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East: U.S.-EU Row Over ICC Puts Eastern Europeans In Tricky Position

The U.S. is seeking bilateral agreements with foreign countries to give American troops immunity from the new International Criminal Court, and it is warning them that it could cut military aid unless they sign such a deal. Apart from Israel, Romania is the only country so far to sign such an agreement, a decision that prompted criticism from the European Union. Analysts say the U.S. actions are putting EU and NATO candidate countries in difficult positions. The director of Human Rights Watch even calls the aid warning a form of blackmail. But U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the U.S. is not trying to force foreign countries into giving American troops immunity from the ICC.

Prague, 14 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A row over immunity for American peacekeepers is the latest quarrel between the U.S. and the European Union over the new International Criminal Court (ICC).

At the heart of the dispute are U.S. concerns that the ICC could be used as a political instrument against American troops serving as peacekeepers abroad.

Earlier this year, the U.S., an opponent of the court, threatened to scupper United Nations peacekeeping missions before 11th-hour talks delivered a compromise and safeguarded American troops from possible ICC prosecution for a year.

Since then, the U.S. has been seeking to build permanent immunity piece by piece, by securing bilateral agreements with ICC signatory countries. These would contain a promise not to extradite to the court American peacekeepers serving on their soil.

And now, using a provision in the new U.S. antiterrorism law, Washington has added another warning: that failure to sign up could result in the U.S.'s cutting military aid. "The New York Times" reported on 10-11 August that this could apply to almost every country that has relations with the U.S., except NATO member countries and other major allies, such as Israel, Egypt, and Japan.

Apart from Israel, Romania is the only country so far to agree to U.S. requests and to have signed a so-called Article 98 agreement. The European Union, which Romania is hoping to join, is not happy. Last week it issued a rebuke, saying Bucharest should have consulted the EU first.

Now the EU, which is a supporter of the ICC, wants all other candidate countries to wait until an EU-wide decision on the issue is made.

Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the U.S. is not "bludgeoning" foreign countries into signing such deals, saying the U.S. is simply "having discussions with all of our European Union and other friends around the world." The U.S. State Department also said it was "inappropriate" for the EU to ask candidate countries not to sign the so-called Article 98.

Today, the EU rejected that criticism. European Commission spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori said the commission has invited candidate countries to consult with it and wait until the body makes a full assessment.

Official reaction to Washington's requests in other NATO and EU applicant countries has been cautious.

Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas is due in Washington in early September, though an adviser dampened speculation that the ICC would be central to discussions.

Though no official statement has been made, Latvia is expected to consult first with the EU.

And Slovenia said today it needs "adequate time for consultation" before deciding, adding that Ljubljana is "closely following consultations within the EU related to the U.S. initiative."

If EU candidate countries have been cautious in their responses, Human Rights Watch has not. Yesterday, director Kenneth Roth called the U.S. threats to cut military aid "blackmail" and urged countries not to sign immunity deals.

Gueorgui Stoytchev, an analyst in RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, said Washington's efforts to secure such bilateral deals is putting Bulgaria, and other EU or NATO candidate countries, in a tricky position. "As a country which wants to join NATO and the European Union, Bulgaria for years [has been] trying to follow a pro-Western foreign policy. But in this particular case with the International Criminal Court, it is virtually impossible for Bulgaria to follow a pro-Western policy because the West is divided over the issue. So Bulgaria will have to either reject the request of the U.S. to sign a bilateral agreement on the issue or [reject] the request of the European Union not to sign this agreement with Washington. This is a very difficult position. Actually, Bulgaria is for the first time in such a difficult position, being forced to choose between Europe and America, between being pro-European and being pro-American," Stoytchev said.

Stoytchev said Sofia would be in this delicate position even without the threat of losing U.S. military aid, as it is keen to angle an invitation to join NATO. He said he expects the Bulgarian government to adopt a wait-and-see approach to the request. "The Bulgarian government will try to delay the decision as long as possible and the government will hope that finally the EU and the United States will find common ground on the issue and countries like Bulgaria will not be forced to choose between Washington and Brussels," Stoytchev said.

Heather Grabbe is an analyst at London's Center for European Reform. She said countries aspiring for both EU and NATO membership are now likely to consult with the EU on the Article 98 agreements, especially following Romania's public rebuke.

But she said she still expects they will sign up, since those keen to get a NATO invitation at November's Prague summit -- the Baltics, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria -- will be eager to please the U.S., the most important NATO member, as much as possible.

She said an added problem is the lack of a unified EU position on the U.S. request. "All the EU members are in favor of the [ICC], and they've all signed up to it, but they vary in how far they are willing to go to accommodate U.S. demands and to respond to U.S. concerns about the ICC. So it's already a bone of contention to a certain extent within the EU, and that makes it harder for the EU to impose a straight line on the candidate countries," Grabbe said.

EU foreign ministers are expected to discuss the issue at the end of the month.

(Villu Kand of RFE/RL's Estonian Service, Valdis Labinski of the Latvian Service, and Ausra Jaruseviciute of the Lithuanian Service contributed to this report.)