The United States will revoke or deny visas to International Criminal Court (ICC) personnel seeking to investigate possible war crimes by US forces or allies in Afghanistan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said.
“The ICC is attacking America’s rule of law,” Pompeo told reporters in Washington on Friday.
“I’m announcing a policy of US visa restrictions on those individuals directly responsible for any ICC investigation of US personnel.
“We are determined to protect the American and allied military and civilian personnel from living in fear of unjust prosecution for actions taken to defend our great nation.”
US officials have long regarded the Netherlands-based ICC with hostility, arguing that American courts are capable of handling any allegations against US forces, and Pompeo framed the action against the ICC as necessary to prevent the international tribunal from infringing on US sovereignty.
“These visa restrictions may also be used to deter ICC efforts to pursue allied personnel, including Israelis, without allies’ consent,” he added.
Pompeo said the policy was already being implemented but would not elaborate, citing visa privacy laws.
“These visa restrictions will not be the end of our efforts,” he said. “We’re prepared to take additional steps, including economic sanctions, if the ICC does not change its course.”
Pompeo’s announcement was the first concrete action the US has taken against the ICC since the White House threatened reprisals against the body last year.
The Hague-based court, the first global tribunal for war crimes, issued a statement saying it would continue to operate “undeterred” by the US action.
“The court is an independent and impartial judicial institution crucial for ensuring accountability for the gravest crimes under international law,” the statement said.
“The ICC, as a court of law, will continue to do its independent work, undeterred, in accordance with its mandate and the overarching principle of the rule of law.”
The US has never joined the ICC, where a prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, asked judges in November 2017 to initiate an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Afghan national security forces, Taliban and Haqqani network fighters, as well as US forces and intelligence officials in Afghanistan since May 2003.
The prosecution’s request said there is information that members of the US military and intelligence agencies “committed acts of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, rape and sexual violence against conflict-related detainees in Afghanistan and other locations, principally in the 2003-2004 period”.
Judges are reviewing all material submitted by the prosecutor, and must decide whether to authorise an investigation.
The Palestinians have also asked the court to bring cases against Israel.
Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane, reporting from Washington, said ICC investigators were also seeking to probe the US military’s conduct “not just in Afghanistan, but also in black sites that we now know was spread across the globe, where [people] were held in secret detention for months, and where some say detainees were tortured”.
Supporters of the court slammed Pompeo’s announcement on Friday.
Human Rights Watch called it “a thuggish attempt to penalise investigators” at the ICC.
“The Trump administration is trying an end run around accountability,” it said.
“Taking action against those who work for the ICC sends a clear message to torturers and murderers alike: Their crimes may continue unchecked.”
Amnesty International described the move as “the latest attack on international justice and international institutions by an administration hellbent on rolling back human rights protections”.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents three people before the ICC who say they were tortured in Afghanistan, called the decision “misguided and dangerous” and “an unprecedented attempt to skirt international accountability for well-documented war crimes that haunt our clients to this day”.
James Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, said Pompeo’s remarks reflected the administration’s view that international law matters “only when it is aligned with US national interests”.
With 123 member states, including the entire European Union, the ICC was established in 2002 to prosecute war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity when a country is unable or unwilling to prosecute perpetrators.
Other major powers, including Russia and China, are not members.