Facing global opposition fueled by the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal, the United States on Wednesday dropped its attempt to renew a UN exemption shielding American troops from international prosecution for war crimes.
The US move raised concern that Washington might carry out its threat to shut down or stop participating in UN-authorized peacekeeping operations.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters that every request would be examined "both in terms of voting for a peacekeeping mission" and providing Americans to participate. A key factor will be "what the risk might be of prosecution by a court to which we're not party," he said.
While the United States won praise for not pushing for a vote that would have deeply divided the UN Security Council, the Bush administration suffered a defeat in its lengthy battle against the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal.
William Pace, head of the Coalition for an International Criminal Court, which represents more than 1,000 organizations supporting the tribunal, called the US decision "a victory for international justice."
The court can prosecute cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed after it was established on July 1, 2002.
But it is a court of last resort and will step in only when countries are unwilling or unable to dispense justice themselves, a condition proponents say makes it highly unlikely an American would be prosecuted.
Washington has also signed bilateral agreements with 90 countries that bar any prosecution of American officials by the court.
The court's chief prosecutor announced its first investigation on Wednesday -- of war crimes in Congo.
When the court was established -- the culmination of a campaign for a permanent war crimes tribunal that began with the Nuremberg trials after World War II -- Washington threatened to end its involvement in UN peacekeeping operations if it didn't get an exemption for Americans.
President Bush's administration argues that the court could be used for frivolous or politically motivated prosecutions of American troops.
After lengthy negotiations, the Security Council agreed to a one-year exemption, which was renewed a year ago. The court started operating last year.
The 94 countries that have ratified the 1998 Rome Treaty creating the court maintain it contains enough safeguards to prevent frivolous prosecutions and insist that nobody should be exempt.
Last month, the United States circulated a resolution that would have authorized a new one-year exemption after the current one expires on June 30.
But it put off a vote to work on a resolution endorsing the June 30 handover of power in Iraq, which was unanimously adopted on June 8.
One council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington probably would have gotten the minimum nine "yes" votes in the 15-member council if it had called for a vote immediately after introducing the resolution.
But over the past five weeks, the scandal over the abuse of Iraqi detainees by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison has grown, and last week Secretary-General Kofi Annan made a rare intervention into council affairs. He urged members to oppose the resolution, questioned the legality of an exemption and warned against dividing the council.
Several council members said the prisoner abuse and Annan's opposition were factors in their refusal to back the original resolution and a last-minute US attempt at compromise that would have made this one-year exemption the final one.
France, Germany, Spain, Brazil, Chile and China had said they would abstain on the original resolution, and Romania and Benin had indicated they were likely to join them.
When Spain and China -- key nations the US needed to change their votes -- announced before Wednesday's council meeting that they wouldn't support the compromise, the United States knew the resolution would be defeated, so Washington decided to abandon it.
"We believe that our draft and its predecessors fairly meet the concerns of all. Not all council members agree, however," US Deputy Ambassador James Cunningham told reporters after informing the council of the decision.
"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," he said.
He stressed that the United States is "the largest contributor to global security and has special well-known interests in protecting our forces and our officials."
Cunningham said the United States will "continue to negotiate bilateral agreements" to protect Americans.
Both Spanish and Chilean envoys said Annan's opposition had great influence on the outcome.
Annan said the US decision "will help maintain the unity of the Security Council at a time when it faces difficult challenges," his spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said in a statement.
China's UN Ambassador Wang Guangya said the prisoner abuse scandal was paramount in ending China's support for an exemption.
"China is under pressure because of the scandals and the news coverage of the prisoner abuse" and it couldn't give the United States "a blank check," he said.
(China Daily via agencies, June 24, 2004)