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ICC hails reversal of Trump-era sanctions

The International Criminal Court hopes to 're-engage' with the United States after it revoked former Trump administration sanctions and visa restrictions.

ICC headquarters at The Hague, Netherlands
ICC headquarters at The Hague, Netherlands (AN/Greger Ravik)

The International Criminal Court on Saturday welcomed the United States' decision to end retaliatory economic sanctions and visa restrictions targeting ICC staff investigating alleged war crimes in Afghanistan involving American forces.

ICC officials said they were ready to "re-engage" with U.S. officials a day after the Biden-Harris administration revoked former President Trump's measures against ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, ICC head of jurisdiction Phakiso Mochochoko and other personnel. U.S. President Joe Biden has tried to reassert global leadership in the wake of Trump's hostility to multilateralism.

"The court is mindful that the United States has traditionally made important contributions to the cause of international criminal justice," The Hague, Netherlands-based ICC said in its statement. "The court stands ready to re-engage with the U.S. in the continuation of that tradition based on mutual respect and constructive engagement."

Biden's decision to revoke the Trump-era sanctions was based on an "assessment that the measures adopted were inappropriate and ineffective," according to a U.S. State Department statement. "Our support for the rule of law, access to justice, and accountability for mass atrocities are important U.S. national security interests that are protected and advanced by engaging with the rest of the world to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow."

Both the ICC and European Union condemned the sanctions last September and demanded  Trump rescind his executive order saying all “individuals and entities that continue to support” Bensouda and Mochochoko will “materially risk exposure to sanctions.”

Some 67 nations signed a statement of support for the ICC that was drafted by Costa Rica and Switzerland in defense of the “international rules-based order” that the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal represents.

Bensouda, a Gambian lawyer and maritime law expert, and Mochochoko, a Lesothian lawyer, had lost their eligibility for U.S. visas. They were added to the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of “specially designated nationals” whose assets can be frozen if they are subject to U.S. jurisdiction.

The ICC, which is outside the United Nations system, prosecutes crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and aggression. With 123 member nations that accept its jurisdiction, the court acts as a last resort, when nations are unable or unwilling to dispense justice themselves.

A 'longstanding objection'

Trump's sanctions were a response to an ICC ruling in March 2020 that allowed Bensouda to launch an inquiry into whether war crimes were committed in Afghanistan by the Taliban, Afghan military or American-led forces going back almost 18 years ago.

Bensouda alleged U.S. military and intelligence personnel illegally imprisoned, tortured and raped "conflict-related detainees" in Afghanistan and secret CIA facilities in Poland, Romania and Lithuania from 2003 to 2004.

The United States signed the Rome Statute, an international treaty that took effect in July 2002 and underpins the ICC’s authority, but the U.S. Senate never ratified it, arguing the court would infringe on U.S. sovereignty.

Afghanistan joined in May 2003, giving the court jurisdiction to investigate potential crimes there. The Biden-Harris administration, however, made clear that it remains skeptical of an international tribunal that lacks jurisdiction over the United States.

"We continue to disagree strongly with the ICC’s actions relating to the Afghanistan and Palestinian situations," it said. "We maintain our longstanding objection to the court’s efforts to assert jurisdiction over personnel of non-states parties such as the United States and Israel. We believe, however, that our concerns about these cases would be better addressed through engagement with all stakeholders in the ICC process, rather than through the imposition of sanctions."

A month earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the U.S. government "firmly opposes and is deeply disappointed by" Bensouda's decision to open an investigation into Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

His comments responded to Bensouda's confirmation her office was investigating alleged war crimes committed in Palestinian territories dating to the 2014 war in Gaza between Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups. The Palestinian government requested the investigation soon after it joined the ICC.