Hours after vetoing a resolution extending the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Bosnia, the United States agreed last night to keep the mission alive for three more days while the Security Council tries to find a formula to satisfy Washington's demand for immunity from a new global war crimes court.
As the court prepared to assume formal existence in The Hague today, John Negroponte, the US ambassador to the UN vetoed the resolution to extend the mission's mandate, because Council members refused to give immunity from the new International Criminal Court to US peacekeeping personnel in the Balkan state.
But under a compromise plan put forward by Britain and France, the mandate will now run to midnight on Wednesday, New York time.
The grudging climbdown by the US followed a warning by Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general that the veto had "severely compromised" plans to turn over the reins of the mission to the European Union at the end of the year. He also said that the US veto, if sustained, could place a further 14 peacekeeping missions of the world body in jeopardy.
At stake was "the very capacity of the UN to continue peacekeeping operations operations that provide irreplaceable services to the international community as a whole."
Despite last night's compromise in extremis, the move has already underlined the profound split over the court between Washington and its main allies. It is rare indeed that US vetoes a measure endorsed by Britain and France.
Moreover a lasting resolution of the dispute promises to be exceedingly difficult, given the utter US opposition to the new court, which it claims might be used to launch frivolous and unjustified prosecutions against members of its armed forces.
France and Britain, which like 72 other countries have ratified the new court, had originally proposed an extension until 15 July but the US was only willing to agree to 72 hours, diplomats said.
If a more permanent agreement cannot be found, the 1,500-strong UN police training mission in Bosnia will end. The resolution vetoed by Mr Negroponte would also have extended authorisation for the 18,000-strong Nato-led peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.
The US wants American and other peacekeepers from countries that have not ratified the ICC treaty (which include Israel, Russia and China among others) be exempt from arrest and prosecution by the new court. It has rejected all compromises that do not grant blanket immunity.
Its stance is bitterly opposed by its allies and human rights organisations. The Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short described Washington's decision as "an enormous disappointment to everyone in the world who wants some basic rules of decency that apply to all rulers everywhere at all times."
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