Trump Orders Sanctions on Workers at Court Probing War Crimes in Afghanistan

President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable discussion at the White House on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Escalating his feud with the International Criminal Court, President Donald Trump levied economic sanctions and travel restrictions Thursday against ICC workers investigating American war crimes in Afghanistan.

“The United States is not a state party to the Rome Statute and has repeatedly rejected the International Criminal Court’s assertions of jurisdiction over United States personnel,” White House said in a statement accompanying an executive order released this morning. “The International Criminal Court’s actions are an attack on the rights of the American people and threaten to infringe upon our national sovereignty.”

Along with Iran and Iraq, the United States has never signed on to the Rome Statute, a 1998 treaty that four years later was used to establish the ICC to investigate alleged war crimes or cases referred to it by the United Nations Security Council.

ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda sought authorization to investigate Afghanistan war crimes in 2017, and the court held a series of hearings on the case this past December at its headquarters in The Hauge, Netherlands.

Just over a week after the court authorized the investigation in March, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said anyone involved in the probe would have their U.S. visas revoked or denied.

That the administration would designate the investigation under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act smacked Chimene Keitner, at the University of California Hastings College of Law, as a sign of weakness.

Keitner, who is the Alfred and Hanna Fromm professor of international law at UC Hastings, also questioned the example that is set by personally targeting court personnel.

“Every authoritarian regime will now point to the United States to justify targeting judicial institutions,” Keitner said in an email to Courthouse News. “We have also seen personal attacks on U.S. judges by this president and attempts to intimidate civil servants and appointed officials, whose job it is to make sure that the Executive Branch follows the rules. The attorney general’s willingness to go along with this strategy is one more deeply troubling sign of the administration’s contempt for the rule of law, both internationally and at home.” 

Pompeo spoke on the move at a Thursday press conference, saying sanctions would be levied on a case-by-case basis against specific individuals directly engaged in investigating U.S. war crimes. Travel restrictions also will be expanded to officials engaged in those investigations. 

“It gives us no joy to punish them, but 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. 

Joined in his remarks by Attorney General Bill Barr, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and national security adviser Robert O’Brien, Pompeo called the ICC a “kangaroo court” and a “mockery of justice.” He said the body had only secured four convictions “despite spending well over a billion dollars.”

Esper called the ICC’s investigations into the war crimes of U.S. troops, “inconsistent with fundamental principles of international law and the practice of international courts.” He said U.S. officials should be provided with information about wrongdoing so they can take the appropriate action, rather than be subjected to independent international investigations.

“Rest assured that the men and women of the United States Armed Forces will never appear before the ICC, nor will they ever be subjected to the judgments of unaccountable international bodies,” Esper said. 

But when Trump pardons soldiers like Edward Gallagher against advice of military experts, Keitner says America’s power to self-investigate war crimes is called into question.

“President Trump’s refusal to cooperate with international investigations also deprives the United States of all credibility in calling for China to cooperate with investigations into the origins of Covid-19,” Keitner wrote. “It’s an incredibly short-sighted strategy that ultimately diminishes U.S. authority and standing in the world.”

Barr, who said the court was “a political tool, employed by unaccountable international elites” also noted the Department of Justice had received credible information of financial fraud and malfeasance of some prosecutors. The attorney general spoke as well to unspecified concern that the ICC is under Russian influence as well as other foreign powers, “in pursuit of their own agenda.”

“This information calls into question the integrity of the ICC’s investigations,” Barr said. “This includes information going back many years, about multiple matters including recent matters and it has, in our view, may well have a bearing on the current investigation announced by the ICC.”

David Bosco, the author of a book on the ICC called “Rough Justice,” connected Thursday’s sanctions to the Afghanistan probe.

“This is another step in the long-running feud between the ICC and the United States about its investigation of U.S, personnel in Afghanistan,” Bosco, who is also an international studies professor at Indiana University, said in an email. “By targeting ICC officials involved in the investigation, the measures announced are a significant escalation in that feud.”

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