Fri, Jun 25, 2004 - Page 1 News List

US walks away from ICC exemption effort


In a major retreat, the US abandoned an attempt to win a new exemption for American troops from international prosecution for war crimes -- an effort that had faced strong opposition because of the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal.

The US decision on Wednesday marked the second time in just over a year that President George W. Bush's administration was forced to withdraw a resolution because of deep Security Council divisions. In March 2003, it dropped a contentious resolution seeking UN authorization for the war in Iraq.

The US decision does not make American troops in Iraq more open to prosecution, since neither Iraq nor the US are members of the International Criminal Court, which started operating last year in The Hague, Netherlands.

The tribunal is a court of last resort and will step in only when countries are unwilling or unable to dispense justice themselves. Its supporters say that makes it highly unlikely that an American would be prosecuted.

Washington argues that the court could be used for frivolous or politically motivated prosecutions of American troops.

In addition to seeking UN exemptions, Washington has signed bilateral agreements with 90 countries that bar any prosecution of American officials by the court for alleged war crimes committed on their territory. US diplomats said they will continue to seek such agreements.

After a last-ditch US attempt to get support for a compromise failed, US deputy ambassador James Cunningham announced that Washington decided "not to proceed with further consideration and action on the draft at this time to avoid a prolonged and divisive debate."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the council last week to oppose the resolution, warning against dividing the council again. He also questioned the legality of an exemption and cited the abuse of detainees by US soldiers in Iraq.

On Wednesday, Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, praised the US decision.

"The decision by the United States not to pursue a resolution on this matter will help maintain the unity of the Security Council at a time when it faces difficult challenges," Eckhard said in a written statement.

Whether the US demand for an exemption continues to pose problems for the council, however, remains to be seen.

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