European Union governments are being urged to stand firm against US demands
for exemptions from the rules of the international criminal court amid signs that
Britain is seeking a compromise.
The lobby group Human Rights Watch
called on the EU not to give way when foreign ministers, including Jack Straw,
discuss the contentious issue in Denmark today.
With transatlantic ties already strained by the issue of Iraq, the current
holder of the EU presidency, Denmark, aims to stop the dispute becoming a crisis,
The ICC, which is expected to start functioning in the Hague next year, was
established to try individuals for genocide, war crimes and other human rights
The court has come to symbolize Europe's commitment to multilateralism and
international law, but, at the same time, it also signifies the determination
of an unassailably powerful America to ignore its allies and get its own way.
The US, fearing politically motivated charges against its personnel, won a
year's grace from prosecution last month after threatening to veto all UN peacekeeping
Washington is lobbying signatories to reach bilateral deals granting immunity
to US citizens on their soil, although the European commission, has warned that
such deals would fatally undermine the court.
No formal decisions on the ICC are expected when ministers meet at Elsinore
Castle - home to Shakespeare's doubt-ridden Hamlet - but a meeting of EU legal
experts next week will most likely shape the European response.
The EU's 15 member states formally reject the US position as unacceptable.
But British calls to allow individual states to agree separate deals in defined
circumstances seem likely to strike a chord with some members.
The US cites article 98 of the ICC treaty, which says signatories cannot be
forced to cooperate with the ICC if it would clash with obligations to a third
"This is a clear test of the European Union's common position on the court
and a coordinated foreign policy," said Lottie Leicht, EU director for Human Rights
Watch. "If the European Union blinks now, the most hardcore unilateralists in
the Bush administration will draw considerable encouragement for other foreign
policy initiatives in which international law will be challenged."
Signs that a deal may be reached have been bolstered recently by angry criticism
of the commission, which some members say should not be involved in the ICC issue
"The commission seems hell-bent on being confrontational," complained one diplomat.
"It is not being helpful. Responsible politicians are trying to find a solution."
Earlier this month, Romano Prodi, the commission president, raised the stakes
by publicly rebuking Romania, a prospective EU member, for signing a separate
deal with the US. The only other countries to have done so are Israel, East Timor
and Tajikistan. The Romanian foreign minister was reportedly subjected to heavy
EU member states - 11 of which are in Nato - also fear that Washington has
started explicitly to link ICC immunity to membership of the alliance. Seven east
European states expected to be invited to join Nato at the Prague summit in November
- Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, the three Baltic states and Slovenia - are also
prospective EU members.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002