THE US Senate would appear to be dealing with an easy question: Should it approve a treaty that declares genocide an international crime? But in goernment or politics little is as simple as it appears, which is why this United Nations treaty has languished unratified for 35 years, ever since President Truman sent it to the Senate in 1949.
Thus far, conservative senators have successfully opposed the treaty, essentially claiming that it would infringe upon US sovereignty and the constitutional protections that US laws provide to American citizens.
But this year the realistic prospect exists that the Senate might approve it. Senate proponents are working with Sen. Jesse Helms, current leader of the opposition to the treaty, to try to work out language acceptable to him so that they might gain his support.
If they succeed by Tuesday, it is very possible that both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the full Senate will approve the measure. But if they fail, the committee will likely still approve it but the Senate will probably not even consider it: A filibuster would be likely, and the Senate cannot afford to be paralyzed by one with only a month left in this year's session.
The Senate ought to approve the treaty -- 35 years is enough time to consider it. The United States is the only major Western democracy not to have approved it, and even the Soviet Union has signed it. As a consequence the USSR, despite its own major human rights violations at home and abroad, has long made propaganda hay out of the American failure to approve the proposal.
The treaty not only declares genocide a crime, but calls on member nations to punish countries responsible for genocide. It was enacted in the wake of the Nazi genocide against Jews during World War II, as one means of preventing future such atrocities.
What concerns conservatives today is what they view as the prospect tha a nation antagonistic to the US might request the International Court of Justice to place Americans on trial for some purported crime of genocide. Opponents cite, for example, the prospect that North Vietnam might have asked the International Court to try captured US fliers for genocide during the Vietnam war.
Led by Senator Helms, conservatives want a written understanding appended to the treaty making it clear that the US would not necessarily accept any ruling by the International Court if it were on matters the US considered domestic. Proponents, including the administration, oppose the Helms-led effort as unnecessary.
What makes passage possible now is the decision earlier this month by the Reagan administration, after three years of study, to support ratification.