07 October, 2006

Paraguay rejects ICC immunity for US military

The Washinton Post reported earlier this week that Paraguay's "Foreign Minster Ruben Ramirez said Monday that Paraguay and Washington would not renew a defense-cooperation agreement for 2007 over the South American country's refusal to grant U.S. troops inside Paraguay immunity from prosecution by the International Criminal Court." Paraguay's conservative government has been the US' closest ally in the southern region of South America, and this must be a blow to the Bush/Rumsfeld plans for forward positioning deployment in the southern hemisphere, even if it has no immediate effect.

On October 2, the Paraguayan government announced its decision to revoke U.S. immunity as soon as their current contract expires in December 2006. The US military has carried out military exercises in Paraguay since July 2005. Since then the troops have enjoyed complete diplomatic immunity, exempting them from trial in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Thomas Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said that the US will not continue to provide military support without complete immunity. However, on October 3, 2006 President Bush signed a waiver allowing for military aid in countries that have refused to sign immunity agreements with the US military. The waiver affects 21 countries, including Paraguay.

Historically, Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte Frutos and President George W. Bush have enjoyed what Brazilian President Lula calls a "political matrimony." Paraguay´s decision may represent an unexpected alliance with the countries in the MercoSur trade block, which includes Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Venezuela.

Orlando Castillo, director of SERPAJ, a human rights organization based in Paraguay, stated that Frutos' decision does not necessarily represent an ideological shift of Paraguay´s center-right government. Castillo explained that regional solidarity would require major reforms in all sectors of the Paraguayan government.

Furthermore, military representatives from the CIA, DEA, and FBI will continue to hold complete immunity in Paraguay. UpsideDownWorld

WaPo:

[Foreign Minster] Ramirez said the government determined that under international treaty law, exceptions to immunity can only be made in cases of foreign diplomats and administrative personnel. He said U.S. military exercises scheduled through Dec. 1 would continue.
. . .

Radio journalists debated on Tuesday whether Duarte's government should have gone along with the U.S. requests. Supporters cited the advantages of a good military relationship with the U.S., while others argued the U.S. hadn't helped Paraguay in the way European and Asian nations had, such as with road, hospital, school and infrastructure projects.

Michael Shifter, of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, said the move shows the U.S. is losing influence in the region. "My guess is there was a lot of pressure on the Paraguayans to fall more in line with Brazil and other Mercosur countries in terms of not having a special military relationship with the United States," he said. "I do think it's a further setback for the U.S. in terms of its influence and its objectives in the region.

The other members of the Mercosur trade bloc - Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela - have so far refused to grant immunity to U.S. troops. All four nations have in recent years elected leftist governments critical of U.S. policy. The ICC, a United Nations creation, was set up in an attempt to ensure that perpetrators of genocide or crimes against humanity are brought to justice.

The predictable petty bully response? "U.S. suspends Paraguay medical-military brigades":

ASUNCION, Paraguay, Oct 6 (Reuters) - The United States will stop sending medical-military brigades to Paraguay after the South American country said U.S. soldiers would not be immune from prosecution as of next year, Washington's ambassador said on Friday. "It's clear that we are not going to be able to continue sending Medretes (Medical Readiness Training Exercise brigades). We respect the decision of the government and we will be offering more of this type of help to other countries," Ambassador James Cason told reporters after meeting with Paraguayan Foreign Minister Ruben Ramirez.

Paraguay let about 400 U.S. soldiers into the country last year to do training and humanitarian work for 18 months. The U.S. aid has led to speculation by the media and critics that Washington is building a military base. The United States denies that. The aid also sparked concerns in neighboring countries such as Brazil and Argentina of growing U.S. political and military influence, and Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte Frutos recently changed the immunity rules to bring his policies in line with his neighbors. The U.S. soldiers had a treatment similar to diplomatic officials, meaning they would be tried in U.S. courts for most crimes.

Cason said the United States would continue other aid projects in Paraguay and the decision would not harm trade relations.

"We believe that aid should come in a framework of complete justice," Ramirez said after meeting with the ambassador. AlertNet

What this means for the massive military base in Paraguay's Tri-border region, Mariscal Estigarribia, is unclear. The base has raised much suspicion in the region:

While U.S. and Paraguayan officials vehemently deny ambitions to establish a U.S. military base at Mariscal Estigarribia, the ICC immunity agreement and U.S. counterterrorism training exercises have increased suspicions that the U.S. is building a stronghold in a region that is strategic to resource and military interests.
. . .

The Mariscal Estigarribia air base is within 124 miles of Bolivia and Argentina, and 200 miles from Brazil, near the Triple Frontier where Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina meet. Bolivia’s natural gas reserves are the second largest in South America, while the Triple Frontier region is home to the Guarani Aquifer, one of the world’s largest fresh water sources.

Not surprisingly, U.S. rhetoric is building about terrorist threats in the triborder region. Dangl reports claims by Defense officials that Hezbollah and Hamas, radical Islamic groups from the Middle East, receive significant funding from the Triple Frontier, and that growing unrest in this region could leave a political "black hole" that would erode other democratic efforts. Dangl notes that in spite of frequent attempts to link terror networks to the triborder area, there is little evidence of a connection.
. . .

A journalist writing for the Argentinian newspaper, Clarin, visited the base at Mariscal Estigarribia and reported it to be in perfect condition. Capable of handling large military planes, it is oversized for the Paraguayan air force, which only has a handful of small aircraft. The base is capable of housing 16,000 troops, has an enormous radar system, huge hangars, and an air traffic control tower. The airstrip itself is larger than the one at the international airport in Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital. Near the base is a military camp that has recently grown in size.

Hallinan notes that Paraguay’s neighbors are very skeptical of the situation, as there is a disturbing resemblance between U.S. denials about Mariscal Estigarribia and the disclaimers made by the Pentagon about Eloy Alfaro airbase in Manta, Ecuador. The U.S. claimed the Manta base was a "dirt strip" used for weather surveillance. When local journalists revealed its size, however, the U.S. admitted the base harbored thousands of mercenaries and hundreds of U.S. troops, and Washington had signed a ten-year basing agreement with Ecuador.

[Ecuador recently rejected the ICC immunity as well: "On June 22, 2005 Ecuador’s president, Alfredo Palacios, vocalized emphatic refusal to sign a BIA (also known as an Article 98 agreement to the Rome Statute of the ICC) in spite of Washington’s threat to withhold $70 million a year in military aid." Project Censored]
. . .

Paraguay is the fourth largest producer of soy in the world. As this industry expands, poor farmers are being forced off their lands. These farmers have organized protests, road blockades and land occupations against this displacement and have faced subsequent repression from military, police, and paramilitary forces.

Investigations by Servicio Paz y Justicia (Serpaj), a human rights group in Paraguay, report that the worst cases of repression against farmers took place in areas with the highest concentration of U.S. troops. This violence resulted in the deaths of forty-one farmers in three separate areas.

"The U.S. military is advising the Paraguayan police and military about how to deal with these farmer groups," Orlando Castillo of Serpaj told me over the phone. He explained that U.S. troops monitor farmers to find information about union organizations and leaders, then tell Paraguayan officials how to proceed. "The numbers from our study show what this U.S. presence is doing," Castillo said.

The U.S. government maintains the military exercises in Paraguay are humanitarian efforts. However, the deputy speaker of the Paraguayan parliament, Alejandro Velazquez Ugarte, said that of the thirteen exercises going on in the country, only two are of a civilian nature. UpsideDownWorld

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