The United States has abandoned efforts to renew the exemption for U.S. peacekeepers' from international prosecution for war crimes. The current exemption expires at the end of this month.
Deputy U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham emerged from a closed door Security Council meeting to say he was withdrawing the request for a continued U.S. exemption at the International Criminal Court.
"We believe our draft and its predecessors fairly meet the concerns of all," he said. "Not all council members agree, however, and the United States has decided not to proceed further with consideration and action on the draft at this time in order to avoid a prolonged and divisive debate."
The U.S. request for immunity for its peacekeepers had been adopted by large margins the past two years. This time, however, Council members said attitudes had shifted because of international outrage at the abuse of detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
But Ambassador Cunningham said the draft resolution would not have protected soldiers accused of crimes at Abu Ghraib.
"The objection has nothing to do with bringing to justice those individuals who may have committed heinous crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, something the United States strongly supports, as you know," he said. "For example, we have already initiated prosecutions related to the charges of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and have several investigations under way."
In the past, the United States has threatened to veto U.N. peacekeeping missions unless its troops were given immunity at the ICC. He declined to comment about whether that possibility would be raised again. But he suggested that there might be a re-examination of U.S. support for all UN peacekeeping missions.
"In the absence of a new resolution, the United States will need to take into account the risk of ICC review when determining contributions to UN-authorized or established operations," added Mr. Cunningham.
The United States is the largest contributor to U.N. peacekeeping operations, picking up more than 25 percent of the total peacekeeping bill.
Opposition to the U.S. exemption solidified last week after Secretary General Kofi Annan said it would discredit the world body and the Security Council.
"I think it would be unfortunate for one to press for such an exemption given the prisoner abuse in Iraq," he said.
Several Council members said the secretary-general's words had been persuasive. Chinese Ambassador Wang Guangwa said the prisoner abuse issue had prompted his country to change its vote.
"Because of the scandal over this mistreatment, this certainly had an impact on the thinking of Council members, particularly with my delegation for one," he explained. "Because we voted in favor of this resolution over the past two years, but this year, because of concern over particularly this issue, that's why we decided to abstain on this issue."
The new International Criminal Court was established to try those accusedof the world's worst war crimes, including genocide. It is intended as a court of last resort, for use only in cases where a nation fails to prosecute suspected criminals.
Proponents say it is highly unlikely that U.S. citizens would be brought before the court, since the United States has a functioning justice system. But the Bush administration has opposed it on the grounds that it could be used to bring frivolous charges against U.S. troops and government officials.