Human rights lawyers have launched a legal challenge to US President Donald Trump’s executive order imposing economic sanctions on employees of the world’s permanent war crimes tribunal, arguing it breaches the United States constitution.
A filing lodged at a district court on Thursday in New York by the Open Society Justice Initiative, a US-based public interest law centre that specialises in war crimes cases, named Trump, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and seven other members of his administration.
It argued the executive order violates constitutional rights, including freedom of speech, and prevents the plaintiffs from carrying out work in support of international justice.
“By issuing this outrageous order, the Trump administration has betrayed Washington’s long-standing support for international justice, snubbed its allies, and violated the US constitution,” Open Society Justice Initiative Executive Director James Goldston said in a statement.
“We are going to court to end this reckless assault on a judicial institution and the victims it serves.”
— Open Society Justice Initiative (@OSFJustice) October 1, 2020
Trump authorised US economic and travel sanctions against employees of The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) and anyone supporting its work on June 12, citing their involvement in an investigation into whether US forces committed war crimes in Afghanistan.
On September 2, Pompeo said ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda had been blacklisted.
The ICC said the measures are an attack on the court, the system of international criminal justice and the rule of law more generally.
Dozens of countries and rights groups have rejected the US sanctions as detrimental to efforts to secure international justice for war crimes.
Thursday’s legal move was widely welcomed by rights advocates, calling it an “important development”.
This executive order jeopardizes the work of human rights lawyers seeking justice, including those working to make sure the needs of children affected by conflict are considered by the #ICC.
— Miriam Abaya (@AbayaMiriam) October 1, 2020
“The order treats human rights investigators like terrorists and is intended to shield war criminals from accountability for their crimes. It’s a grotesque and shameful document,” Jameel Jaffer, executive director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said on Twitter.
The order treats human rights investigators like terrorists and is intended to shield war criminals from accountability for their crimes. It's a grotesque and shameful document. This just-filed legal challenge from @OSFjustice is important. https://t.co/S47jIxhTaB
— Jameel Jaffer (@JameelJaffer) October 1, 2020
Under Trump’s executive order, measures include freezing the US assets of those who help the ICC investigate or prosecute American citizens without US consent, and barring them and their families from the US.
The main target of the move is Bensouda, who was granted approval in March to investigate possible crimes committed in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2014.
These include alleged mass killings of civilians by the Taliban as well as the alleged torture of prisoners by Afghan authorities and, to a lesser extent, by US forces and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Announcing the executive order in June, Pompeo described the ICC, established in 2002 by the international community to prosecute war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, as a “kangaroo court”.
Trump administration officials also said it threatened to infringe on US national sovereignty and accused Russia of manipulating it to serve Moscow’s ends.