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U.S. Gets War Crimes Tribunal Exemption

by AP Friday, Jun. 13, 2003 at 2:21 PM

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.

Jun 12, 12:54 PM EDT

U.S. Gets War Crimes Tribunal Exemption

UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- The U.N. Security Council on Thursday approved another one-year exemption for American peacekeepers from prosecution by the new international war crimes tribunal.

France, Germany and Syria abstained, apparently ignoring a U.S. appeal not to further strain the bitter trans-Atlantic division over the war against Iraq.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke out strongly against any attempt to try to make the exemption permanent - which the United States initially sought. He warned that this would not only undermine the International Criminal Court but the authority of the U.N. Security Council "and the legitimacy of United Nations peacekeeping."

The resolution adopted by a vote of 12-0 with the three abstentions, authorizes a yearlong exemption from arrest or trial for peacekeepers from the United States and other countries that have not ratified the Rome treaty establishing the court.

France and Germany, both members of the European Union, were in the forefront of opposition to the U.S.-led war against Iraq. Last week, the United States warned the EU that its criticism over the exemption request was putting more strains on trans-Atlantic relations.

But during an open Security Council debate before the vote, Greece's U.N. ambassador Adamantios Vassilakis, speaking on behalf of the 15-nation bloc, put the United States on notice that "automatic renewal would be undermining to the letter and the spirit of the Rome Treaty and its fundamental purpose."

All 15 EU nations are among the 90 countries that are party to the court, which will prosecute cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed after July 1, 2002. The court will step in only when countries are unwilling or unable to dispense justice themselves.

The court got another boost Wednesday when China's U.N. Ambassador Wang Yingfan said his country was "positively considering" ratifying the Rome Treaty. Beijing was one of seven countries that voted against the Rome statute but in the last four years has taken a more positive attitude.

"China's change reflects a growing support worldwide for the ICC and international justice," said William Pace, who heads the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, which represents more than 1,000 organizations supporting the tribunal.

Then President Clinton's administration signed the 1988 Rome treaty setting up the court, but the Bush administration has rescinded the U.S. signature.

Bush contends that Americans could be subject to the court's jurisdiction even if it is not a party to the pact. Washington argues that the court could be used for frivolous or politically motivated prosecutions of American troops.

During Thursday's debate, Canada's U.N. Ambassador Paul Heinbecker appealed to the council to keep the exemption from becoming permanent and emphasized that "the ICC is not a court for frivolous prosecutions." He noted safeguards put in the treaty at U.S. request to ensure that such prosecutions will be screened out.

Last July, the council unanimously approved a one-year exemption.

Seeking to avoid a replay of last year's confrontation, Washington on Monday asked for a quick vote on its resolution. But non-council nations asked for - and got - an open council meeting before the vote.

During last year's battle, the United States threatened to end far-flung peacekeeping operations established or authorized by the United Nations - from Afghanistan and the Mideast to Bosnia and Sierra Leone - if it didn't get an exemption.

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.

Annan told the Security Council during Thursday's debate that although he could accept that the request for a one-year extension should be approved this year since the court is in its infancy, he believes it should not become permanent and violates the Rome statute.

U.S. deputy ambassador James Cunningham called the Rome Treaty "fatally flawed" and said the resolution represented a compromise that should be respected by all nations. He denied that it violated the treaty.

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