ICC shuns ‘unprecedented’ US sanctions against tribunal employees

International Criminal Court president says moves will undermine global effort to hold those responsible for atrocities to account

Illustrative: Police escort a group of supporters of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo outside the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. (AP/Peter Dejong)
Illustrative: Police escort a group of supporters of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo outside the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. (AP/Peter Dejong)

The International Criminal Court pushed back at the US over sanctions against the tribunal’s employees Thursday, saying the move constituted an “unprecedented” strike against the world’s ability to prosecute wrongdoing by state actors.

US President Donald Trump on Thursday authorized sanctions against any official at the International Criminal Court who investigates US troops, ramping up pressure to stop its case into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.

The move was met by praise from Israel, which is also facing a possible war crimes probe, but was widely pilloried in Europe and elsewhere.

In a statement, ICC president O-Gon Kwon said he “rejects measures taken against” the Hague-based body.

“These measures are unprecedented. They undermine our common endeavor to fight impunity and to ensure accountability for mass atrocities. I deeply regret measures targeting Court officials, staff and their families,” he aid.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell listens during a press conference after a meeting in Belgrade, Serbia, January 31, 2020. (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell voiced “serious concern” and said the court “must be respected and supported by all nations.”

Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said he was “very disturbed” by the US move, and said The Netherlands supported the court on its soil.

“The ICC is crucial in the fight against impunity and upholding international rule of law,” Blok wrote on Twitter.

Human Rights Watch said Trump’s order “demonstrates contempt for the global rule of law.”

“This assault on the ICC is an effort to block victims of serious crimes whether in Afghanistan, Israel or Palestine from seeing justice,” said the group’s Washington director, Andrea Prasow.

In the executive order, Trump said the United States would block US property and assets of anyone from The Hague-based tribunal involved in probing or prosecuting US troops.

Illustrative: This photo provided by Operation Resolute Support, shows US Soldiers with Task Force Iron maneuver an M-777 howitzer, so it can be towed into position at Bost Airfield, Afghanistan on June 10, 2017. (US Marine Corps/Sgt. Justin T. Updegraff, Operation Resolute Support via AP)

Under Trump’s order, visa restrictions will be expanded to any court official involved in investigations into US forces.

“We cannot — we will not — stand by as our people are threatened by a kangaroo court,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement to reporters.

“I have a message to many close allies around the world — your people could be next, especially those from NATO countries who fought terrorism in Afghanistan right alongside of us.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks as Attorney General William Barr listens, during a joint briefing, Thursday, June 11, 2020 at the State Department in Washington. (Yuri Gripas/Pool via AP)

US Attorney General Bill Barr alleged, without giving detail, that Russia and other adversaries of the United States have been “manipulating” the court.

Using Trump’s “America First” language, Barr said the administration was trying to bring accountability to a global body.

“This institution has become, in practice, little more than a political tool employed by unaccountable international elites,” he said.

The Trump administration has been livid over the International Criminal Court’s investigation into atrocities in Afghanistan, America’s longest-running war.

Fatou Bensouda, Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC), briefs the Security Council on the situation in Libya, May 8, 2019 (UN Photo/Loey Felip)

The administration last year revoked the US visa of the court’s chief prosecutor, Gambian-born Fatou Bensouda, to demand that she end the Afghanistan probe.

But judges in March said the investigation could go ahead, overturning an initial rejection of Bensouda’s request.

Trump’s executive order was hailed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of Trump’s closest allies, who has been angered by the ICC’s moves — strongly opposed by Washington — to probe alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories.

Netanyahu, delivering comments in English at the start of a press conference dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, said the “politicized court” was “obsessed with conducting witch hunts against Israel, the United States and other democracies that respect human rights.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a briefing to the media at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, June 11, 2020 (video screenshot)

In a reference to Israeli settlements, Netanyahu accused the court of fabricating accusations that Jews living in their historical homeland constitutes a war crime.

“This is ridiculous. Shame on them,” he said.

Several right-wing MKs also praised Trump for the move, as did the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations umbrella group.

“In pursuing these illegitimate investigations into the US and Israel, the ICC betrays its purpose, distorts international law, and jeopardizes its own legitimacy as an unbiased judicial forum,” it said in a statement.

The ICC is currently considering whether to open a criminal investigation into suspected war crimes committed in the Palestinian territories. Pompeo warned the court last week of “consequences” if it moves forward with an investigation against Israel.

Demonstrators carry banners outside the International Criminal Court, ICC, rear, urging the court to prosecute Israel’s army for war crimes in The Hague, Netherlands, Friday, Nov. 29, 2019. (AP/Peter Dejong)

Neither the US nor Israel are members of the court and therefore reject the ICC’s attempt to exert criminal jurisdiction over their nationals.

Founded in 2002, the ICC immediately ran into opposition from Washington, where the then administration of George W. Bush encouraged countries to shun it.

Former president Barack Obama took a more cooperative approach with the court, but the United States remained outside of it.

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