The International Criminal Court lost two member nations but gained a new one in the past two years, while fending off snubs and threats from leaders with authoritarian agendas. Now, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has threatened to block the court from investigating Americans.
These are turbulent times for the ICC, created 17 years ago as a court of "last resort" that would be authorized to step in only after nations had failed to prosecute individuals for the most serious crimes under international law — crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and aggression.
The Philippines became the latest nation to withdraw from the world’s first permanent international criminal court on March 17. Burundi was the first nation ever to leave it on October 27, 2017. Malaysia joined the ICC on March 4 of this year, however, which left The Hague, Netherlands-based court with 123 member nations.
The top American diplomat, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said last week the United States will revoke or deny visas to any court staff that try to bring charges in alleged war crimes and other abuses committed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan or anywhere else.
“We are determined to protect the American and allied military and civilian personnel from living in fear of unjust prosecution for actions taken to defend our great nation,” Pompeo said.
Backlash to investigations
Trump's belligerent national security adviser John Bolton already harshly rebuked the ICC, one of the most-hated international organizations for conservatives, in a speech last year.
The court began operating in July 2002 after the treaty behind it, the Rome Statute, gained 60 ratifications from member nations. Since then it has more than doubled in membership.
Burundi withdrew a month after a United Nations report called for a criminal investigation into extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions under President Pierre Nkurunziza's government. South Africa and Gambia also have threatened to leave.
The Philippines' action became official after its highest court declined to overrule President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to withdraw, which can only occur after a one-year notice.Duterte announced last year that he would pull out of the treaty after an ICC prosecutor opened a preliminary examination into a Filipino lawyer's complaint of suspected extrajudicial killings and other crimes against humanity committed during Manila’s anti-drug campaign.
Court stands its ground
The United States was among seven nations that voted against the Rome Statute, which was adopted in 1998 by 120 nations.
The other nations were China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar and Yemen. Two years later, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton signed the treaty. But the U.S. Senate never ratified it.
The president of the ICC assembly that administers the treaty, veteran international judge O-Gon Kwon of South Korea, noted the treaty has "strong support" from its broad membership and only acts as a last resort.
“The court is an independent and impartial judicial institution crucial for ensuring accountability for the gravest crimes under international law,” Kwon said in a statement responding to the Trump administration's threat.
“The ICC, as a court of law," he said, "will continue to do its independent work, undeterred, in accordance with its mandate and the overarching principle of the rule of law.”