WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has authorized economic sanctions against members of the International Criminal Court who are investigating possible war crimes by American personnel during the war in Afghanistan, the White House announced Thursday.
The new move is part of a concerted campaign against the international court and its probe into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by U.S. and other forcesin that conflict.
“This administration will not allow American citizens who have served our country to be subjected to illegitimate investigations,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Thursday at an event announcing the action.
Human rights advocates denounced the Trump administration’s decision as “reckless,” charging the U.S. with trying to evade accountability for alleged torture and other war crimes.
“The ICC’s investigation is only necessary because the U.S. has failed to meaningfully investigate or prosecute its own forces for human rights abuses,” said Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center, a New York-based organization that promotes the enforcement of international human rights laws.
“The court has confirmed that this investigation clearly falls under parameters” of the statute that established the ICC, she said. “The U.S. is not a party to the statute, but Afghanistan is, and the U.S. cannot escape accountability just because it commits crimes in other countries.”
Esper was joined Thursday by Trump’s other top national security advisers – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General Bill Barr and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien – in what was billed as a news conference. But they did not take any questions, instead, reading prepared remarks and leaving.
O’Brien alleged the ICC was being “manipulated” by Russia in pushing its war crimes probe, but he provided no evidence to support that claim. Barr said the Department of Justice had information about “financial corruption and malfeasance at the highest levels” of the ICC prosecutor’s office but provided no details or substantiation.
Trump signed an executive order Thursday to authorize the sanctions, but it does not specify individual members of the ICC. Pompeo said the sanctions would be imposed on a case-by-case basis against ICC officials “directly engaged” in the investigation of U.S. or allied forces and others who have supported the probe.
The Trump administration had already imposed visa restrictions on officials from the ICC so they could not come to the United States as part of the probe. In announcing the visa restrictions last year, Pompeo said they were intended to get the ICC to drop its probe. On Thursday, he said the visa prohibitions would be expanded to family members of the ICC.
“We cannot allow ICC officials and their families to come to the United States to shop, travel and otherwise enjoy American freedoms as these same officials seek to prosecute the defender of those very freedoms,” Pompeo said.
The ICC has provided few details about its investigation, launched in 2017. The ICC’s prosecutor’s office has said it has “found a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity were and continue to be committed by members of Afghan and foreign government forces and by anti-government forces such as the Taliban.”
A closer look at the court:What’s the International Criminal Court and why are countries bailing?
After Pompeo announced the visa restrictions, the ICC issued a statement saying it would “continue to do its independent work, undeterred, in accordance with its mandate and the overarching principle of the rule of law.”
The ICC has long been controversial, and conservatives in the U.S. have suggested it’s a threat to American sovereignty. Supporters say the Netherlands-based court offers recourse for victims of genocide and other war crimes in lawless countries.
It was first envisioned in 1998 by the Rome Treaty as a tribunal to prosecute genocide, war crimes and other crimes against humanity. The ICC calls itself “a court of last resort” that seeks to “complement, not replace” domestic judicial systems.