October 1, 2002

Europeans to Exempt U.S. From War Court


BRUSSELS, Sept 30 — The 15 nations of the European Union agreed today to exempt American soldiers and government officials from prosecution for war crimes at the International Criminal Court, an issue that had troubled trans-Atlantic relations for several months.

The compromise, reached at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers, came close to the blanket immunity for American government employees sought by the Bush administration, although European officials emphasized that in their view it did not undermine the court, which the administration has opposed.

"There is no concession," said Per Stig Moller, foreign minister of Denmark, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union. "There is no undermining of the International Criminal Court."

At a briefing in Washington, the State Department spokesman, Richard A. Boucher, said: "We'll study the details of the European Union's decision very closely, and we'll look forward to discussing it in more detail with member states."

Diplomats said today's deal had been pushed hardest by Britain and by Italy and Spain, whose conservative governments are ideologically closer to the Bush administration than, say, the German government.

France, Germany, Belgium and Sweden offered the stiffest resistance to any form of exemption for American citizens, diplomats said.

The deal that the 15 governments agreed to prevents them from extraditing American government employees accused of war crimes to the court, on the condition that the United States government guarantee that such a suspect would be tried in an American court.

The Bush administration has been pressing governments around the world to sign bilateral agreements not to send American citizens to the International Criminal Court, which is an outgrowth of the ad hoc tribunals set up by the United Nations, with American support, to try war crimes committed in the Balkans and in Rwanda in the 1990's.

The administration fears that with the creation of a permanent court to try alleged war crimes committed anywhere in the world, Americans in peacekeeping or overseas military operations could become targets of politically motivated trials.

Several American nongovernmental organizations have banded together to support formation of the new international court, and their representatives said they were disappointed by today's agreement.

"We are disappointed the E.U. did not take a stronger position amid pressure from the United States, but we agree the I.C.C. has not been de-legitimised by this agreement," said Heather Hamilton, spokeswoman for the World Federalist Association, one of the groups.

Today's agreement allows any European Union nation to sign a separate bilateral agreement with the United States over the court. Germany has been a staunch opponent of this, but Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer noted that today's accord "is very important because the Milosevics and Pinochets of tomorrow will be brought to justice," referring to the former authoritarian leaders of Yugoslavia and Chile.

Britain and Italy are believed to be considering signing bilateral agreements with the United Sates, but diplomats said today's agreement makes such a move less likely. "The E.U. does now appear united on this question," said one diplomat, although differences remain beneath the surface of the compromise.

"This unity could turn out to be no more than skin deep if individual E.U. members go ahead and sign agreements with the United States," the diplomat said.

So far, 12 countries outside the European Union have promised not to extradite American citizens to the court.

The European Union is among those who pushed hardest for an international court, under the auspices of the United Nations, to deal with cases involving genocide, atrocities, war crimes and systematic human rights abuses. More than 80 countries have ratified the court's founding treaty. Notable exceptions include the United States, Israel and most Arab countries.

The court will be based in The Hague, where Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia, is on trial on charges that he committed war crimes during the Balkan wars of the 1990's.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company