In an incendiary move announced by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 11th, the U.S. has imposed economic and legal sanctions on International Criminal Court (ICC) officials. These officials are those who are part of an ICC investigation of war crimes committed in Afghanistan by Taliban, Afghan, and U.S. forces. These sanctions include the freezing of assets of these officials, as well as a travel ban for the officials and their families. Pompeo claimed that the ICC was a corrupt “Kangaroo Court” that infringes on American sovereignty.
Prosecutors in the ICC have been pushing for this investigation since 2017, with preliminary evidence showing “a reasonable basis to believe” allegations of crimes against humanity committed by U.S. military and CIA forces in Afghanistan, according to CNN. These allegations include acts of torture and sexual violence against detainees. In March, the ICC’s Appeals Chamber made the unanimous decision to launch a probe investigating these crimes, and now the U.S. is claiming it does not have the jurisdiction to do so. Pompeo said in his statement that officials and their families cannot be allowed on American soil when they seek to “prosecute the defenders… of American freedoms.” That is somewhat undermined when these freedoms include rape and torture.
The ICC has condemned this decision, expressing “profound regret” at this halting of negotiations. In a statement released on Thursday, it called the sanctions an “unacceptable attempt to interfere with the rule of law” and an “attack against the interests of victims of atrocity crimes.”
Many other international actors have also spoken out against these sanctions. Dutch Foreign Minister, Stef Blok, tweeted that he was “very disturbed” by these sanctions, saying that the ICC is “crucial in the fight against impunity and in upholding international law.” The Advocacy Director for Amnesty International U.S.A., Daniel Balson, notes that the executive order that implements these sanctions is vague and open-ended, which could have wider consequences, punishing NGO workers and activists “working to advance international justice.”
The ACLU has also criticised this decision, saying that it plays “directly into the hands of authoritarian regimes by intimidating judges and prosecutors committed to holding countries accountable for war crimes.”
The ICC acts as a last resort for prosecuting crimes against humanity. Despite the U.S. not being a member state, these crimes were allegedly committed in member state Afghanistan’s territory, bringing it under ICC jurisdiction. Since the Court’s inception, its relationship with the U.S. has been complicated, with the United States denying its legitimacy on some occasions, and helping with the capture and prosecution of war criminals on others, according to Al Jazeera. However, these sanctions are an escalation of these tense relations, effectively halting any negotiation meant to further the finding of justice for victims of these horrific crimes.
As Richard Dicker, International Justice Director at Human Rights Watch notes, “asset freezes and travel bans are for human rights violators, not those seeking to bring rights violators to justice.” The ICC represents an impartial, intermediary actor relying on legal avenues to investigate gross human rights abuses, with the international backing to justify that. By placing itself firmly in opposition and stopping any discussions for collectively investigating these alleged war crimes, the current U.S. administration has further shown how little care it has for justice. This becomes even more apparent when considered in the current context, with tensions around police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. Peace is undermined when past crimes are not brought to justice, especially when committed by those in power.
Therefore, the international community needs to condemn the United States for these sanctions. Lotte Leicht, the EU Director of Human Rights Watch, calls for EU member states to reaffirm their support for the ICC in their future discussions with U.S. political officials. This could be a major advantage for the investigation, as the U.S. has bowed to international pressure in the past in such matters.