- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 4, 2002

NEW YORK Signatories to the International Criminal Court convened for talks yesterday amid strong signs that European nations were ready to bend to U.S. demands for immunity from the court for its armed forces.

Legal analysts from three dozen nations have gathered at the United Nations for a two-week session to discuss the financing and structure of the nascent tribunal. But it is the question of bilateral accords exempting U.S. forces that has dominated much of the conversation.

"The real-world way is to find ways to deal with Washington without jeopardizing the statute," said one European official, whose country has taken a hard line against the U.S. demands for exemptions under Article 98 of the court's founding treaty.

"Believe me, we would very much like to find a way out with our American friends because it is important. The U.S. is part of the process to end impunity. But this is a highly sensitive issue bilaterally for us."

Another diplomat went further during the weekend, telling Reuters news agency that bureaucrats in the European Commission had been rebuked for their tough criticism of the United States by their member governments.

"Has the commission been reined in by the member states? You bet," said the diplomat in Brussels, where European legal analysts are meeting today to seek a common position on the accords.

"Of course, no one wants the court neutered, but no one wants an unnecessary fight with the United States."

John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and the Bush administration's point man on the ICC, said by telephone from Washington that he was confident that a large number of countries would exempt American forces.

"I don't see any reason why we can't reach agreements with most of the countries we have diplomatic relations with," he said. "We have four, and we expect more in the coming weeks."

So far, Israel, Romania, Tajikistan and East Timor have signed the so-called Article 98 agreements, under which the countries promise not to extradite U.S. soldiers or officials to the ICC.

Alternatively, the United States is seeking to rewrite existing Status of Forces Agreements to achieve the same purpose. Failure to sign could mean a loss of U.S. military support.

Mr. Bolton said U.S. diplomats have been discussing the matter in foreign capitals and that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell would discuss the exemptions with world leaders on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly debate next week.

The subject is divisive in Europe, where sympathy for U.S. concerns varies widely and support is strong for the principle of the court, designed to hear accusations of genocide, crimes against humanity and other heinous war crimes.

Germany, the Netherlands and France are among the nations most committed to a strong ICC and oppose side deals that they fear could dilute its power.

Britain and to a lesser extent Italy have taken heat from their neighbors for being the most receptive to Article 98 agreements with Washington.

Several nations have accused London of betraying the European Commission's earlier advisory that no nation should undertake any bilateral agreement that weakens the court.

However, the Europeans have been softening their rhetoric in recent days. Several diplomats in New York yesterday said it was important to reach an accommodation with Washington. None would be identified by name.

So far, 78 nations have ratified the ICC, which will be based in The Hague. Professional staff has begun to assemble temporary offices there, and it is expected that the court could begin to take complaints within a year and begin trials in less than three years.

A seat was reserved at this week's New York talks for the United States, which signed the treaty on the last open day under President Clinton. But the Bush administration has repudiated the signature and has no plan to participate formally in the meeting.

In July, U.S. diplomats delayed a routine extension of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, demanding a resolution saying its peacekeepers should be immune from prosecution.

After several weeks of negotiations, the Americans settled for a one-year deferral from prosecution while it pursued the strategy of negotiating bilateral agreements with individual nations.

This sort of tactic, which one European diplomat yesterday described as "unbelievably heavy-handed," reduced sympathy for Washington's fear of political prosecutions.

Nonetheless, the European Commission's nonbinding advisory handed down a year ago, saying that any bilateral agreement could undermine the value of the court, has gained little support.

"Most states looking at the advisory coolly and rationally think it's at least partly wrong," said one European diplomat. "We are trying for a common EU position, but that may just be that each country makes its own decisions."

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