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U.S. ends war crimes exemption bid

From CNN Assignment Editor Jonathan Wald and Senior Producer Liz Neisloss

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United Nations

UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- In the face of strong opposition from other Security Council members the United States has announced it is dropping a resolution that would exempt its soldiers from international prosecution.

Washington had failed to find the votes needed to support its draft resolution, which would have given one "final" year of exemption from prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

The resolution needed a minimum nine votes in favor from the 15 Security Council members for it to pass.

"We believe that our draft and its predecessors fairly meet the concerns of all," U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations James Cunningham said after a closed council meeting on Wednesday.

"Not all council members agree, however, and the United States has decided not to proceed further with consideration and action on the draft at this time in order to avoid a prolonged and divisive debate."

In a written statement a spokesman for Kofi Annan said the the U.N. secretary-general felt "the decision by the United States not to pursue a resolution on this matter will help maintain the unity of the Security Council at a time when it faces difficult challenges."

Criticism of U.S. abuses in Iraq's the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal became a decisive factor for Security Council members.

China's ambassador to the United Nations, Wang Guangya, said "the scandal over the mistreatment" was behind that nation's decision to abstain. He also said his government could not "give a blank check to the U.S. for the behavior of their forces."

None of the alleged U.S. war crimes in Iraq would have fallen under the International Criminal Court's jurisdiction as neither Iraq nor the United States signed on to the ICC treaty.

The Spanish Ambassador to the U.N. said the Secretary General's comments opposing exemption from the International Criminal had a "powerful effect" on Spain's decision not to support the United States.

Speaking to reporters, Annan appealed for Security Council unity Friday. Thursday he had said, "Blanket exemption is wrong, it is of dubious judicial value, and I don't think it should be encouraged by the council."

Future missions in doubt

The Bush administration fiercely opposes the International Criminal Court, fearing frivolous or politically driven war crimes prosecutions against Americans abroad. But in practice, the court's statutes make it unlikely an American would face trial.

The International Criminal Court is considered a tribunal of "last resort" said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice program at Human Rights Watch.

The tribunal would hear only complaints against a person from a nation that was unable or unwilling to investigate potential war crimes.

The ICC, based in The Hague, Netherlands, went into effect in March 2003.

This was the third year the United States tried to renew exemption for its troops on U.N.-approved peacekeeping missions.

The U.S.-drafted resolution was first approved in 2002 after the United States vetoed a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, and threatened to prevent further U.N. missions unless the council endorsed its exemption.

The U.S. secured passage of the resolution a second time last year when three countries abstained. Immunity for the United States expires on June 30, the same day the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority hands over sovereignty to the Iraqi interim government

It is unclear what the repercussions of the U.S. decision to withdraw the resolution will be. "The United States will need to take into account the risk of ICC review when determining contributions to U.N.-authorized or -established operations," Cunningham said

Security Council diplomats also said Cunningham told the council in the closed meeting that failure to approve exemption could be a chilling factor for U.S. involvement in Security Council peace operations.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States will examine "case by case" whether to take part in current or future peacekeeping missions without the immunity provision.

"We will have to take into account the lack of this resolution as we look at our various obligations and the way we proceed overseas," Boucher said. "We'll be doing that in the coming days."

The United States has signed bilateral agreements with 90 countries guaranteeing that American personnel serving in those countries will not be handed over for prosecution by the ICC.

"We will continue very actively to seek international arrangements which guarantee the protection of our troops," Cunningham said.

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