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U.S. Ends Bid to Exempt Troops From Global Court

June 24, 2004|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — The United States on Wednesday abandoned its attempt to seek an extension of a United Nations resolution shielding American troops from prosecution for war crimes, but warned that it might rethink its participation in future peacekeeping missions.

The administration made the decision because of a diplomatic backlash that followed the recent scandal involving abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel.

The move represented the Bush administration's biggest setback at the United Nations since March 2003, when the White House dropped its push for a resolution that would have authorized the war in Iraq.

"This year China is under pressure because of the news coverage of the prison abuse," said Wang Guangya, China's ambassador to the U.N. "My government is under particular pressure not to give a blank check to the United States for the behavior of its forces."

Deputy U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham said the administration decided to withdraw its proposed resolution after key Security Council opponents rebuffed a U.S. compromise proposal that would have limited the exemption to one more year. The U.S. had secured firm support from only five of the council's 15 members; nine votes are needed for adoption.

Many diplomats saw the U.S. bid to win blanket immunity for a third year as an attempt to undermine the International Criminal Court. A strongly worded objection to the exemption by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week proved a turning point for several countries, including Russia, which earlier had indicated its support.

"The United States has decided not to proceed further with consideration and action on the draft at this time in order to avoid a prolonged and divisive debate," Cunningham said after a closed-door council meeting.

The deputy ambassador warned that the failure might preclude American involvement in U.N.-authorized peacekeeping missions if Washington thought the missions could put U.S. personnel at risk of politically motivated prosecution.

The ICC, the first permanent global criminal tribunal, was established in July 2002 to try individuals accused of crimes against humanity -- genocide, war crimes and other human rights abuses. It is intended as a court of last resort if governments do not satisfactorily mete out justice.

The United States has been the ICC's most vocal critic. After the court's founding, Washington threatened to pull out of peacekeeping missions in East Timor and Bosnia-Herzegovina if Americans there were subject to the court's jurisdiction.

The resolution establishing the court gave the United States a one-year exemption to reach agreements with other countries to prevent their handing over American troops or civilians to the court.

Washington has negotiated 90 so-called "non-surrender" agreements. Last year, with tensions on the Security Council still high after the diplomatic battle over authorizing the invasion of Iraq, only three council members -- France, Germany and Syria -- registered their opposition to extending the exemption. But other members warned the U.S. that the extension was not meant to be permanent.

This year, the graphic depictions of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and allegations of prisoner abuse in Afghanistan, made the renewal of immunity difficult for many nations.

U.S. officials have pointed out that Americans accused of prisoner abuses are being prosecuted by the U.S. justice system, and because neither Iraq nor the U.S. is a signatory to the ICC, the Abu Ghraib cases would never have made it to the court anyway.

But human rights groups lobbied Security Council members not to renew the exemption, which expires Wednesday, the same day the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq transfers power to a caretaker Iraqi government.

The prison scandal also seemed to embolden Annan -- who has long disliked the exemption -- to speak against the latest proposal. In meetings with reporters and diplomats, he said the "blanket exemption is wrong" and that to grant it, especially in the shadow of prisoner abuse in Iraq, "would discredit the council and the United Nations that stands for rule of law."

Spain, considered a key vote on the issue, was swayed more by Annan's appeal than the last-minute U.S. compromise, its ambassador said after the U.S. withdrew the draft resolution.

"He [Annan] was very forceful in putting forth his views," Spanish Ambassador Juan Antonio Yanez-Barnuevo said. "This had an important effect on the dynamics of the council."

German Ambassador Gunter Pleuger said Tuesday, "We do not want to slap the secretary-general in the face."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday that the U.S. would have to examine each peacekeeping mission "case by case," and he hinted that it could veto operations in countries that are parties to the international court.

"We also will have to look at it in terms of staffing and providing Americans to participate in peacekeeping missions -- what the risk might be of prosecution by a court to which we're not party," Boucher said.

Another U.S. official said one option would be to attach an exemption clause to each resolution authorizing a mission in a country with which the U.S. has no immunity agreement, as was done with a recent resolution on Liberia.

Though the immunity resolution's failure was seen by some as a diplomatic defeat for Washington, other diplomats were careful to portray it as limited to the ICC issue.

"I don't see it as showing waning U.S. power on the Security Council," said Heraldo Munoz, Chile's ambassador. "We did not vote against the United States, we voted for international law."

Also Wednesday, the court announced its first investigation into reports of thousands of killings in Congo since July 2002.

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