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World: Deadline Day For U.S. ICC-Immunity Deals

Today is deadline day for some 35 countries around the world. The U.S. says they must either sign agreements not to send American citizens to the International Criminal Court or risk losing U.S. military aid. It's all because the U.S. government fears Americans could face politically motivated or biased prosecutions. But the U.S. aid threat might not be as bad as it seems.

Prague, 1 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. deadline for countries to agree not to send American citizens to the new International Criminal Court (ICC) arose because a key provision in a U.S. law comes into effect today.

The American Servicemembers' Protection Act says the U.S. will cut military aid to countries that have signed up to the ICC but have not signed immunity agreements -- so-called "Article 98" agreements -- with the U.S.

In these, countries promise not to extradite U.S. citizens to the court.

Yesterday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said there's still time to sign up for the estimated 35 countries that risk losing aid.

"We encourage those states who have not yet concluded Article 98 agreements with the United States to do so," Boucher said. "Our embassies and negotiating teams stand ready to work with interested governments to conclude such agreements on an expeditious basis. At this point, there are over 50 countries who have concluded Article 98 agreements with us, and there are, we think, about three dozen countries that would be at risk from this cutoff of assistance. "

U.S. efforts to secure these immunity deals around the world have come under fire from NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, which accused the U.S. administration of using "bully tactics" and of targeting vulnerable, poor countries.

Irune Aguirrezabal is with the Coalition for the International Criminal Court in Brussels. She says the United States is "using all its diplomatic resources, there's 100 countries that they're putting pressure on. So far they've got 46 or so agreements with mostly poor countries in urgent need of financial aid."

It's also put countries in Central and Eastern Europe in a particularly tricky dilemma. That's because the EU is against blanket immunity deals -- and many of these countries need good relations with both the EU and the U.S. on their paths to EU and NATO membership.

Helen Wallace, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, says, "Americans have been putting pressure on countries [and] the EU has been putting pressure on them and it's obviously very hard for some of these Central European countries to face these various contending pressures."

Among those in the region who have signed deals are Albania, Bosnia, and Macedonia. The federation of Serbia and Montenegro has yet to decide, while Croatia and Slovenia have flatly refused to sign.

The EU said last week that candidate countries had agreed to follow its position -- that is, not to sign any deals giving blanket immunity to U.S. citizens.

Romania has sought the middle ground -- it signed a deal, but under EU pressure has not ratified it. But in any case, will the threat to cut off aid actually have any impact?

There are notable exemptions -- it doesn't apply, for example, to any NATO member or other key U.S. allies like Israel, Egypt, Australia, or Japan.

Boucher himself said the immediate effect will be minimal. "The immediate clampdown on funding won't necessarily be abrupt," he said. "But it is an important issue that will take hold over time."

There's another important exemption -- the American president can continue giving aid to countries deemed important to U.S. national security.

And there's another possible ray of hope. Elena Poptodorova, Bulgaria's ambassador to the U.S., is pinning her hopes on a proposed amendment to the act that would also exempt NATO candidate countries.

"I think the delay would not be just for one country, but a common approach will have to be found," she said. "This will depend, of course, on what the president will decide, after consulting with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. It could be short, say three to six months, or one year. The best possibility for us is a delay of one year, which would take us to May 2004 when Bulgaria would be a full-fledged NATO member."

And that means Bulgaria -- and six other new NATO members -- would still be eligible for U.S. aid.

Krasimir Lakov of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service contributed to this report.