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No Give for U.S. on Tribunal

The White House plays hardball with foreign aid to ensure that citizens are shielded from the International Criminal Court.

September 28, 2003|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In their frequent visits to Colombia, top U.S. officials couldn't be more supportive of the government, repeatedly describing it as a friend and key ally in the war on drugs.

But when Colombia refused to exempt all Americans from the jurisdiction of the newly formed International Criminal Court, U.S. officials took a hard line. They prepared to cut off all $150 million of the Pentagon's annual aid to Bogota, despite Colombia's protest that doing so would seriously set back its battle against drug gangs.

Faced with the threatened cutoff, Colombia recently relented and said it would sign an agreement with the United States not to turn over Americans to the international court.

The confrontation underscored the Bush administration's unyielding stance on an issue that has put it at odds for more than a year with some of its closest allies. The dispute has again raised charges that the administration is pursuing a go-it-alone approach to foreign affairs, and that it is steamrolling weak and dependent countries to get its way.

The tribunal, founded in 1998 by an international treaty and ratified by 90 nations, is meant to be the world's first permanent war crimes court. Though the Clinton White House supported the court in principle, the Bush administration views it as a threat, because it has the power to prosecute the citizens of any nation without appeal to national governments or the United Nations.

Under a federal law passed a year ago, any nation refusing to sign an agreement exempting U.S. citizens from the court's jurisdiction risks losing U.S. military aid. The Bush administration has rigorously applied the law.

The court's declared mission is to handle the most serious cases of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, where national courts are unable or unwilling to do so. The international court also can take cases in which it decides that the national court prosecution has been insufficient. The Bush administration believes it is particularly vulnerable to politically motivated trials in such a court because U.S. troops operate in more than 100 countries.

The court will be based in The Hague, Netherlands, staffed by judges and prosecutors supplied by member states.

The European Union and other key U.S. partners support the court, but the Bush administration, condemning it as illegitimate, is prodding countries to sign bilateral exemption agreements, and has begun cutting aid -- even to friendly nations -- if they refuse.

The vigorous campaign has outraged some of the court's supporters, who say the United States is undermining the court before it hears its first case, later this year.

"This is another example of the superpower acting as if whatever it said, goes," fumed a senior diplomat from one close ally, who asked not to be named.

The dispute has trapped many Eastern European countries in an awkward position between the European Union, which they aspire to join, and the United States, whose backing they also want as part of their effort to enter NATO. The Europeans maintain that no European country should sign an agreement with the United States that would undermine the authority of the international court.

The Bush administration has publicly protested the EU's position. Lincoln Bloomfield, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, recently complained that the EU was urging Eastern Europe "with ever increasing intensity" to stick to the EU's position on the exemption issue. In a Sept. 17 speech in New York, Bloomfield charged that the EU had broken a promise to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell not to block U.S. efforts to obtain exemptions.

Among those who have lost aid are 10 nations that were members of the coalition that took part in the war in Iraq with the United States -- including such "new Europe" governments as Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The U.S. campaign is "a triumph of narrow ideology over the national interest," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.

"The United States is begging countries to help America, yet cutting off assistance designed to help them," he said.

Not so, insist U.S. officials. They say they have worked hard to maintain good relations with allies as they have pressed to obtain the exemptions.

"We have not been pressuring countries," said John R. Bolton, undersecretary of State for arms control and international security.

He said the United States is making steady progress with other countries, pointing out that 63 countries have signed bilateral deals. Several dozen more will do so in the weeks ahead, Bolton predicted.

A key issue in dispute is how broad the U.S. exemption from court jurisdiction should be.

Many countries are willing to grant exemptions for U.S. troops and civilians on official missions; many countries routinely grant such exemptions for peacekeepers.

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