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U.S.: Threat To Pull Peacekeepers Puts UN In Tight Spot

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has long opposed the new International Criminal Court. But after trying in vain to get the court's founding treaty to exempt all Americans from its jurisdiction, the Bush administration is now threatening to withdraw all its United Nations peacekeepers unless they are granted immunity from the new court, which Washington fears could be biased against it.

Washington, 21 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The International Criminal Court (ICC) is just two weeks from its inauguration, and already the United States is beginning to challenge its authority.

On 19 June, Washington warned the UN Security Council that it will not participate in UN peacekeeping missions unless U.S. citizens are excluded from the ICC's jurisdiction. A U.S. draft resolution asks the Security Council to grant immunity to all peacekeepers -- not just Americans -- fielded or endorsed by the UN, such as NATO-led troops in Kosovo or Bosnia.

The issue may affect a vote today in the Security Council on renewing the UN's civilian mission in Bosnia. America currently has 700 civilians in UN peacekeeping missions, as well as 5,200 NATO-led troops in Kosovo and 2,500 NATO-led forces in Bosnia.

But analysts say the clash, which comes just before the ICC's inauguration on 1 July in The Hague, could be a sign of more conflict to come as the U.S. is likely to continue to resist the court's authority.

The administration of President George W. Bush has become the chief critic of the permanent war crimes tribunal, which was backed by 67 countries, as well as former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

There is wide support for the court among the 15 Security Council members -- six already having ratified the treaty, six others planning to ratify it. And China backs it in principal.

U.S. opposition has been a point of contention between the White House and its European Union allies, who see the ICC, a UN body, as the most important development in international law since the Nazi war crimes tribunal in Nuremberg after World War II.

But U.S. critics argue that the court threatens its own sovereignty and could be used for politically motivated prosecutions against U.S. personnel and leaders.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer voiced that concern again yesterday, reaffirming the U.S. demand that all UN peacekeepers must be granted immunity from ICC prosecution. In particular, Fleischer told reporters the U.S. fears its peacekeepers could become the target of politically motivated prosecutions: "U.S. forces on peacekeeping missions already enjoy immunity from prosecution in the countries that they are assigned to. We want to assure that these immunities are extended so that U.S. peacekeepers are not subject to ICC jurisdiction."

No one on the 15-member Security Council appears to agree with the American stance on the ICC, an unprecedented body that will try persons accused of such acts as genocide, war crimes, and severe human rights violations.

UN peacekeeping missions usually have immunity through bilateral agreements with the countries in which they operate. But in light of the ICC's establishment, Washington wants to formalize those agreements through its draft resolution.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a briefing yesterday that peacekeepers in Bosnia and Afghanistan both enjoy immunity agreements that precede the court's establishment: "There's arrangements in Bosnia for peacekeeping forces and for the international security assistance force in Afghanistan to provide immunity from prosecution under various agreements negotiated prior to the activation of the court."

However, Security Council members such as Russia have reportedly questioned what authority the Security Council can have over statutes for the ICC, a court that is separate from the UN. Norway's UN Ambassador Ole Peter Kolby was quoted as saying, "I don't know if there is a way."

Others have said that a new amendment to the treaty establishing the ICC must be signed by the signatory countries in order to make the changes Washington wants. But Boucher said U.S. officials are confident that the treaty already has provisions for granting such immunity. "The kind of immunity from prosecution by the court that we're looking for is actually entirely consistent with the obligations [of] the countries who are participating with the court, with the obligations that they have."

But human rights groups say that America's actions this week are simply another bid to achieve what it failed to obtain during the treaty's drafting -- that is, a blanket exemption for U.S. nationals from the court's jurisdiction.

ICC supporters say Washington's fears of politically motivated trials are overblown. They say the court will only act when countries are unwilling or unable to mete out justice themselves for heinous acts, such as genocide and war crimes.

If an American was accused of such a crime, a U.S. court would have priority over the ICC in trying that person.