The United States is trying to force a controversial plan through the UN Security Council that would give itself immunity from the new International Criminal Court, creating what some condemned as a two-tier system of justice.
Diplomats were locked in private discussions as the council's 15 member states tried to reach a compromise over a US proposal that would grant effective immunity from prosecution for US forces involved in UN peace-keeping missions overseas. President George Bush this week repeated his insistence that the US would play no part in the court. "The one thing we're not going to do is sign on to this International Criminal Court (ICC)," he said.
If the UN fails to grant the US immunity, it has threatened to veto any resolution extending the Bosnia police-training mission's mandate. The Security Council last night extended the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia until 15 July 15 to give the 15-member council more time to try to resolve the contentious dispute.
The US proposal – backed by a threat of its withdrawing from peace-keeping duties in Bosnia – has outraged EU and other world leaders, who have criticised America for its unilateralist and bullying stance.
Britain, whose UN ambassador, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, recently took over the Council's rotating presidency, has made clear it will not accept the plan.
The US proposal being discussed would give 12 months' immunity for crimes by peace-keepers from any country that had not yet ratified the treaty to establish the war crimes court. That would give accused peace-keepers ample time to return home to the jurisdiction of their national courts.
It is unclear what would happen thereafter. Some reports say the US is proposing that after 12 months, the court could pursue a peace-keeper only after a vote in the Security Council, where Washington has veto power along with Britain, France, Russia and China.
Sources close to the negotiations said yesterday the US was seeking to retain jurisdiction over any possible prosecution even after that period had come to an end. "The 12-month proposal is almost irrelevant," said one source.
Either way critics have accused the US of trying to establish a two-tier system. Richard Dicker, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch, said: "[Diplomats] from all sorts of countries have been expressing outrage about this. They are talking about the US trying to hijack the treaty which established the ICC. What the US is proposing would amount to a two-tier system."
To succeed, the proposal needs the support of nine of the 15 members with no vetoes. Yesterday it seemed that only China was ready to agree to everything that Washington was demanding – its own antipathy towards an international court guiding its decision.
The new ICC, the world's first permanent criminal tribunal, is being set up in The Hague, Netherlands, to pursue cases of heinous wrongdoing such as gross human rights abuses, genocide and war crimes when national courts fail to do so. The court treaty has been ratified by 76 countries.
Supporters of the court say adequate safeguards exist to protect Americans abroad from the reach of the court. Ratifying nations say they are bound by the treaty to do nothing to undermine it. The Bush administration, which views the court as a threat to US sovereignty, insists Americans could be vulnerable to politically motivated or frivolous prosecutions.
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