the court's predecessor in the inter-war years after the Versailles Treaty because of isolationist rejection of the League of Nations.

We resumed leadership under Presidents Roosevelt and Truman in advocating compulsory submission of international disputes to the court at The Hague, so that peace could be built on adherence to the rule of law. That leadership was interrupted in 1985, when the US revoked its consent to obligatory jurisdiction of the court.

With the cold war over, it makes no sense for the US to continue the sore-loser policy of past administrations. Having won its first major domestic battle, the Clinton White House should turn to restoring respect for international law as an essential ingredient of a peace-building foreign policy.

An important initial step in that direction is to turn back to the World Court as the place to settle disputes that so often have a legal element.

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