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EU: Deadline Extended For Resolving Dispute With U.S. Over ICC Immunity

  • Ahto Lobjakas

European Union foreign ministers meeting at Elsinore in Denmark on the weekend gave themselves until the end of September to resolve a damaging row with the United States over the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The United States, fearing politically motivated prosecutions of its soldiers abroad, does not support the ICC and is now seeking bilateral arrangements with ICC signatories that would afford its personnel immunity from prosecution. Although some EU member states are ready to meet this demand, a consensus emerged over the weekend to work toward a compromise.

Brussels, 2 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union managed to stave off internal dissension at last weekend's gathering of foreign ministers in Elsinore, Denmark, and continues to present a united front against the United States in the dispute over the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court, or ICC.

Although two EU member states, Italy and Britain, indicated they are ready to accede to U.S. demands, all agreed to put off separate action until the EU has reached a common position.

The European Commission's external-affairs spokeswoman, Emma Udwin, said today in Brussels that, although the positions of the two member countries "diverge somewhat" from the rest of the EU, they agreed to wait and see if a compromise could be found. "The situation has not changed. We [the EU] had a good discussion at the [meeting] over the weekend. There was a general agreement to continue looking for a solution that does not undermine the authority of the [International Criminal] Court, but which at the same time addresses the concerns of the United States," Udwin said.

The United States signed the Rome Statute that created the ICC under the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, but that signature was withdrawn earlier this year by President George W. Bush. Washington says the statute would leave the tens of thousands of U.S. personnel serving overseas open to "frivolous," politically motivated prosecutions.

To avert this danger, the United States is now seeking to sign bilateral agreements with countries that would afford U.S. personnel immunity from ICC prosecution. Four countries have so far signed the bilateral agreement: Romania, Tajikistan, East Timor, and Israel.

European Union member states, together with the candidate states -- with the exception of Romania, which was publicly chastised by Brussels last month -- have refused to sign any bilateral agreements, saying they would undermine the authority of the ICC.

In mid-August, the European Commission said such bilateral agreements would be contrary to the statutes of the ICC. A little later, the German government said it agreed with the commission's analysis.

Britain, on the other hand, has said that the "type" of bilateral agreement sought by the United States would not necessarily violate the Rome Statute. Italy has adopted a similar position.

An EU diplomat told RFE/RL today that EU legal experts will meet on 4 September to discuss a compromise proposal under which EU member states would agree to sign limited bilateral immunity treaties with the United States. These would follow the well-known and widely tested example of the so-called SOFA agreements, which underpinned the presence of U.S. forces on the territory of its allies during the Cold War.

The EU official said the main question appears now to be whether offers of limited immunity are acceptable to the United States, given that the four bilateral treaties already signed grant all U.S. personnel, civilian and military alike, virtual blanket immunity from any foreign prosecution.

The same EU diplomat also said candidate countries would be consulted after the EU has held its internal discussions, but before contacts with the United States, envisaged to take place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in mid-September.

Meanwhile, European Commission spokeswoman Udwin insisted the EU would give the candidates a free hand in how to react to U.S. offers. "[The Danish EU] presidency made it very clear at the end of the [weekend] discussion that the position for the candidate countries is that they would be kept fully informed of the position that we are coming to among ourselves within the [European] Union, but that this is in no way to be used to pressure them or as any kind of threat. They will be kept fully informed, and they can [make] their own decisions, but that obviously there is a certain logic to having aligned themselves to the initial common position," Udwin said.

Nevertheless, two weeks ago, European Commission President Romano Prodi attacked Romania for displaying a lack of "European spirit," and warned other candidates to abstain from unilateral reactions, at least until the EU has drawn up its own position on the issue.

This is now expected to happen at the next meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on 30 September.