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UN: Vote To Extend Immunity On ICC Highlights Gulf Among Allies

  • Robert McMahon

Peacekeepers from the United States and other nonparties to the statute of the International Criminal Court will be exempt from prosecution by the court for another year. A compromise resolution passed yesterday in the UN Security Council, but France and Germany abstained, and a public debate affirmed that deep divisions over the court remain. Meanwhile, U.S. officials continue to point to a Belgian law on war crimes as a reason for their concern about politically motivated prosecutions of U.S. citizens.

United Nations, 13 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Acknowledging fundamental differences, the UN Security Council has passed a resolution extending an exemption for some UN peacekeepers from prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The vote yesterday followed a public debate in the Security Council in which representatives from nearly 20 states warned that repeated renewals of the exemption would undermine the ICC, as well as the council's legitimacy.

And in an echo of the divisions over Iraq, France and Germany abstained on the vote, which passed 12-0. Representatives of the two countries, joined by Syria, said the new resolution was unnecessary and would weaken the ICC, which is to become operational later this year.

The resolution renews a measure that was passed unanimously last July. At the time, the United States threatened to veto UN peacekeeping missions unless it gained protection from prosecution for its military personnel.

But Germany's UN ambassador, Gunter Pleuger, said after yesterday's vote that the ICC should not be seen as an impediment to peacekeeping. "The ICC is a safeguard. The ICC, as an institution designed to prevent impunity, can play an important role in protecting peacekeepers in the execution of their missions," Pleuger said.

U.S. officials say the resolution extending immunity is consistent with the UN Charter. It notes that states not a party to the Rome Statute -- which created the court -- will continue to fulfill their responsibilities in their national jurisdictions in relation to international crimes.

The deputy U.S. ambassador to the UN, James Cunningham, said the United States has a fundamental objection to the ICC's claim of jurisdiction over citizens of states even if they are not parties to the court.

And Cunningham challenged the view expressed by some representatives yesterday that the United States is seeking impunity for its personnel. "It is worth noting that the resolution does not in any way affect parties to the court, nor the Rome Statute itself. Nor does it, as some today suggested, elevate an entire category of people above the law. The ICC is not 'the law,'" he said.

Despite the differences, U.S. and German diplomats after the vote dismissed suggestions of any new trans-Atlantic rift.

Five European states on the Security Council -- Germany, France, Britain, Spain, and Bulgaria -- have ratified the Rome Statute. The latter three, which supported Washington in its campaign in Iraq, said the new resolution is necessary to maintain peacekeeping. But their representatives expressed hopes of ending the practice of rolling over exemptions to prosecution by the ICC.

British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock said yesterday's vote was an acceptable outcome to a difficult situation. "Whilst we understand U.S. concerns about the International Criminal Court, we do not share them. But those concerns, articulated forcefully in 2002, are still firmly held, and the implications for Security Council-mandated and -authorized operations remain the same as they were last year," Greenstock said.

Munir Akram, the ambassador of council member Pakistan, said his country shares some of the U.S. concerns about the reach of the ICC. As the country which contributes the most peacekeepers to UN missions, Akram said, Pakistan considers the safeguards in the resolution necessary.

"We believe that United Nations peacekeepers should not be exposed to any arbitrary or unilateral action by any national or international body. This possibility could further reduce the incentives for member states to offer UN peacekeeping forces," Akram said.

U.S. officials have cited Belgium's universal jurisdiction law for war crimes as an example of how prosecutors could abuse their power against citizens of another state. The law has led to a war crimes suit against General Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in the war in Iraq. The Belgian government amended the law and last month referred the suit to the United States.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said during a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels yesterday that the law raises doubts about Belgium's suitability to host meetings of the defense alliance.

"If the civilian and military leaders of member states cannot come to Belgium without fear of harassment by Belgian courts entertaining spurious charges by politicized prosecutors, then it calls into question Belgium's attitude about its responsibilities as a host nation for NATO and allied forces," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld said Washington would oppose funding for a new NATO headquarters in Belgium until the legal threat is withdrawn. Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel said today there is no need to amend the legislation any further.

As an added measure to safeguard its forces and other personnel abroad, the United States has been securing bilateral agreements with countries to exempt its citizens from prosecution by the ICC. Washington has 37 such agreements.

But Croatia yesterday refused to sign such an agreement. Its deputy foreign minister, Ivan Simonovic, said Croatia is hoping to settle the issue in separate bilateral agreements with the United States, but he gave no details.