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World: U.S. Allies Express Disappointment With Immunity Policy

The United States has suspended nearly $50 million in military assistance to 35 nations that refused to sign bilateral immunity accords exempting U.S. nationals from prosecution by the new International Criminal Court in The Hague. As RFE/RL reports from Washington, America's allies in Central and Eastern Europe are disappointed with the decision.

Washington, 2 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Under U.S. law, President George W. Bush has the power to waive the suspension of military aid to any country of his choosing. Yet he decided to keep the aid suspension for six of America's strongest allies in Central and Eastern Europe.

Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Slovakia -- all aspiring members of the European Union and NATO -- ignored EU objections this year by strongly supporting the U.S. war in Iraq.

Despite the furor that it raised, their stance on the Iraq war did not have a legal bearing on their position vis-a-vis the EU. But their stance on the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is backed by EU law, does. The EU has strongly urged them not to sign exemption deals with America.

So perhaps the future EU members can be forgiven for thinking Bush would waive them from the provisions of the American Servicemembers Protection Act. That law, which came into effect yesterday, suspended some forms of military aid to 35 countries that have not exempted U.S. nationals from possible prosecution by the ICC.

Twenty-two other nations -- in addition to NATO members and "major non-NATO allies" -- are exempted from the sanctions because they have signed immunity deals or because a waiver was in Washington's interest.

Afghanistan, Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Tajikistan were among those exempted. But Bush chose not to spare America's future NATO allies, with the exception of Romania, which signed an immunity deal.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says the ICC, which has international jurisdiction for war crimes and crimes against humanity, could launch politically motivated prosecutions against U.S. servicepeople.

"There should be no misunderstanding that the issue of protecting U.S. persons from the International Criminal Court will be a significant and pressing matter in our relations with every state," Fleischer said.

Other key U.S. allies not to be excused include Colombia, which is a frontline country in Washington's "war on drugs" and one of the largest recipients of American military aid.

Critics suggested that by suspending funds for its war on drugs and key U.S. allies in Europe, Washington is paying too high a price for its opposition to The Hague-based ICC, which formally began work yesterday.

In interviews with RFE/RL, representatives of the future NATO members expressed frustration and disappointment with Washington.

Rolandas Kacinskas, a press officer with the Lithuanian Embassy in the U.S. capital, says "Of course we were expecting -- knowing that we are good allies of the United States and we participate in the war against terrorism, and we have a good bilateral relationship with the United States -- that the president of the United States would waive the cut-off of assistance."

He recalls that last May, Bush made a speech in Krakow in which he lamented the Iraq issue had forced Poland to choose between being a good ally of Europe and a good ally of the U.S.

Yet on the ICC issue, Kacinskas says Washington has done exactly the same thing to the six nations set to join NATO. "Our position is that, of course, we are disappointed that we have to choose between Europe and the United States," he says.

Kacinskas says he believes Lithuania will lose about $4 million in yearly aid, which this year has been mostly spent on funding Lithuanian troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In interviews with other diplomats, the sense of frustration at being stuck between trying to please their future European partners in Brussels and NATO allies in Washington was palpable.

Peter Kmec, Slovakia's charge d'affaires in Washington, says "Actually, we are in a very sensitive position. It's very difficult to meet the interests of both sides."

Kmec says Bratislava is still formulating its official reaction. The U.S. law waives the suspension of military aid to NATO members and other "major" U.S. allies. And he acknowledged that Slovakia had been expecting better.

"We are doing our best to explain [to] the U.S. administration that we have been behaving as a U.S. ally in both the U.S. campaign in Iraq and in the fight against terrorism," Kmec says. "So we would expect that actually we would be treated as a full-fledged NATO member and as an ally to the United States."

Kmec says it's his understanding that once the six countries formally join NATO in May of 2004, their suspensions will be revoked.

He and others hope the issue can be solved sooner than that.

But Rihards Mucins, Latvia's charge d'affaires, says the six countries will remain third-party victims unless Brussels and Washington can find a way to agree.

"The issue with Latvia, though, and with other countries is that not only are we acceding to NATO, we are also acceding to the European Union. And we think that everyone would very much benefit if there would be a certain broader or better understanding between the United States and Europe Union itself on this issue. And the feeling is that, right now, it's not completely there," Mucins says.

Under former President Bill Clinton, the U.S. signed the 1998 treaty creating the ICC. But the Bush administration, wary of infringements on U.S. sovereignty, has since launched what ICC officials have described as a campaign to undermine the new court.

The U.S. and Turkey are the only NATO members to oppose the court. Their opposition puts them in the company of countries like China, Russia, and Libya -- all of which Washington accuses of human rights violations.

Diplomats say the U.S. has put tremendous pressure on countries to sign agreements exempting U.S. servicepeople. Those still likely to face cuts in military aid include Croatia and the federation of Serbia and Montenegro.

Richard Dicker, director of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch, says the suspension of aid is a slap in the face of America's allies in Central and Eastern Europe. He added that the move will be hard to explain to nationalists in Belgrade or Zagreb.

"The hypocrisy that Serbia and Croatia are facing is hard to overstate," he says. "On the one hand, the U.S. government, I believe, is rightly pressing those governments to cooperate with the Yugoslav tribunal [in The Hague], while at the same time pressing those governments not to cooperate with the International Criminal Court. It's hypocrisy at its most naked and ugly."

ICC advocates insist the court is a tribunal of last resort that will prosecute only the most heinous war crimes, and only when domestic courts are unwilling to do so.

The aid suspension affects $47 million in U.S. foreign military financing and $613,000 in international military and educational training in this fiscal year, which expires on 30 September. Since Washington has already disbursed most of the military aid for this year, the real effect will not come to light until the start of the new fiscal year in October.

In the meantime, the Bush administration hopes that some of the 35 countries will still sign bilateral agreements exempting U.S. personnel from ICC prosecution.

So far, 44 governments have publicly acknowledged signing the so-called "Article 98" agreements and at least seven others have signed secret deals.