US Balks at New War-Crimes Court ; A War-Crimes Court Starts Monday, to the Chagrin of Washington, Which Wants US Troops Exempt

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The United States is fighting a fierce last-ditch battle against the world's first permanent war-crimes court, threatening the future of United Nations peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and elsewhere, according to UN diplomats.

With the International Criminal Court (ICC) set to become a reality on Monday, US diplomats are waging a lone campaign to keep US peacekeeping troops beyond its reach.

They have run up against strong opposition from their European allies on the UN Security Council, who say Washington's proposals would weaken the court.

The "collective EU (European Union) position ... is clear not just on the maintenance, but also on the promotion of the court and all it stands for," British ambassador to the UN Jeremy Greenstock said earlier this week.

US deputy ambassador Richard Williamson, however, warned when he introduced a resolution seeking immunity from the court for peacekeepers that "the whole spectrum of United Nations peacekeeping operations will have to be reviewed if we are unsuccessful at getting the protections we demand."

Most immediately at risk is the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, whose Security Council mandate runs out on Sunday. US negotiators are threatening to veto a renewal of the mandate unless their personnel in Bosnia are given immunity from the ICC.

More broadly, according to a source familiar with the backroom discussions currently under way, Washington is threatening to withhold its contributions to the UN peacekeeping budget - 27 percent of the total - unless it is given satisfaction.

The Bush administration has strongly opposed the creation of the ICC, which will try cases of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Although President Clinton signed the treaty creating the court just before his term ended, Washington "unsigned" it last month, saying the United States would have nothing to do with the new institution.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week that the United States should be exempt from the court to avoid "political harassment that can take place unfairly, particularly when ... you are fighting the global war on terror and ... the terrorist training books are encouraging people to make those kinds of charges and allegations."

Under the ICC treaty, US soldiers could be brought before the court even if the United States is not a signatory, if the alleged crime were committed on the territory of an ICC member. Sixty-nine countries have so far ratified the treaty.

Supporters of the court, including all of Washington's European allies, say that US troops serving abroad have no reason to fear the ICC, since it will hear only cases that the accused person's home government has refused to try in a reasonable manner.

"In practical terms, it wouldn't make a huge difference, but it is considerably magnified through a certain political lens," says one European Security Council diplomat. …