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US Says Several Countries Facing Aid Cut-Off Over War Crimes Court Controversy - 2003-06-30

The State Department says three dozen countries around the world risk a U.S. military aid cut-off starting Tuesday because they have not granted U.S. troops immunity from prosecution by the new International Criminal Court, the ICC.

Officials here say the number of eligible countries that have signed immunity agreements with the United States now exceeds 50. But they say another three dozen have not concluded so-called "Article 98" agreements with Washington, and could have U.S. military aid programs frozen as of Tuesday.

Legislation approved by the Congress last year requires the administration to cut off military aid on July first to those signatory countries of the International Criminal Court treaty, who fail to sign agreements with the United States, exempting U.S. military personnel operating in those countries from prosecution by the court.

The measure, the American Service Members Protection Act, was pushed through Congress with strong Republican support to underline Bush administration concerns that the ICC, set up to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity, could become a forum for politically-motivated trials of U.S. peacekeepers and other troops on foreign soil.

The administration has mounted a major diplomatic push since last year to conclude "Article 98" agreements, and the State Department Monday issued a list of 44 countries that have signed them. It said another seven countries have signed, but do not want their agreements publicized.

The congressional measure would cut off U.S. military credits, training and the provision of surplus military items to those U.S. aid clients, which have not concluded "Article 98" accords. However it exempts NATO member states, most of which are strong ICC supporters, as well as major non-NATO U-S allies, such as Israel, Egypt, Australia and Japan.

President Bush can also exempt other countries on a case-by-case basis for U.S. national security reasons. At a briefing here, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher conceded that the initial impact of the legislation will be small, but said that U.S.officials take the matter seriously.

"While the immediate practical effect of the July 1 suspension of assistance on current programs will be minimal," he said, "there should be no misunderstanding that the protection of U.S. citizens and service members from the International Criminal Court, from potential prosecution by the International Criminal Court, will be a significant and pressing matter in our relations with every state. We encourage those states, who have not yet concluded Article 98 agreements with the United States, to do so. Our embassies and negotiating teams stand ready to work with interested governments to conclude such agreements on an expeditious basis."

Though it had reservations about the ICC, the Clinton administration signed the treaty setting up the court. But soon after President Bush took office, the United States withdrew its signature, with officials saying the court lacked a controlling authority, and could become politicized.

A number of U.S. allies have said the administration's concerns about the court are over-drawn, and the matter has been a point of contention in U.S.-European relations.

Human rights activists say the bilateral agreements pressed by the United States risk undermining a core principle of the court, that no one is immune from prosecution for war crimes.

But Bush administration officials say the immunity deals are provided for in the ICC treaty, with its Article 98 being the applicable provision.