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Rights Groups Assail US Efforts to Win Exemption from International Criminal Court

29 June 2002

United States and international human rights groups are calling on members of the United Nations Security Council to reject US efforts this week to exempt US citizens and others serving in UN peacekeeping operations (PKOs) from the scope of the new International Criminal Court (ICC), the world's first permanent tribunal to prosecute war crimes, genocide, and other crimes against humanity.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International have urged Security Council members to oppose resolutions submitted by Richard Williamson, U.S. ambassador to the UN for political affairs, which would accord blanket immunity from prosecution by the ICC for all personnel serving in the UN-approved mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and exempt all government officials, including soldiers, from countries which contribute troops to all UN-authorized or -mandated operations from being subject to ICC rules.

"The U.S. is trying to get at this treaty through the back door," said HRW's executive director Kenneth Roth. "It's using the Security Council as a battering ram to attack an institution that dozens of countries regard as a fait accompli." HRW and other rights groups consider the ICC to be potentially the most important human rights body to be created since the Nuremberg tribunals after World War II.

The Court, which will be set up in the Hague, Netherlands, early next year, is being created under the 1998 Rome Statute, an international treaty signed by almost 140 countries, that takes formal effect Monday, July 1. Despite strong opposition by the administration of President George W. Bush, 69 countries have ratified the Statute to date.

Britain and France, permanent members of the Security Council with veto powers and leaders in the European Union, all of whose member-states have ratified the ICC, have vowed to uphold the Court's integrity against Washington's efforts. They both played a key role last month when an earlier U.S. attempt to get its nationals involved in the East Timor PKO exempted from ICC jurisdiction was soundly rejected.

But the Bush administration has upped the ante considerably since then, with U.S. officials suggesting that it will withdraw all 2,500 troops and scores of trainers involved in UN-authorized operations in Bosnia and elsewhere or possibly even veto an extension of the Bosnia PKO, due to end Sunday, if it does not get its way. It has even been rumored that Washington will veto all future PKOs and extensions of current ones.

Less drastically, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld this week hinted that Washington will no longer take part in any multilateral peace-related operations without a guarantee that its troops will be exempted from ICC jurisdiction. Meanwhile, some of the administration's right-wing allies in Congress have warned that they will withhold all U.S. contributions to UN PKOs in the future if the exemption is not granted. The U.S. currently pays about 27 percent of the UN's peacekeeping budget.

The rights groups claim that these tactics are all designed to undermine the ICC contrary to U.S. assurances in early May when, in an unprecedented action, it formally renounced former President Bill Clinton's signing of the Rome Statute, that it was "not going to war" against the Court.

"If the Security Council were, in effect, able to amend the ICC's jurisdiction simply by adopting a resolution, it would set a dangerous precedent for future amendments of the Rome Statute and possibly other international treaties by means that circumvent the process and safeguards provided in each treaty," according to an open letter sent by Amnesty International Thursday to all Security Council members.

"We believe that this is one of the most important decisions that you can make for the future of international justice," the London-based group said.

The Bush administration argues that the ICC lacks adequate safeguards against frivolous or politically-motivated prosecutions for which the U.S., with military personnel in more than 100 countries at any time, may be a particularly attractive target.

"We ought to be exempt from [this court] so that there isn't any kind of political harassment ...particularly when you know you're fighting the global war on terror and you know the terrorist training books are encouraging people to make ...charges [of war crimes] and allegations, and you know the press prints them instantaneously," Rumsfeld told international reporters earlier this week.

ICC supporters insist, however, that there are so many safeguards in ICC procedures, as well as in Status of Forces Agreements that are routinely negotiated with host countries before U.S. troops are deployed abroad, that the chances of any U.S. soldier being prosecuted by the ICC are extremely remote.

"The Rome Statute of the ICC already contains ample safeguards that would protect any United States troops against politically motivated or frivolous prosecutions," Amnesty said in its letter.

The stakes are very high not only for the Court and UN PKOs, but for international law as well, according to the rights groups.

"If the U.S. resolutions were adopted, it could force all countries that have ratified the Rome Statute to breach their treaty obligations" to cooperate with the ICC, according to William Pace, the convener of the international Coalition for the ICC. "This would set a disastrous precedent under which the Security Council could, in effect, change any treaty it wished through a Security Council resolution."

Jim Lobe
Published by © 2002

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