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US Seeking Pacts in a Bid to Shield Its Peacekeepers

7 August 2002

The Bush administration, still wary of the new International Criminal Court, is trying to line up nations one by one to pledge not to extradite Americans for trial, administration officials said today.

So far, the administration has signed agreements with Romania and Israel. Both countries have agreed that they will not send American peacekeepers or other personnel to the court, whose purpose is to prosecute individuals for war crimes and genocide when national governments refuse to act.

After months of American lobbying, the United Nations Security Council agreed last month to give American peacekeepers a year's exemption from prosecution by the court. But the administration, concerned that American soldiers serving on peacekeeping missions would be unfairly made targets of prosecution, had wanted blanket immunity that would be automatically renewed each year.

Worried about what could happen when the year's exemption expires, John R. Bolton, the under secretary for arms contol and international security, is leading the effort to enlist as many nations as possible to support exempting Americans from extradition, said Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman.

"We'll be working with a number of countries to conclude similar agreements, a large number of countries, and we very much appreciate the fact that Romania was the first of those countries to do this," Mr. Reeker said. The bilateral arrangements, Mr. Reeker added, "give us the safeguards we were seeking."

A State Department official said Italy was among the nations the United States would approach next. The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is eager to improve relations with the United States.

President Bill Clinton signed the treaty that established the court in 2000, but he did not send it to the Senate for ratification. In May, President Bush revoked that signature.

Human rights groups decried the administration's strategy, saying it undermined the court, which began operation last month after receiving the necessary ratifications from nations around the world. Seventy-seven countries have ratified their membership in the court, not including the United States.

"It's outrageous," said Alex Arriaga, director of government relations for Amnesty International U.S.A. "The U.S. should be championing justice. It shouldn't be running it down."

The Bush administration strongly opposes the court on the grounds that it could subject American personnel to politically motivated prosecutions abroad. More than 9,000 American peacekeepers are now stationed in nine countries overseas.

The court closes a gap in international law as the first permanent tribunal dedicated to trying individuals responsible for the most horrific crimes, including genocide and crimes against humanity. Ad hoc tribunals with limited jurisdictions are addressing the war in the Balkans and genocide in Rwanda.

No United Nations peacekeeper has been tried for war crimes under the existing tribunals.

Last month, the administration tried and failed to persuade other countries at the United Nations, including its European allies, that American forces deserve blanket immunity because of their large numbers and the view that they comprise a significant political target.

In a series of tense negotiations, the United States then threatened to veto authorization in the Security Council for United Nations peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Croatia, unless its concerns over immunity were addressed. The compromise was the one-year exemption, and the missions were renewed.

Mr. Reeker, the State Department spokesman, said the administration then sought a more durable solution. With the private encouragement of European allies, he said, American officials decided to make use of a provision within the treaty known as Article 98, which lets nations negotiate immunity for their forces on a bilateral basis.

"A lot of the allies said, `Use this Article 98 statute to take care of your concerns,' " Mr. Reeker said. He declined to elaborate.

On Aug. 1, Romania became the first country to pledge not to extradite American troops. Mr. Bolton signed the agreement in Bucharest with the acting foreign minister, Cristian Diaconescu.

Mr. Bolton, who insists that the administration is not trying to weaken the court, said the United States was determined to take effective action against war crimes.

"We respect the states that have acceded to their own statute creating the international criminal court," he said at a news conference in Jerusalem on Sunday. "We hope they respect our decision not to accede to that. We hope they respect our decision to avail ourselves of the procedure made available by their own statute to prevent our respective nationals from falling into the potentially highly politicized jurisdiction of that court."

Sorin Ducaru, the Romanian ambassador to Washington, said the accord was "a natural extension" of the status of forces agreement, which was signed last year and governs the treatment of American forces in that country.

Although Romania supports the court and has ratified its membership in it, Mr. Ducaru said his country sympathizes with the American concerns.

He said the Romanian government received nothing in return for the agreement. A decision is expected this fall on Romania's request to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but Mr. Ducaru said the agreement with Washington was not related.

On Sunday, Israel became the second nation to a accept a no-extradition pledge. Unlike the arrangement with Romania, the agreement with Israel was a two-way pact not to send each other's citizens before the court, diplomats said.

Rafael Barak, the deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said his country shared American concerns, fearing that its troops could be tried for actions taken against Palestinians.

"We are in the same position as the U.S.," Mr. Barak said. "Almost everybody in my country is a soldier. Someone can complain against a soldier and say they perpetrated a war crime."

In Congress, lawmakers from both parties said the administration's tactics were both legal and welcome.

"We support the president in his efforts to protect American soldiers," said Jonathan Grella, a spokesman for Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the majority whip. "We must do whatever it takes to protect those who protect us."

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, who is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, supports the new strategy of obtaining individual agreements, said a spokesman for the senator.

At the same time, though, Senator Dodd urged the administration to reconsider its decision to spurn the court.

"The court is going to be making international law in the future, and it would be better for the United States to be a leader and a participant, rather than an idle observer," said the senator's spokesman, Tom Lenard.

Christopher Marquis
Published in the New York Times © 2002 The New York Times Company

International Criminal Court and International Law


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