WASHINGTON -- The United States is challenging the creation of an international war crimes court and threatening to pull out of U.N. peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and elsewhere unless Americans are given immunity from prosecution.
The conflict has been building for months as President Bush's desire to protect Americans from possible bogus claims clashed with an international drive to punish people responsible for crimes against humanity.
The United States has refused to ratify the 1998 treaty that created the International Criminal Court and at the United Nations on Sunday vetoed a six-month extension of the mandate to continue peacekeeping in Bosnia. The extension would have made Americans in Bosnia subject to the court's jurisdiction.
The United States agreed to a 72-hour extension of the U.N. mandate in Bosnia to try to work out a compromise.
Some questions and answers:
Q: What is this court?
A: As of now, it's a four-member team with a phone and fax machine at offices in the Netherlands. The court opened for business Monday under a 1998 treaty ratified by 74 countries.
It is the first general international criminal court created to try individuals. Other courts have been created for specific conflicts, such as World War II and the ethnic warfare in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
The countries involved will elect the court's 18 judges, as well as a lead prosecutor and deputy prosecutors. They should be in place early next year.
Q: What crimes are prosecuted by the court, and what penalties can it give?
A: The court will try cases of alleged genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity. Genocide is defined as organized attempts to wipe out a specific ethnic, religious or national group. War crimes and crimes against humanity include systematic attacks on civilians; most uses of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons; and violations of Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war, such as torturing prisoners.
The court can try only cases that involve acts that occur from Monday onward.
Those found guilty could be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison or, in extreme cases, to life in prison.
Q: Who could be charged?
A: The court claims jurisdiction over any acts committed on the territory of ratifying nations, Bosnia among them, or by citizens of those nations. Citizens of countries which have not ratified the treaty could be charged for acts that happened in a ratifying country.
Q: What is the United States' worried about?
A: Officials say they don't want American soldiers, diplomats or others caught up in politically motivated prosecutions. They object to the fact that the court claims power to prosecute people from the United States and other countries that have not ratified the court treaty.
''A politicized or a loose cannon prosecutor in a court like that can impose enormous difficulties and disadvantages on people,'' Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week.
Supporters of the international court, including staunch U.S. allies such as Britain and France, say the court has safeguards to prevent politicized prosecutions. Judges and prosecutors will be elected by the countries that have ratified the treaty. The court's charter says prosecutors should bring cases based on facts and nothing else.
Q: How does the United States handle crimes by U.S. peacekeepers?
A: U.S. soldiers who commit crimes overseas, during military or peacekeeping operations or otherwise, usually are handled by U.S. military courts. For example, a U.S. military court in 1999 sentenced Staff Sgt. Frank J. Ronghi to life in prison for raping and murdering a girl in Kosovo while serving in the peacekeeping mission there.
U.S. soldiers also may be subject to the laws of countries where they commit crimes. American service members in Japan, for example, have been convicted and imprisoned for committing crimes outside U.S. bases there.
Q: What's going to happen to U.N. peacekeeping efforts now?
A: That's unclear. Both U.S. and U.N. officials say Bush's position on the international court could jeopardize peacekeeping operations elsewhere, such as in Kosovo and East Timor.
There has been no formal action taken on peacekeeping operation besides Bosnia, although the United States said it will withdraw three military observers from East Timor.
In Bosnia, 46 Americans participate in a 1,500-member U.N. operation training a multiethnic police force in Bosnia. The 18,000-member NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia includes about 3,100 U.S. soldiers.
U.S. officials say they are trying to work out a solution that would exempt from the international court's jurisdiction any forces participating in U.N.-approved or any other peacekeeping operations.
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