EDITOR'S NOTE: U.S. efforts to pressure countries to grant U.S. troops immunity from international court prosecutions appear to be backfiring in some Latin American nations. Luis Bredow is a veteran Bolivian journalist living in La Paz. Jim Shultz is the executive director of The Democracy Center (www.democracyctr.org) in Cochabamba.BY LUIS BREDOW AND JIM SHULTZ, PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
COCHABAMBA, Bolivia--The U.S. government is demanding that the Bolivian Congress approve an agreement that would grant immunity to U.S. troops and officials accused of human rights violations, exempting them from prosecution by the International Criminal Court. That effort, which includes a threat to withhold financial aid and access to free trade, seems to be backfiring.
Bolivia is one of 139 nations that have signed the Treaty of Rome, which set up the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998. A respected Bolivian judge, Renee Blattmann, also sits as a member of the court. The treaty's goal, according to its Preamble, "is to establish an independent permanent International Criminal Court with jurisdiction over the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole."
It was in the ICC that the former Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, was tried for crimes against humanity. The United States, alongside China, Iraq, Libya and others, is one of just seven nations to vote against the treaty. Many believe that the war in Iraq and cases of U.S. torture have made the United States vulnerable to criminal charges of international human rights violations.
The Bush administration has been pressing its opposition to the ICC. In 2002, the U.S. Congress approved the American Servicemembers Protection Act, which prohibits the United States from providing military aid to any nation that does not agree to grant U.S. soldiers and officials immunity from the ICC.
Since then, the Bush administration has been pressuring poor countries worldwide to ratify bilateral immunity pacts with the United States, often under the threat of withholding aid. Government officials say that the United States has already secured more than 90 such agreements. At least 50 governments, however, have refused to cede to the U.S. demands. The new president of Uruguay recently announced that his government would refuse the U.S. request, declaring that his country honors its international agreements.
The primary threat by the United States to countries like Bolivia has been to withhold military assistance, including discount prices on used military hardware such as tanks. Gary Fuller, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, described the government's position as, "If countries aren't willing to protect our soldiers, why should we sell them equipment?"
But the United States has just upped the ante, by adding the threat of withholding economic aid, a sanction included in an amendment approved by the U.S. Congress late last year. Human Rights Watch reports that U.S. diplomats have informally threatened economic sanctions for some time. The group says that an assistant secretary of state informed foreign ministers of Caribbean states that they would lose the benefits for hurricane relief if their governments did not sign immunity accords.
"U.S. ambassadors have been acting like schoolyard bullies," wrote Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice program at Human Rights Watch, in a letter to then-U.S. Secretary of State Collin Powell.
Some within the Bolivian government have pressed hard for the country to cede to the United States' request. The Bolivian minister of government, responding to charges that such a resolution was an affront to the nation's dignity, was quoted as saying, "You can't eat dignity." Last year the Bolivian Senate approved an immunity pact, creating a political uproar. The lower house has steadfastly refused.
U.S. power is a major political flashpoint in Bolivia. The U.S. government is at the heart of the controversial war on drugs here, and U.S.-forced eradication of coca farms is an ongoing target of public protest and accusations of human rights abuses.
Meanwhile, U.S. threats against Bolivia appear, for now, to be more gums than teeth.
The economic sanctions just approved by the Congress specifically exempt counties covered by the anti-poverty Millennium Challenge program, which includes Bolivia. Bolivian government sources reported here earlier this month that the United States has privately threatened to keep Bolivia out of talks to form an Andean free trade pact with the United States if immunity is not approved.
However, free trade pacts with the United States are no more popular among the Bolivian left than is U.S. military aid, and it is the Bolivian left that is the main stumbling block for approval.
Evo Morales, the leader of the Socialist Party, who came in second by just two percent in the last presidential election and is a front-runner for 2007, has declared the U.S. sanctions "blackmail" and has threatened nationwide protests. President Carlos Mesa has said that the government would only approve an agreement for U.S. immunity if it were supported by the majority of the Bolivian people, something highly unlikely here.
"Bolivia would be the only country in the world to agree to such a pact that also has a judge on the court," says Sacha Llorenti, president of Bolivia's National Human Rights Assembly. "We believe in the fundamental principles of international law. Honestly, we're not especially worried about what will be the pressure coming from the U.S."
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