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.
In an 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.
“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.”
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 that 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.
‘Contempt’ for rule of law
Human Rights Watch said that 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.
“Countries that support international justice should publicly oppose this blatant attempt at obstruction,” she said.
Trump’s move was hailed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of his closest allies, who has been angered by the ICC’s moves — strongly opposed by Washington — to probe alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories.
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,” Netanyahu told reporters.
Meanwhile, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell voiced “serious concern” and said the court “must be respected and supported by all nations.”
Trump has been tearing down global institutions he sees as hindering his administration’s interests, recently ordering a pullout from the World Health Organization over its coronavirus response.
In The Hague, a spokesperson said the court was “aware” of the announcement from Washington and would react after examining it.
Long-running US anger
The Trump administration has been livid over the International Criminal Court’s investigation into atrocities in Afghanistan, America’s longest-running war.
“The ICC is a failed institution. The court is ineffective, non-accountable and is a politically motivated bureaucracy,” said Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security advisor.
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.
Under Trump’s order on Thursday, visa restrictions will be expanded to any court official involved in investigations into US forces.
The United States argues that it has its own procedures in place to investigate accusations against troops.
“We are committed to uncovering, and if possible holding people accountable, for their wrongdoing — any wrongdoing,” Barr said.
Trump, however, used his executive powers last year to clear three military members over war crimes, including in Afghanistan.
Among them was Eddie Gallagher, who had been convicted by a military tribunal of stabbing to death with a hunting knife a prisoner of war from the Islamic State group in Iraq.
Gallagher had become a cause celebre among US conservatives, although Trump’s action troubled some in the US military.
The International Criminal Court was set up in 2002 with a mission to investigate war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
But it immediately ran into opposition from Washington, where the then administration of George W. Bush actively encouraged countries to shun the court.
Former president Barack Obama took a more cooperative approach with the court but the United States remained outside of it.
Faced with US criticism, the court has focused its efforts on Africa. Pompeo mocked the court for securing few convictions and for judges’ past calls for pay hikes.
“This record of botched prosecutions and poor judgment casts grave doubt on the court’s ability to function at the most basic level,” he said.