The State Department says the United States has signed an agreement with the central Asian state of Tajikistan that would exempt any U.S. troops serving there from prosecution in the new International Criminal Court, the ICC. Concerned that the ICC might someday target U.S. military personnel for politically-motivated prosecution, the Bush administration is seeking to conclude bilateral immunity deals with countries around the world.
The agreement signed in the Tajik capital Dushanbe brings to four the number of countries that have concluded so-called "Article 98" agreements with the United States exempting U.S. troops from ICC jurisdiction. The others are Romania, Israel and the newly founded government of East Timor, which signed its accord earlier this week.
The Bush administration began its diplomatic drive for the agreements after the ICC formally came into being in July.
The United States signed the treaty founding the ICC in the final days of the Clinton administration, even though the Clinton White House and key members of Congress had misgivings about the court's structure.
The Bush administration withdrew the U.S. signature in May, with President Bush saying he found the idea of a global court unaccountable to any political authority "very troubling."
In U.N. negotiations, the administration secured a one-year blanket exemption for U.S. forces from the ICC and said it would seek a network of "Article 98" agreements, named for the provision of the ICC treaty that permits them.
At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States is having preliminary talks or full negotiations on "Article 98" agreements with "many" countries, though he said the emphasis is on states where American forces or peacekeepers might be serving in the near future.
"We've had our embassies contacting foreign governments, and concentrated I think on the most likely places that U.S. troops are going to be present, or deployed, or passing through," said Mr. Boucher. "So certainly places where U.S. personnel are not likely to ever be located in the foreseeable future are not high on the list."
Tajikistan, which has along border with Afghanistan, is one of several central Asian countries that have hosted U.S. troops involved in the war on terrorism.
The administration's campaign for the ICC exemptions has been criticized by human rights groups, which say it undercuts the world community's most serious attempt ever to deal with war crimes and genocide.
A spokesman for the New York-based Human Rights Watch says it is "hypocritical" for the United States to press Balkans governments to turn over suspects to the Hague war crimes tribunal while being unwilling to submit U.S. citizens to the ICC.
The U.S. diplomatic effort has also led to tensions with the European Union, where officials suggested that Romania concluded its "Article 98" agreement with Washington out of concern it might otherwise face U.S. opposition to its bid for NATO membership.
Administration officials insist a NATO candidate country's position on the issue will have no effect on the US attitude toward its membership. At the same time, they have criticized the EU for advising its candidates for membership not to conclude "Article 98" agreements with the United States.