Comment: US Shoots Itself in the Foot

The United States' threat to veto the continuation of the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia runs against its own best interests

Comment: US Shoots Itself in the Foot

The United States' threat to veto the continuation of the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia runs against its own best interests

The United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Balkans is on the receiving end of political gamesmanship from a Security Council permanent member - and not for the first time.

In the late 1990s, the only successful conflict prevention mission in the UN's history, UNPREDEP, which operated in Macedonia, fell victim to a Chinese veto after the Macedonian government announced that it was ready to open diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

In the event, the Taiwanese remained unrecognised, but the peacekeepers were withdrawn none the less. In due course, conflict broke out in Macedonia.

At stake right now is the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina - specifically that part of it run by the UN, the International Police Task Force, IPTF.

Americans serve in this and the NATO-led Stabilisation Force, S-For, which are mandated by the same UN resolution, with their personnel equally subject to the new international criminal court, ICC, which Washington opposes.

Although the US has signalled its commitment to continue the deployment of S-For, the future of the IPTF (and the associated UN Civil Affairs personnel) is now in question.

The IPTF's mandate expires at the end of 2002 and the European Union has decided to take over the international policing mission under the leadership of the new High Representative, Paddy Ashdown.

If the IPTF leaves early, the EU's directive will have to be changed accordingly. Money and personnel, which were already in short supply, will have to be found almost six months early.

Of the IPTF's 1,600 serving police officers, fewer than 50 are American. It seems rather unlikely that they are capable of the sort of crimes that would lead to ICC indictments.

The presence of the UN in Bosnia, and the delicate negotiations over the transition from UN to EU management, are thus being put in jeopardy in order to protect these few dozen individuals for the remaining six months of their mission from an international court that is not yet in a position to prosecute anybody.

It is difficult to see how this is really in US interests. It is also difficult to reconcile it with Washington's repeated assertions that peace in the Balkans, with an orderly transition to European leadership, are a policy priority.

And it is particularly difficult to see how this will help the US build up a coalition with its traditional allies - all of whom have supported the creation of the new court - in other policy areas.

The International Criminal Court has been presented by the US as a dangerous innovation in international law, where American troops for the first time ever will be subject to the authority of war crimes tribunals.

In fact, this is not the case. US soldiers serving in the Balkans have always been subject to the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague, which actually investigated the NATO campaign against Slobodan Milosevic in 1999 and concluded that there was no case to answer.

Since July 1, all international personnel in Bosnia - including the US soldiers with S-For - have been subject to the ICC's jurisdiction as Bosnia is a signatory to the treaty that established the court.

But even if it were to indict a US peacekeeper, it can only act if the local authorities are unwilling or unable to do so. The US system of justice would retain jurisdiction - but only if America signed up to the ICC treaty.

Too often in history, the interests of the people and states of the Balkans have been subject to the interests of the great powers of the day. This latest dispute is a completely artificial crisis.

It is not too late to take a deep breath and recognise that US interests really lie in ensuring continuity in the Balkan peacekeeping missions, and finding other means of coping with the ICC. Otherwise, American will be shooting itself in the foot.

Nicholas Whyte is the International Crisis Group's Balkans Director

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