By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 1, 2003; Page A07
The Bush administration, intent on exempting U.S. citizens from prosecution by the International Criminal Court, is drawing fresh accusations of diplomatic heavy-handedness by threatening to cut off military aid to dozens of allies that refuse to sign immunity deals with the United States.
A deadline for cooperation expired at midnight, freezing money not yet spent this year by about 35 countries and putting the countries on notice that they could be denied millions for military equipment and training programs in the next budget year if they do not comply with U.S. wishes.
President Bush and his aides are reviewing projects in a number of countries for waivers that could be announced soon. Other nations, including the NATO allies, receive automatic exemptions. But a fierce struggle is underway — with the United States facing off against much of Europe — that has led to bad feelings and leaves some small countries feeling squeezed.
It hardly seems fair, a Lithuanian government official said, to face an aid cutoff over the international court issue despite “standing along with the United States in your fight against terrorism and sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.” Lithuania is one of seven countries expected to join NATO next year and needs U.S. funding to upgrade its military.
Croatia has a more complex problem, a diplomat said yesterday. U.S. authorities for years have been pressing the Zagreb government to surrender Croatians for war crimes prosecutions at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. The issue is politically divisive in a country where certain active political groups believe the matter should be settled at home.
At the same time, the Bush administration is demanding a written promise — known as an Article 98 agreement — from Croatia that no Americans charged in the future with war crimes or other grave offenses would be extradited to the new International Criminal Court. The Croatian government, which has sent suspects to The Hague, is mindful of elections at the end of the year.
“Signing Article 98 would strengthen these forces and undermine the credibility of the government to cooperate with The Hague,” said Ivan Grdesic, Croatia’s ambassador to the United States. “If we sign this Article 98, we will in the eyes and minds of the Croatian voters be acting on double standards.”
The Bush administration withdrew its signature last year from the treaty that created the court — ratified by more than 90 countries — and embarked on a vast diplomatic campaign to persuade nearly 180 countries to sign the immunity pledges. U.S. officials argued that Americans need protection from politically motivated prosecutions at the court, which opened for business July 1, 2002.
To press its point, the Bush administration threatened to shut down U.N. peacekeeping missions worldwide until the United Nations provided immunity to Americans. The Security Council granted the demand, then extended it for another year June 12. Secretary General Kofi Annan criticized the resolution. France, Germany and Syria abstained, contending that the exemption weakens the court.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that the immunity agreements “will be a significant and pressing matter in our relations with every state.” As for the countries that have not signed agreements and receive U.S. military aid, Boucher said, officials will evaluate programs and decide whether they are “sufficiently important to our interests” for Bush to grant a waiver.
The immediate effect of the midnight deadline is limited. The budget year is only three months from completion, and most money has been spent. A State Department spokesman said $63.9 million in financing for military equipment remains unused by 35 countries that have not signed the agreement and do not have an automatic waiver. An additional $613,000 in education and training money is unspent.
Countries exempted from the punishment ordered by Congress include the 18 other NATO members, Israel, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan. Administration officials have said privately that other waivers will not come easily. One reason is that governments that took political flak for signing the deals oppose granting the same benefits to others for doing nothing.
“You don’t want to give a free ride to people who don’t want to sign,” a senior U.S. official said. “You want to keep the incentive and the pressure up, and you want to make sure that those who did take some heat for signing get a better deal from us than those who didn’t.”
But with barely 50 countries acceding to the U.S. request despite the large-scale diplomatic campaign, the administration is putting out the message that negotiations will continue. “Our embassies and negotiating teams stand ready to work with interested governments,” Boucher said.
“We’re applying the law,” said Lincoln P. Bloomfield Jr., assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, “but we’re doing it in a way that continues the conversation.”
The conversation has not always been friendly. Few of the closest U.S. allies have signed, and the Bush administration’s effort has led to further tension in Europe, where the European Union is pressing its members and aspirants to keep faith with the court. One official said that U.S. authorities “made clear directly to the French” that they consider such tactics inappropriate.
The contest is viewed so competitively in some quarters that one U.S. official said the signatures of Albania, Romania, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina on Article 98 agreements represented “defeats” for European opponents of the American effort.
Many countries remain on the fence. Among the countries that will present strong cases for a waiver are Colombia, a major recipient of military aid as an ally in the international counter-drug fight, and the seven countries picked to become NATO’s next members.
“That money is very important,” said Rihards Mucins , a senior Latvian diplomat. “We are in a stage where we have to be more prepared for being a NATO member. If that money is cut now . . . we would lose time in preparing ourselves.”
Mucins said Latvia expects to sign “in the context of a broader European and American understanding.” The Lithuanian official said the greatest frustration is to be “put in a position to choose between the United States and Europe. That is the worst.”
Croatian ambassador Grdesic said the estimated $5 million to $15 million in military equipment his government might lose is only part of the story. He said his country’s best relations with the United States come from dozens of Croatian military officers studying here. As a country that signed the Rome Treaty creating the international court, he says his government is paying an ironic price.
“We were one of the first countries to join it, exactly because we wanted to prove our strong resolve to handle the war crimes issue at home,” Grdesicsaid. “Many of these new countries are, as they say, between a hard place and a rock.”
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