War Crimes Tribunal Isn't For All

US Nato peacekeeper, BRcki, Bosnia, 6-28-02
AP (file)
The United Nations averted another battle over the U.S. demand that American peacekeepers be exempt from prosecution by the new international war crimes tribunal - but watch out for next year.

The Bush administration got the quick approval it wanted Thursday for another yearlong exemption, but without the unanimous Security Council support that it had last year.

France, Germany and Syria abstained in the 12-0 vote, and the battle lines for a new showdown were drawn.

"States showed today that they were not ready to simply bow to the will of the United States and rubber stamp the resolution," said Fiona McKay, director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights' International Justice Program.

The United States made clear that it wants a permanent exemption. But the European Union warned it opposes permanent immunity for U.S. peacekeepers.

Last week, the United States warned the EU that its criticism over the exemption request was further straining the bitter trans-Atlantic division over the war against Iraq. France and Germany, which led opposition to the war and strongly back the court, ignored the warning.

The Bush administration argues that the International Criminal Court -established last year and expected to start operating later this year -could be used for frivolous or politically motivated prosecution of American troops. In addition to seeking the U.N. exemption, Washington has signed bilateral agreements with 37 countries that bar any prosecution of American officials by the court and is seeking more.

But the 90 countries that have ratified the 1998 Rome Treaty which created the court - including all 15 EU members - counter that it contains enough safeguards to prevent any frivolous prosecutions.

The court will prosecute cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed after July 1, 2002, but will step in only when countries are unwilling or unable to dispense justice themselves. It is the culmination of a campaign for a permanent war crimes tribunal that began with the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

When the court came into being last July, the United States threatened to end far-flung peacekeeping operations established or authorized by the United Nations - from Afghanistan and the Middle East to Bosnia and Sierra Leone - if it didn't get an exemption for American peacekeepers.

After a long and acrimonious battle, a compromise was reached to prohibit the investigation or prosecution of current or former officials from the United States and other countries that have not ratified the Rome treaty for a year.

The final deal dented the court's underlying principle that no one should be exempt from punishment for war crimes, and it angered court supporters and human rights groups.

The resolution adopted last year, and again on Thursday, expresses the intention to renew the request for a yearlong exemption every July 1 "for as long as may be necessary."

France and Germany said Thursday that one year was sufficient.

Germany's U.N. Ambassador Gunter Pleuger argued that the court "is not an impediment to peacekeeping, but a safeguard." France's deputy U.N. ambassador Michel Duclos said another one-year renewal "risks in effect giving credence to the perception of permanent exceptions which can only weaken the court and impair its authority."

Greece's U.N. ambassador Adamantios Vassilakis, speaking on behalf of the 15-nation EU, said automatic renewal would undermine "the letter and the spirit of the statute of the ICC and its fundamental purpose."

Even Britain, the closest American ally, opposed any permanent exemption.

Britain's U.N. Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock voted for the resolution, but told the council afterward that his country strongly supports the court and doesn't share the U.S. concerns.

The resolution is "an exceptional measure. It is not permanent. Nor is it automatically renewable," he said. "We look forward to the day when it (or a successor) will not be required." U.S. deputy ambassador James Cunningham warned the council, however, that U.S. opposition to the court - which he called "a fatally flawed institution - is "not going to change in the foreseeable future."

"We all need to acknowledge that fact and its implications," he said.

Cunningham didn't elaborate on the implications, but the U.S. threat to torpedo U.N. peacekeeping has not been forgotten.

By Edith M. Lederer