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May 21, 2004

US Wants One-Year Extension of UN Exemption from War Crimes Law

by Thalif Deen

The United States is pushing for a new U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at exempting its troops from prosecution for war crimes when they serve in any U.N. peacekeeping operations.

If granted, the request would renew an exemption first permitted in 2000 and grudgingly repeated by the world body in 2003. It comes as the international community is outraged at abuse, including torture, committed by U.S. soldiers and other personnel against prisoners in a jail in occupied Iraq.

''Given the recent revelations from Abu Ghraib prison (in Baghdad),'' says Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch (HRW), ''the U.S. government has picked one hell of a moment to ask for special treatment on war crimes.''

''The U.N. Security Council should not grant special favors to any country, including the United States,'' added Dicker, director of the International Justice program at HRW.

The 15-member Council is scheduled to hold a closed-door meeting late Friday to discuss the U.S. request. But if Council members oppose the draft resolution — or express reservations — a final decision may be postponed for next week.

An Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS he is confident the United States will exert enough pressure on Council members to get the resolution adopted.

''But in the context of all the gross human rights abuses in Baghdad, the debate may also provide a much-needed platform for U.S.-bashing,'' he predicted.

The U.S. attempt to seek an exemption from war crimes prosecutions comes as its soldiers in Iraq are accused of brutalizing and humiliating detainees in violation of Geneva Conventions that govern the treatment of prisoners of war, including the prohibition of torture, rights to legal representation and family visits.

The atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers warrant war crimes prosecutions, according to some constitutional lawyers, but the United States cannot be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC) because it has refused to accede to the Rome Statute that created the ICC.

The administration of former President Bill Clinton signed the statute in December 2000. But in an unprecedented reversal, his successor George W. Bush said he has no intention of ratifying the ICC treaty, releasing Washington from the obligation of not acting contrary to the object and purposes of the statute.

Since then, the United States has concluded a series of bilateral treaties, including with nations that are party to the ICC, obliging states not to hand over U.S. personnel to the world court.

''With the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, the world knows exactly why the Bush administration has done everything humanly possible to sabotage the ICC,'' Francis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois College of Law, told IPS.

A contentious resolution granting immunity to U.S. peacekeepers was first adopted by the Security Council in July 2000. It was renewed last year and remains valid until the end of June. The present resolution is a call for a second renewal of the exemption.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said last year the exemption should ''not become an annual routine.''

''If it did,'' he said, ''I fear the world would interpret it as meaning that the Security Council wished to claim absolute and permanent immunity for people serving in the (peacekeeping) operations it establishes or authorizes.''

''If that were to happen,'' Annan warned, ''it would undermine not only the authority of the ICC but also the authority of the Security Council and the legitimacy of U.N. peacekeeping.''

In a statement released Thursday, HRW said the Bush administration wants to push the ICC resolution through the Council ''as quickly as possible, so that the contentious issue would not overshadow efforts to win Security Council backing for the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqi authorities on June 30.''

After having bypassed the Council prior to invading Iraq last March, Washington is now counting on the United Nations to approve its handing over of formal sovereignty to Iraqis and to organize elections in the war-torn yet explosive nation in 2005.

Dicker said the United States fears any meaningful discussion of its new resolution and wants to steamroll it through the Security Council in order to undercut growing objections to its campaign of special exemption from the rule of law.

Last year, three states — France, Germany and Syria — abstained on the resolution. ''This year, that number will grow,'' predicted Dicker.

Bill Pace of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC) said he hopes that more countries will abstain, signaling that it will not be automatically renewed and preventing it from becoming customary international law.

Heather Hamilton, vice president for programs at Citizens for Global Solutions, warned Washington of the long-term consequences of undermining the court. ''The ICC is the only permanent international court that can try individuals accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity when national courts cannot and will not,'' she said.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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