US Pushes To Keep Its Troops Exempt From World Court

The Bush administration, facing a July 1 deadline when war crimes could be prosecuted by a new world criminal court, is stepping up efforts to exempt American troops and other US officials from the tribunal’s jurisdiction.

UNITED NATIONS – The Bush administration, facing a July 1 deadline when war crimes could be prosecuted by a new world criminal court, is stepping up efforts to exempt American troops and other US officials from the tribunal’s jurisdiction.

Preparing for a battle likely to play out in the United Nations, world capitals, and the US Congress, administration officials and key Republican allies say they are pursuing a range of approaches to ensure the United States, which opposes the International Criminal Court, will not be subject to it.

All US ambassadors were told last month by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to explore whether other nations were open to creating mutual agreements that would protect their ”nationals” from the ”reach of the ICC,” according to a copy of a diplomatic cable obtained by the Globe.

Meanwhile, the US mission at the United Nations is seeking support for a resolution that would keep all UN peacekeepers from being prosecuted, and it has threatened to withdraw Americans from UN peacekeeping missions if they are not shielded from the court’s reach.

Should these diplomatic efforts fail, congressional Republicans are ready to block US funds to UN peacekeeping missions . And a bill that would ban the US from cooperating with the new court is part of a homeland security appropriations bill that is expected to be voted on by the House this week.

Although the United States has announced it will not be bound by the court, it is undertaking these strategies to avoid a situation in which an American could be brought before it.

”When the ICC treaty enters into force this summer, US citizens will be exposed to the risk of prosecution by a court that is unacceptable to the American people,” said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when Washington announced on May 6 that it would not be a party to the treaty that created the court.

The idea of a world court that could bring dictators to the dock has been supported by several countries since the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. The idea gained momentum after the creation of two UN war crimes tribunals in the mid-1990s for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

But US officials – led mostly by the Pentagon – have always opposed such a court, fearful that it would not protect American troops and officials from politicized prosecutions, and that there were insufficient checks and balances on its prosecutors’ powers. A treaty establishing the court was adopted in Rome in 1998 over American objections.

Intended as a court of last resort, the ICC, which will sit in The Hague, Netherlands, is intended to prosecute alleged war criminals when their own country does not do so. Former President Clinton, who had serious reservations about the court, signed the treaty creating it in the final hours of his second term. He recommended further protections for soldiers be added before it was ratified.

The Bush administration has chosen to oppose the court rather than change it further. Earlier this month, Washington notified UN Secretary General Kofi Annan it would ”unsign” the treaty, meaning the US no longer had any legal obligations to abide by it.

The administration’s tactics have already frustrated some allies, who say Washington’s fears are unreasonable.

”There are enough guarantees in the treaty to accommodate American concerns,” said Hanns Schumacher, Germany’s acting permanent representative to the United Nations. ”The US is chosing the wrong target.” Germany is among the 66 countries that have ratified the 1998 treaty.

Tempers flared last week when the United States tried to offer an amendment to a UN Security Council resolution on a peacekeeping mission to East Timor that would extend criminal immunity to all former or current UN personnel. The measure was soundly defeated amid arguments that it would undermine the world court.

”The whole point of the court is that it is to be universal,” said one UN Security Council diplomat.

In addition to protecting US soldiers who serve abroad, administration officials aknowledge that ”the long-term concern is for persons in leadership.” That, proponents say, is dangerous ground.

”They are opening the door to chipping away at this treaty,” said Don Kraus, executive director of the Campaign for UN Reform in Washington, which supports the ICC.

For now, Washington’s immediate concern is to guarantee that Americans abroad are immune from the court before the treaty that created it takes effect on July 1. While the ICC is not likely to begin work at The Hague until later this year, it could prosecute alleged war crimes committed as of July 1.

One approach the administration is considering is to renegotiate military and political treaties with hundreds of countries to include guarantees that any American charged with a war crime abroad can only be tried in the United States and not in the ICC or home countries. A provision of the ICC treaty recognizes existing agreements between countries.

But revising hundreds of agreements before July 1 is not feasible, so the Bush administration appears focused instead on protecting those US personnel it considers most vulnerable – the 712 Americans currently in UN peacekeeping missions.

Only one of those Americans is an active soldier; the rest are military observers or civilian police who are serving primarily in Bosnia or Kosovo.

Still, Washington wants the UN Security Council to pass a resolution exempting all UN personnel, whether or not they are American, from prosecution by the court. UN Security Council diplomats say that is unlikely.

”(The Americans) are going to have to find another way,” said one European diplomat. ”It is impossible to adopt something undermining the ICC treaty.”

If such an effort is blocked, the US Congress may come into play. North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, the leading Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is firmly opposed to the ICC. ”This is a court that contains enormous potential for abuse,” said Lester Munson, a committee spokesman. ”It doesn’t look so bad on paper, but then Dr. Frankenstein never intended for his monster to run amok.”

Helms may try to block US funding for UN peackeeping if the UN Security Council efforts fail. Meanwhile, the House may later this week approve its own version of the American Serviceman’s Protection Act, which bars US cooperation with the ICC, as part of a larger appropriations bill.

Author: Elizabeth Neuffer

News Service: Boston Globe

URL: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines02/0523-02.htm