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EU Climbs Down on International Criminal Court

The European Union has agreed on guidelines for bilateral agreements that exempt US troops from prosecution before the International Criminal Court (ICC). Critics fear that the new rules would water down the tribunal.


A subject of transatlantic tension - the International Criminal Court

An increasingly chilly transatlantic relationship underwent a major thawing on Monday as the European Union finally reached an agreement with Washington over the International Criminal Court (ICC), ending weeks of wrangling.

EU foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, approved a set of "guidelines" under which member states, if they so wish, can agree not to hand over Americans suspected of war crimes to the ICC.

Per Stig Moeller, the foreign minister of Denmark, which holds the rotating EU presidency, denied that the new rules would water down the international tribunal.

"There is no concession," he said. "There is no undermining of the International Criminal Court."

ICC treaty undermined?

Despite those strong words, all EU states agree in principle that the immunity deals, as sought by the United States, flout the tribunal’s founding treaty.

The ICC, which is due to start its work in The Hague next year, will try individuals for genocide, atrocities, war crimes and systematic human rights abuses.

Washington, which fears its soldiers and officials overseas could be vulnerable to politically motivated charges, has strongly opposed the International Criminal Court.

It has lobbied ICC signatories for months to sign "immunity agreements" under which they would agree not to hand any US citizen over to the tribunal. So far 12 non-EU countries have done so.

Germany sticks to its line

With the EU’s caving in, Britain, Italy and Spain, two of President Bush’s staunchest allies are expected to begin negotiations with the United States on an agreement not to hand over certain categories of American citizens to face the new court.

However, Germany remains the only country to remain openly hostile to the principle of keeping Americans out of the court’s reach, undaunted by its own recent nose-diving relations with the United States.

Germany made it clear that it would definitely not be signing such a deal.

"People are looking to Europe," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told reporters. "What matters is that the Europeans stand together on the basis of a strengthening of the court’s statute. What matters to us is not to assuage anyone."

EU compromise under scathing criticism

But the EU’s compromise has come under fire from critics who say that the EU move is a climb-down and that the 15-nation-bloc has papered over its own fundamental disagreements on the issue to end a tense stand-off with no guarantee that the United States would agree to its proposals.

In a statement, Dick Oosting, Director of Amnesty International’s EU office said "US pressure has paid off. The EU has allowed the US to shift the terms of the debate from legal principle to political opportunism."

Richard Dicker of the New York-based lobby group Human Rights Watch said the EU’s compromise "suggests a retreat by the EU from its strong common position for the ICC."