US balks at new war-crimes court

A war-crimes court starts Monday, to the chagrin of Washington, which wants US troops exempt.

The United States is fighting a fierce last-ditch battle against the world's first permanent war-crimes court, threatening the future of United Nations peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and elsewhere, according to UN diplomats.

With the International Criminal Court (ICC) set to become a reality on Monday, US diplomats are waging a lone campaign to keep US peacekeeping troops beyond its reach.

They have run up against strong opposition from their European allies on the UN Security Council, who say Washington's proposals would weaken the court.

The "collective EU (European Union) position ... is clear not just on the maintenance, but also on the promotion of the court and all it stands for," British ambassador to the UN Jeremy Greenstock said earlier this week.

US deputy ambassador Richard Williamson, however, warned when he introduced a resolution seeking immunity from the court for peacekeepers that "the whole spectrum of United Nations peacekeeping operations will have to be reviewed if we are unsuccessful at getting the protections we demand."

Most immediately at risk is the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, whose Security Council mandate runs out on Sunday. US negotiators are threatening to veto a renewal of the mandate unless their personnel in Bosnia are given immunity from the ICC.

More broadly, according to a source familiar with the backroom discussions currently under way, Washington is threatening to withhold its contributions to the UN peacekeeping budget – 27 percent of the total – unless it is given satisfaction.

The Bush administration has strongly opposed the creation of the ICC, which will try cases of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Although President Clinton signed the treaty creating the court just before his term ended, Washington "unsigned" it last month, saying the United States would have nothing to do with the new institution.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week that the United States should be exempt from the court to avoid "political harassment that can take place unfairly, particularly when ... you are fighting the global war on terror and ... the terrorist training books are encouraging people to make those kinds of charges and allegations."

Under the ICC treaty, US soldiers could be brought before the court even if the United States is not a signatory, if the alleged crime were committed on the territory of an ICC member. Sixty-nine countries have so far ratified the treaty.

Supporters of the court, including all of Washington's European allies, say that US troops serving abroad have no reason to fear the ICC, since it will hear only cases that the accused person's home government has refused to try in a reasonable manner.

"In practical terms, it wouldn't make a huge difference, but it is considerably magnified through a certain political lens," says one European Security Council diplomat. "It is hard to imagine how UN personnel could ever be involved in the sort of crimes that the ICC will try, such as genocide," the diplomat adds. "And because the ICC will hear cases only if national governments refuse to prosecute them," the Americans are 99.9 percent protected anyway," she says. "They are knocking themselves out, using a lot of political capital and putting a lot of effort into getting that extra 0.1 percent."

Supporters of the ICC, however, see Washington's bid to exempt its soldiers as a further attempt to undermine the court itself. "They are trying to use the Security Council as a battering ram against the integrity of the court," argues Richard Dicker, head of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch, the New York-based human rights group.

"They are looking to punch a hole in the legitimacy of the ICC by getting the Security Council to do what the Americans couldn't do four years ago [when the treaty was negotiated]: give a 100 percent ironclad guarantee that no US citizen would ever be investigated by the court," Mr. Dicker adds.

The waters of the diplomatic battle in New York have been muddied by the revelation that Britain and other European nations providing peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan negotiated a deal last year with the interim Afghan authorities that their nationals would be immune from arrest or surrender to any international tribunal.

That appeared to open European governments to the charge of hypocrisy. European diplomats, however, point out that the ICC treaty allows for bilateral agreements, and that the Afghanistan accord requires that anyone accused of a crime be handed over to his own government. That would also be the first step in any ICC procedure.

The current wrangle at the UN is not the first time the United States has sought to win immunity from the ICC for peacekeepers: It lost a similar fight last month when the mandate of the UN mission in East Timor was extended.

Washington does not contribute many staff to UN peacekeeping operations: A total of 712 American policemen and 35 soldiers are stationed with UN missions around the world, in such places as the Kuwait–Iraqi border and Western Sahara. Nearly 8,000 US troops serve in Kosovo and Bosnia in NATO-led forces that operate with UN authorization.

The UN discussions have clouded the celebrations that ICC supporters had planned to mark the creation of the court, which they say is one of the most important human rights tools of the past half century.

"But you can't obscure the fact that on Monday the world will be different," says Dicker. "There will be less room for impunity for those responsible for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Justice will be strengthened and accountability will be reinforced."

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