WASHINGTON (AP) – America’s long-running reluctant relationship with the International Criminal Court came to a crashing halt on Monday as decades of U.S. suspicions about the tribunal and its global jurisdiction spilled into open hostility, amid threats of sanctions if it investigates U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
National security adviser John Bolton denounced the legitimacy of The Hague-based court, which was created in 2002 to prosecute war crimes and crimes of humanity and genocide in areas where perpetrators might not otherwise face justice. It has 123 state parties that recognize its jurisdiction.
Bolton’s speech, on the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, came as an ICC judge was expected to soon announce a decision on a request from prosecutors to formally open an investigation into allegations of war crimes committed by Afghan national security forces, Taliban and Haqqani network militants, and U.S. forces and intelligence in Afghanistan since May 2003. The accusations against U.S. personnel include torture and illegal imprisonment.
“The International Criminal Court unacceptably threatens American sovereignty and U.S. national security interests,” Bolton told the Federalist Society, a conservative Washington-based think tank. Bolton also took aim at Palestinian efforts to press war crime charges against Israel for its policies in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza.
He said the U.S. would use “any means necessary” to protect Americans and citizens of allied countries, like Israel, “from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court.” The White House said that to the extent permitted by U.S. law, the Trump administration would ban ICC judges and prosecutors from entering the United States, sanction their funds in the U.S. financial system and prosecute them in the U.S. criminal system.
“We will not cooperate with the ICC,” Bolton said, adding that “for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”
It was an extraordinary rebuke decried by human rights groups who complained it was another Trump administration rollback of U.S. leadership in demanding accountability for gross abuses.
“Any U.S. action to scuttle ICC inquiries on Afghanistan and Palestine would demonstrate that the administration was more concerned with coddling serial rights abusers – and deflecting scrutiny of U.S. conduct in Afghanistan – than supporting impartial justice,” said Human Rights Watch.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents several people who claim they were detained and tortured in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2008 and could be victims or witnesses in any ICC prosecution, said Bolton’s threats were “straight out of an authoritarian playbook.”
“This misguided and harmful policy will only further isolate the United States from its closest allies and give solace to war criminals and authoritarian regimes seeking to evade international accountability,” the ACLU said.
The ICC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Monday, Bolton effectively turned Washington’s back on the court, accusing it of corruption and inefficiency. Above all, he took aim at the court’s view that citizens of nonmember states are subject to its jurisdiction.
“The ICC is an unprecedented effort to vest power in a supranational body without the consent of either nation-states or the individuals over which it purports to exercise jurisdiction,” Bolton said. “It certainly has no consent whatsoever from the United States.”
Associated Press writer Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands.