Secretary of State Colin Powell says the Bush administration is not using pressure tactics in its drive to conclude agreements with other countries granting American peacekeepers immunity from the new International Criminal Court (ICC). The issue figured in talks Tuesday between Mr. Powell and his Spanish counterpart, Foreign Minister Ana Palacio.
Mr. Powell says the United States has "serious concerns" about the ICC and is trying to conclude bilateral deals with as many countries as it can, giving U.S. peacekeeping troops exemptions from being prosecuted by the court.
However he says there is no coercion in the U.S. diplomatic drive, even though countries that refuse to make the immunity deals could lose American military aid.
The Bush administration embarked on the effort after it told the United Nations in May that it was withdrawing the United States' signature from the founding treaty of the international court, the world's first permanent body to try war crimes.
Though the United States has supported U.N. war crimes tribunals for the Balkans and central Africa, it opposed the permanent court on grounds it might someday subject American peacekeeping troops to politically-motivated prosecutions abroad.
In U.N. Security Council deliberations last month, U.S. peacekeepers were given a one year exemption from the Rome treaty and the Bush administration said it would seek separate agreements with each ICC member state under Article 98 of the treaty giving American troops immunity from court jurisdiction in those countries.
Thus far, the administration has concluded "Article 98" agreements with only two countries, Israel and Romania. The U.S.-Romanian deal drew criticism from ICC supporters who alleged the Romanian government acted out of fear that its bid for NATO membership might be opposed by the United States.
The Congress recently voted to back up the administration effort by approving a measure barring U.S. military aid, including training and education, from non-allied countries that do not conclude "Article 98" agreements with Washington.
But in a talk with reporters here after meeting his Spanish counterpart, Secretary Powell insisted there is no U.S. arm-twisting. "You're well-aware of what the Congress has said in the law with respect to the potential withholding of military aid," said Mr. Powell. "But we're not bludgeoning or threatening any of our friends. We're discussing with them our concerns about the ICC and a way of dealing with those concerns through Article 98. But the Congress, showing its seriousness with respect to the matter, has put into law some elements that are obvious to all, but has also given the president authority to deal with it, to waive it, if he thinks it's appropriate."
The drive for the separate agreements has become a point of contention between the United States and the European Union, which expressed regret over the American accord with Romania, an aspiring EU member.
European Commission President Romano Prodi Monday urged other EU candidate countries to refrain from making deals with Washington until the community can study the legal implications.
In comments in Washington, the Spanish foreign minister, Ms. Palacio, declined to enter the debate, saying the issue would be taken up at the next EU ministerial later this month.
The Bush administration's stand has drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups which have strongly supported creation of the ICC.
The executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, says the White House is allowing its concern about ICC prosecution of U.S. troops - a remote possibility - to trump all other foreign policy considerations.
James Steinberg, a foreign policy adviser to former President Clinton now with Washington's Brookings Institution, says military aid should not be used "as a club" to get other countries to sign agreements.