John Bolton Condemns The International Criminal Court In A Foreign Policy Speech


On 10 September 2018, in a speech intended to outline U.S. foreign policy, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton threatened sanctions against the International Criminal Court (ICC). Furthermore, he condemned the ICC for being a constant threat to “American sovereignty and US national security.”

According to the BBC, the ICC is an intergovernmental court established by the Rome Statute in 2002, which “brings to justice people responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, intervening when national authorities cannot or will not prosecute.” While their jurisdiction appears large, there is nothing that says the authority of the ICC is mutually exclusive to that of domestic courts; on the contrary, national courts and the the ICC can cooperate with one another. 123 countries currently support the ICC as signatories of the Rome Statute, but there are a few countries, like China, India, and Russia, who have yet to join.

According to the New Yorker, the U.S was one of the many original signatories of the Rome statute in 2002. However, after two years, it withdrew its support amidst the war in Afghanistan. Although subsequent administrations cooperated with the ICC, American politicians have become concerned with the ICC’s threat to national sovereignty,  and no previous administration has been so blatant about its disregard for the ICC as this one.

While Bolton made multiple arguments in his speech against the ICC, the main impetus for his threats seems to be in response to the ICC’s 2016 request to investigate U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan. Voice of America (VOA) has reported that the U.S. Department of Defense objected to this greater probe into the CIA’s use of torture in detention facilities, insisting that American troops should be tried in American courts.

According to the BBC, Bolton claimed that the ICC was “fundamentally illegitimate” as an institution for justice, and that any investigation made by the courts would be an “assault on the constitutional rights of the United States.” Furthermore, he added that the ICC has “jurisdiction over crimes that have disputed and ambiguous definitions,” and that the U.S. administration would “not recognize any higher authority than the US Constitution.” He concluded this tirade, according to VOA, by threatening the ICC prosecutors and judges; he stated that if the ICC does carry out investigations of U.S. military personnel, the U.S. would ban ICC judges and prosecutors from entering the country, freeze their assets, and attempt to prosecute them in U.S. courts.

“We will not co-operate with the ICC,” said Bolton. “We will provide no assistance to the ICC. We will not join the ICC. We will let the ICC die on its own. After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us. “In response, the ICC has released a statement saying that “the ICC, as a court of law, will continue to do its work undeterred, in accordance with those principles and the overarching idea of the rule of law.”

There may be additional reasons for Bolton’s adamant stance against the ICC; according to Al Jazeera, during the same speech Bolton announced that the United States plans to close the Palestine Liberation Organization office in the U.S, after Palestinians attempted to convince the ICC to investigate Isreal’s crimes during its occupation of Palestinian land.

Fundamentally, Bolton’s speech demonstrates a clear refusal to uphold international standards of human rights. It is a manifestation of the dark side of national exceptionalism; while it seems that other countries should strive to meet and uphold values nation like the U.S. create, people like Bolton believe themselves exempt from the standards of other countries. As flawed as the ICC is (in February 2017, for example, the BBC reported that the African Union called for a mass withdrawal of its member states from the ICC for prosecuting only Africans up to that point in time) it is an attempt to codify standards that may not always be in national interests but are always in human interests.

While Bolton’s comments will likely have little impact on the activities of the ICC, it is symptomatic of the nation’s stance on intergovernmental agencies. As an intergovernmental agency, the ICC needs support from its member states to continue pursuing human interests. Backlash from other nations only limits its scope and capacities, hindering attempts to create a more harmonious world.