The European Union on Saturday welcomed the United States’ lifting of sanctions imposed by former leader Donald Trump on the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor.
Trump’s top diplomat hit Fatou Bensouda and another senior court official with financial sanctions and visa bans last year after the prosecutor launched an investigation into alleged war crimes by US military personnel in Afghanistan.
New President Joe Biden’s administration on Friday announced it was repealing the measures as it seeks a more cooperative approach on a dispute that has alienated allies.
“This important step underlines the US’s commitment to the international rules-based system,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.
“The ICC plays an important role in delivering justice to the victims of some of the world’s most horrific crimes. Protecting the impartiality and judicial independence of the ICC is paramount to its effectiveness and proper functioning.”
Borrell said the EU was “unwavering in its support” of the tribunal and the “universality” of the Rome Statute that founded the court.
“We will stand together with all partners to defend the court against attempts aimed at obstructing the course of justice and undermining the international system of criminal justice,” he said.
The US remains out of the Rome Statute with little prospect of it joining.
Washington says it is encouraged by reforms taking place at the tribunal, but Biden’s administration continues to oppose the Afghan probe, as well as a separate investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories by US ally Israel.
Gambian-born Bensouda is leaving her job in June and will be replaced by British human rights lawyer Karim Khan, who now can start his work without the burden of looming sanctions.
In its decision Friday, Washington said the economic sanctions imposed on Bensouda and a top aide in 2019 “were inappropriate and ineffective,” and were therefore lifted.
“We continue to disagree strongly with the ICC’s actions relating to the Afghanistan and Palestinian situations. We maintain our longstanding objection to the court’s efforts to assert jurisdiction over personnel of non-states parties such as the United States and Israel,” Blinken said.
He added: “We believe, however, that our concerns about these cases would be better addressed through engagement with all stakeholders in the ICC process rather than through the imposition of sanctions.”
Quoting unnamed American officials, Axios reporter Barak Ravid tweeted that Blinken had updated Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi before the announcement.
According to Ravid, the administration decided to remove the sanctions ahead of a debate on a petition against them at federal court. Administration officials reportedly told Jerusalem they would not be able to defend the legality of the sanctions.
A State Department spokesperson confirmed in a statement that Blinken had spoken to Ashkenazi, but did not mention the ICC decision.
The ICC welcomed the decision in a brief statement posted online.
Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi, president of the court’s management body of member states, said the US removal of sanctions was helpful in promoting “a rules-based international order.”
The decision to lift the sanctions was criticized by the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, which said it was “disappointed” by the move and denounced the ICC officials for “pursuing a baseless and discriminatory attack” on Israel.
“We urge the administration to continue and increase the use of all of its diplomatic tools to stand with Israel against the ICC’s discriminatory campaign. Bipartisan majorities in Congress oppose the ICC’s actions against Israel, and the US must continue to stand with our ally,” the group said.
The dovish J Street lobby organization welcomed the move.
“By removing these sanctions, President Biden, Secretary Blinken and their team are sending an important message that whatever disagreements they may have with the ICC or other international bodies, they will not act to improperly interfere with their proceedings or to intimidate and bully their personnel,” J Street said in a statement.
The group has previously said it takes no position on the merits of the ICC probe.
Last month, the administration said it “firmly” opposes the ICC’s recent decision to open an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, but was still weighing whether to maintain the sanctions against the body.
State Department spokesman Ned Price insisted that the ICC does not have jurisdiction over the matter as Israel is not party to the Rome Statute that established the court.
The ICC has sent formal notices to Israel and the Palestinian Authority about its impending investigation into possible war crimes, giving them a few weeks to seek deferral by proving they are carrying out their own investigations.
Bensouda announced on March 3 that she was opening an investigation into actions committed by Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem since 2014. The announcement of the investigation came less than a month after the court ruled it had the jurisdiction to open a probe. A preliminary investigation to settle the justiciability question took more than five years.
The ICC announced it would investigate possible war crimes committed by Israel and Palestinians following a request by the Palestinians, who joined the court in 2015 after being granted nonmember observer status in the UN General Assembly.
Israel has fiercely condemned the investigation, accusing the ICC of bias, noting that it is demonstrably capable of investigating any alleged IDF crimes through its own legal hierarchies, and saying the ICC has no jurisdiction since the Palestinians do not have a state. Israel is not a member of the ICC, but its citizens could be subject to arrest abroad if warrants are issued.
The ICC probe is expected to focus on three main areas: the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas; Israeli settlement policy; and the 2018 Great March of Return protests, a series of violent demonstrations along Gaza’s border with Israel that left dozens of Palestinians dead.
The probe will also look at terrorist rocket fire from Gaza onto civilian areas in Israel.