NATO bids not at risk over criminal court: U.S.A.

  • 2002-08-29
  • Steven C. Johnson

U.S. officials assured the Baltic states this week that their bids to join NATO are not linked to whether they sign accords with Washington that grant U.S. troops immunity from the new International Criminal Court.

U.S. embassies across the region issued statements to quell fears after a U.S. State Department official hinted that NATO enlargement could be thwarted if countries didn't side with the United States.

"There is no connection between the decision of the U.S. government to support any candidate for NATO membership and their individual decision to sign an agreement regarding treatment of U.S. citizens by the International Criminal Court," the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn said in a statement.

The United States is opposed to the court, which is expected to hear its first cases in 2003, and diplomats are pushing treaties with nations around the world that would exempt U.S. citizens from prosecution.

Among the nations most aggressively courted have been NATO candidates and last week a top U.S. State Department official told European journalists that NATO enlargement could be at stake if countries do not sign agreements granting U.S. troops immunity from the court.

"If we don't reach agreements, we will have to discuss the scenario with NATO," the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende quoted Pierre-Richard Prosper, head of the State Department's office on war crimes, as saying Aug. 21.

But U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Boucher contradicted those comments at his weekly press briefing in Washington Aug. 26.

"These agreements are bilateral agreements with individual governments. There's no connection between our decisions about supporting any particular candidate for membership in NATO and their decision about Article 98 agreements," he said, referring to the article of the court's founding treaty that governs extradition to The Hague.

"But these things are important to us, and we'll continue to pursue them strongly."

Baltic officials confirmed that they had received American proposals to sign such agreements but said U.S. officials had not pushed for a decision.

"We have been under no pressure at all from the embassy in Riga," said Latvian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vilmars Henins. "And it's been made clear that there's no connection with NATO enlargement."

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania remain confident they will receive invitations to join the alliance when it meets in the Czech capital, Prague, in November

"There has been no reference made to me about this topic influencing NATO's decision," said Ginte Damusis, Lithuania's ambassador to NATO in Brussels. "The message we're getting remains very positive, especially from U.S. officials."

In addition to raising questions about NATO, the issue has left the Baltics stranded between the United States and the European Union, which they hope to join in 2004.

The EU's 15 members are all supporters of the International Criminal Court and the union has warned candidates not to sign agreements with the United States until the EU adopts a common policy on the issue.

Rumania, also a candidate for both NATO and EU membership, was criticized for signing an agreement with Washington earlier this month.

EU foreign ministers are due to discuss the issue at the end of August and a larger EU meeting will address it in Brussels on Sept. 4.

All three countries have promised not to sign accords before a common position is forged in Brussels.

The EU was "having a dialog with the United States to keep the ICC and accommodate U.S. concerns," Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said Aug. 26 in Tallinn.

Denmark holds the rotating EU presidency until year's end.

U.S. officials have criticized the EU for recommending candidates adhere to a common policy.

Boucher called ICC agreements "totally compatible with the treaty."

"It should be left up to countries to decide bilaterally, with the United States, whether they want to sign these agreements," he said.

Hans Mourticen, a researcher with the Copenhagen-based Danish Institute of International Affairs, said Washington was not likely to punish the Baltic states should they refuse to sign treaties.

"I think they would understand their position as small states in the middle," he said.

But Saulius Kondrotas, director of Radio Free Europe's Lithuanian service, warned that the Balts would have to get used to playing a delicate diplomatic game that manages to appease Brussels and Washington.

"There's a general rift between the EU and America, and a lot more of these kinds of questions will arise," he said. "This one caused some anxiety, but it looks like we've been spared this time. But if Lithuania had to make a choice between NATO and the EU, well, it could go either way. I'd say it's 50-50."