Growing row over US bid for war crimes court exemption

The United States is facing growing world opposition to its request for a new exemption for American peacekeepers from international prosecution for war crimes.

The United States is facing growing world opposition to its request for a new exemption for American peacekeepers from international prosecution for war crimes.

Human rights groups are arguing that it is not only illegal but unjustified, in the face of the prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq.

The United Nations Security Council had planned to hold an open meeting yesterday to give member states a chance to express their views on the US demand for a new exemption, and then immediately vote on a resolution that would authorise it.

But China said it did not have instructions so the meeting was put off until Monday.

The Bush administration argues that the International Criminal Court - established on July 1 2002, which started operating last year – could be used for frivolous or politically-motivated prosecutions of American troops.

When the court was established, the United States threatened to end far-flung peacekeeping operations established or authorised by the United Nations if it did not receive an exemption for American peacekeepers.

After lengthy and contentious negotiations, the council approved a one-year extension. Last year, the resolution to exempt US peacekeepers was renewed for another year by a vote of 12-0 with three abstentions – France, Germany and Syria.

This year, France, Germany, Spain and Brazil have said they will abstain on a new extension – and Romania and Benin are possibilities. However, that would still give the United States the minimum nine “Yes” votes for adoption.

Romania indicated it would not allow the resolution to be defeated.

“At this moment there is an inclination that we might abstain,” said Romania’s UN ambassador Mihnea Motoc. “If the adoption of the resolution is at risk, we might look again at this position.”

Richard Dicker, director of the international justice programme at Human Rights Watch, said yesterday that he expected the resolution to pass.

But he said the growing number of abstentions should send a strong message to Washington that much of the international community opposes immunity for US troops.

He said the reports of “sexual humiliation and savage beatings” of Iraqi detainees by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad highlighted the importance of an international court of last resort to prosecute war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

The International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction over the events in Iraq, because neither the United States nor Iraq have ratified the Rome Treaty estabilishing the tribunal and because of the exemption, he said.

But Dicker warned: “This situation is the 800lb gorilla that’s going to be padding around the security council chamber … during both the open meeting on the resolution renewal and when the votes are actually cast.”

Richard Grenell, spokesman for the US Mission to the United Nations, said the US concern about the court “in no way reflects any lack of determination to ensure that perpetrators of crimes are fully prosecuted”.

Besides seeking another year’s exemption from arrest or prosecution of US peacekeepers, Washington has signed bilateral agreements with 89 countries that bar any prosecution of American officials by the court and is seeking more such treaties.

The 94 countries that have ratified the 1998 Rome Treaty maintain it contains enough safeguards to prevent frivolous prosecutions.

Dicker said that the court would step in only when countries were unwilling or unable to dispense justice themselves – or in cases of “sham” prosecutions.

So far, it has received two reerrals from states parties – Uganda and Congo - asking that the prosecutor investigate alleged human rights abuses.

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