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UN: U.S. Seeks Exemptions From Permanent Criminal Court

Some final preparations for the International Criminal Court got under way last week with U.S. officials seeking late changes to the court. The United States wants to protect U.S. citizens from surrendering to international jurisdiction without their government's consent, but supporters of the court say enough safeguards for national sovereignty already exist in the charter. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 20 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A commission of international experts began meetings last week at UN headquarters to complete work on the rules of procedure and evidence for the world's first permanent international criminal court.

The court won the backing of 120 countries in Rome in 1998, and since then 97 countries have signed the treaty. The court's purpose is to prosecute the world's worst crimes. Its jurisdiction includes genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

The United States has been a strong supporter of war crimes trials for leaders such as Saddam Hussein of Iraq or Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

But the United States was among a small group of countries two years ago, including Iraq, that voted against the creation of the international court. U.S. officials have expressed concern that American citizens would fall under the jurisdiction of the court in a country that ratified the treaty, even if the United States is not a party to the treaty. It says this leaves U.S. citizens open to politically-motivated prosecutions.

Last week, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes, David Scheffer, has been discussing with diplomats at the United Nations an exemption for U.S. soldiers from prosecution. In exchange, Scheffer says, the U.S. government would consider giving the court its financial and technical backing even if the United States did not become a formal party to the court.

Scheffer stressed in an interview with our correspondent last Thursday that the U.S. government is supportive of the court. But ratification of the treaty, he says, is close to impossible in the current Republican-dominated Congress.

In the meantime, Scheffer says, the United States is seeking safeguards that would prevent the automatic surrender of Americans to the international court for alleged crimes committed on the territory of a treaty member. But if a group of U.S. soldiers is charged, for example, with a crime against humanity in another country, Scheffer says they would still face criminal proceedings under U.S. law.

"We are not advocating impunity for these soldiers. The proposal does not advocate that at all. They do not escape the rule of law. Nor does our proposal advocate rogue states being able to enjoy the same privilege of non-surrender to the court."

The treaty already says that the court will only claim jurisdiction when states are unwilling or unable to carry out justice. The United States has often tried members of the armed forces in military courts when they are accused of criminal activity. But Scheffer says the United States is concerned about cases in which military personnel accused of crimes are not in U.S. custody.

Supporters of the international court say the United States has already negotiated enough treaty safeguards to ensure sovereign jurisdiction. And a legal adviser for Human Rights Watch, Richard Dicker, says many countries have already expressed their satisfaction with the treaty. He told reporters that the ratification of the treaty last Friday by France -- the first permanent Security Council member to ratify -- was significant.

"France, which has troops deployed around the world on a unilateral basis, as part of multilateral operations, and has more troops deployed in peacekeeping than the United States does, feels sufficiently assured that this court offers it and its citizens ample protection from politically-motivated prosecution."

But Scheffer says that with more than 200,000 military personnel deployed worldwide, the United States is far more exposed than France to potential prosecution.

"On a comparative basis, France has nowhere near the number of deployments that the United States has globally. It's often forgotten in Europe that the United States is deployed in the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Latin America. We are all over the place. We're not just in Europe."

So far, 12 nations have ratified the treaty, and legal observers expect the necessary level of 60 ratifications will be reached within two years. The preparatory commission that began meeting last week at the United Nations is required to have its work on rules and procedures finished by June 30.

William Pace is the convener of the Coalition for an International Criminal Court, an umbrella group for more than 1,000 non-governmental organizations. He says it is clear the International Criminal Court is going to come into effect whether or not there is U.S. support.

He told reporters at the United Nations that the broad support for the group among nations is part of an ongoing change in the international legal order.

"This is, I think, a great step: that the international community is trying to use the tools of law in democracy to replace war and brute force."

But sentiment is different in Washington. As Ambassador Scheffer was attempting to modify the treaty last week, Republican leaders of the U.S. Congress, led by Senator Jesse Helms, introduced legislation that would further affect U.S. participation in the court.

The legislation would prohibit U.S. participation in UN peacekeeping operations until Washington secures immunity for American personnel from the court's jurisdiction.