US President Donald Trump lobbed a broadside attack on Thursday against the International Criminal Court (ICC) by authorising economic and travel sanctions against court workers directly involved in investigating American troops and intelligence officials and those of allied nations, including Israel, for possible war crimes in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The United States “has repeatedly rejected the International Criminal Court’s assertions of jurisdiction over United States personnel”, read a statement from the White House press secretary.
The order would block the financial assets of court employees and bar them and their immediate relatives from entering the United States.
The ICC’s actions “are an attack on the rights of the American people and threaten to infringe upon our national sovereignty”, it said.
While Israel welcomed the move, there were expressions of concern and condemnation from the United Nations, the European Union and human rights groups.
The Hague-based court was created in 2002 to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity and genocide in areas where perpetrators might not otherwise face justice. It has 123 state parties that recognise its jurisdiction.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the tribunal as a “kangaroo court” that has been unsuccessful and inefficient in its mandate to prosecute war crimes.
He said that the U.S. would punish the ICC employees for any investigation or prosecution of Americans in Afghanistan and added that they could also be banned for prosecuting Israelis for alleged abuses against Palestinians.
“It gives us no joy to punish them,” Pompeo said. “But we cannot allow ICC officials and their families to come to the United States to shop and travel and otherwise enjoy American freedoms as these same officials seek to prosecute the defender of those very freedoms.”
Pompeo’s comments were echoed by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Attorney General Wiliiam Barr and national security adviser Robert O’Brien, who spoke at a State Department announcement of the new measures. Barr announced that the U.S. would investigate possible corruption within the ICC hierarchy that he said raised suspicions that Russia and other adversaries could be interfering in the investigatory process.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, accused the court of fabricating “outlandish charges” against his country, and praised the US for standing up for what he called truth and justice.
The executive order signed by the US president marks his administration’s latest attack against international organisations, treaties and agreements that do not hew to its policies. Since taking office, Trump has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal and two arms control treaties with Russia.
He has pulled the US out of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, threatened to leave the International Postal Union and announced an end to cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO).
Unlike those treaties and agreements, however, the US has never been a member of the ICC. Administrations of both parties have been concerned about the potential for political prosecutions of American troops and officials for alleged war crimes and other atrocities. The US has extracted pledges from most of the court’s members that they will not seek such prosecutions and risk losing US military and other assistance.
However, ICC prosecutors have shown a willingness to press ahead with investigations into US service members and earlier this year launched one that drew swift US condemnation.
Senior UN and EU officials spoke out against the US decision to sanction ICC officials.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Trump’s order “is a matter of serious concern” and he described EU members as “steadfast supporters” of the tribunal. Borrell said “it is a key factor in bringing justice and peace,” and that “it must be respected and supported by all nations.”
The United Nations has “taken note with concern” about reports of Trump’s order, said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
The American Civil Liberties Union suggested it might seek legal recourse and said the order was “a dangerous display of his contempt for human rights and those working to uphold them”.
The Trump administration has sanctioned the court before.
Last year, after former national security adviser, John Bolton, threatened ICC employees with sanctions if they went forward with prosecutions of US or allied troops, including from Israel, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revoked the visa of the court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.
Bensouda had asked ICC judges to open an investigation into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan that could have involved Americans. The judges initially rejected the request, but the denial was overturned after Bensouda appealed the decision and the investigation was authorised in March.
The appellate ruling marked the first time the court’s prosecutor had been cleared to investigate US forces, and set the global tribunal on a collision course with the Trump administration. Bensouda pledged to carry out an independent and impartial investigation and called for full support and cooperation from all parties. Pompeo blasted the decision at the time, calling it “a truly breathtaking action by an unaccountable political institution masquerading as a legal body”.
The case involves allegations of war crimes committed by Afghan national security forces, Taliban and Haqqani Network fighters, as well as US forces and intelligence officials in Afghanistan since May 2003. Bensouda 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”.
Bolton, and then Pompeo, said such steps are necessary to prevent The Hague-based court from infringing on US sovereignty by prosecuting American forces or allies for torture or other war crimes. Pompeo said in late May that the US is capable of punishing its own citizens for atrocities and should not be subjected to a foreign tribunal that is designed to be a court of last resort to prosecute war crimes cases when a country’s judiciary is not capable of doing so.
“This court has become corrupted and is attempting to go after the young men and women of the United States of America who fought so hard, and they did so under the rule of law in the most civilized nation in the world, the United States of America,” Pompeo said in a May 29 interview with a podcast hosted by the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“And they’re now suggesting somehow that our ability to, when we have someone does something wrong, our ability to police that up is inadequate and they think that the ICC ought to be able to haul these young men and women in.”