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UN: U.S. Brandishes Veto Power In Dispute Over Jurisdiction Of ICC

  • Don Hill

The United States brandished its veto power on the UN Security Council over the weekend, threatening the future of UN peacekeeping missions around the world generally and the mission in Bosnia specifically. The U.S. is seeking exemption from prosecution for its peacekeepers by the new International Criminal Court on the grounds that U.S. prominence make its servicemen and women a target for politicized prosecution. RFE/RL reports that world diplomats are scurrying in search of a compromise.

Prague, 1 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has given the UN's peacekeeping mission in Bosnia three more days to live.

The U.S. yesterday first vetoed a six-month extension of UN peacekeeping operations in Bosnia after the UN rejected Washington's demand that U.S. peacekeepers receive immunity from prosecution by the new International Criminal Court (ICC), which came into official existence today.

But Washington agreed in a later vote to keep the Bosnia mission operating until the end of 3 July, while diplomats seek to resolve the dispute.

The Bosnian peace mission wandered into the U.S. line of fire because its mandate to continue deployment in Bosnia was set to expire at midnight last night. The U.S. had been warning for days that it would veto extending the mandate unless the Security Council agreed to exempt U.S. peacekeepers from the court's jurisdiction.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, put it this way yesterday: "We will not ask them [American peacekeepers] to accept the additional risk of politicized prosecutions before a court whose jurisdiction over our people the government of the United States does not accept."

The action left the United States out on an international diplomatic limb. Canada's Ambassador to Sweden Phillipe Kirsch, chairman of the ICC Preparatory Commission, said in an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Mensur Camo: "The United States is the only country in the world that has taken an actively adversarial attitude to the court. Other states that may not have signed or ratified yet are taking a much more cooperative approach, including China and including Russia which, in fact, has signed the statute."

At the Security Council yesterday, Britain and France hurriedly cobbled together a compromise to extend the Bosnian mission to the night of 3 July. The United States went along after UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that the U.S. veto would upset plans to turn the UN mission over to the European Union at the end of this year. Annan also said, "The world cannot afford a situation in which the Security Council is deeply divided on such an important issue, which may have implications for all peace operations."

But U.S. officials said Washington will persevere in its demand that its peacekeepers be exempted from ICC scrutiny. Negroponte said America's vast global responsibilities place it on a lonely pinnacle where it is a tempting target for politicized prosecution, among other things.

Advocates of the ICC -- 74 nations so far have ratified the treaty creating the court -- say the treaty has ample protections that prevent such an outcome. Canadian Ambassador Kirsch: "The court will [act only] if the judicial system of the particular state is unable or unwilling to do it. In states like the United States, which has a perfectly proper judicial system and a fully functioning democracy, obviously crimes of that magnitude -- genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity -- would be addressed by national courts and so therefore the [International Criminal] Court would never have to intervene."

That argument has an obvious double edge. If the United States is so constituted that any needed war crimes prosecutions of its citizens already are certain, then there is no reason to withhold the exemption it desires. One answer, of course, is that court advocates object to the symbolism of special privilege for the world's most powerful nation. Another is that the court, by its mere existence, constitutes an impetus for nations to prosecute their own offenders.

U.S. opponents of the court cite past efforts to criminalize U.S. behavior in international interventions. One example: International elements accused the U.S. military of war crimes when it bombed Serbia in its successful campaign to halt the killings and expulsions of Kosovar Albanians by forces of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

The movement for an ICC began in the 19th century and gained impetus from war crimes trials of Nazi and imperial Japanese leaders after World War II. One hundred sixty nations adopted the ICC treaty in Rome in 1998. The U.S. president at the time, Bill Clinton, signed the treaty with reservations, and President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the treaty earlier this year.

The International Criminal Court now is an internationally recognized entity, with the potential to assume jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity committed from today on anywhere in the world. But it will not try any suspects until 2003 at the earliest.

What remains in question is whether the United States and its Security Council colleagues can find a way to save the Bosnian peacekeeping mission.