WASHINGTON – The Trump administration on Wednesday imposed sanctions on the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and one of her top aides for continuing to investigate war crimes allegations against Americans. The sanctions were immediately denounced by the court, the United Nations and human rights advocates.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the moves as part of the administration’s pushback against the tribunal, based in The Hague, for investigations into the United States and its allies. The sanctions include a freeze on assets held in the U.S. or subject to U.S. law and target prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and the court’s head of jurisdiction, Phakiso Mochochoko.
He said the court, to which the United States has never been a party, was "a thoroughly broken and corrupt institution."
“We will not tolerate its illegitimate attempts to subject Americans to its jurisdiction,” Pompeo told reporters at a State Department news conference. In addition to the sanctions imposed on Bensouda and Mochochoko, Pompeo said people who provide them with “material support” in investigating Americans could also face U.S. penalties.
Pompeo had previously imposed a travel ban on Bensouda and other tribunal employees over investigations into allegations of torture and other crimes by Americans in Afghanistan.
The Hague-based court and the head of its governing board decried the step as an assault on the rule of law and the international system set up by the Treaty of Rome that created the tribunal in 2002.
The sanctions “are another attempt to interfere with the court’s judicial and prosecutorial independence and crucial work to address grave crimes of concern to the international community,” the ICC said in a statement. “These coercive acts, directed at an international judicial institution and its civil servants, are unprecedented and constitute serious attacks."
O-Gon Kwon, the president of the court's Assembly of States Parties, called the move “unprecedented and unacceptable” and an affront to efforts to combat impunity for war crimes. “They only serve to weaken our common endeavor to fight impunity for mass atrocities,” he said, adding that the assembly planned to convene shortly to reaffirm the members’ “unstinting support for the court” and its employees.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted Pompeo’s statement “with concern,” according to spokesman Stephane Dujarric. He stressed that the U.N. expects the United States to abide by its agreement with the United Nations, which allows the prosecutor to come to U.N. headquarters on ICC business.
The Security Council referred the situations in Sudan’s Darfur region and in Libya to the court, and Bensouda has regularly updated members on its actions. “We have always stood for the need for international justice and for issue of accountability and the fight against impunity,” Dujarric said.
Human rights groups also condemned the sanctions.
“Today’s announcement is designed to do what this administration does best — bully and intimidate," said Daniel Balson of Amnesty International USA. “It penalizes not only the ICC, but civil society actors working for justice alongside the court worldwide.”
“Today’s reckless actions constitute a demand that the U.S. government be granted a political carve-out of impunity for nationals accused of having committed crimes under international law in Afghanistan," he said. "No one responsible for the most serious crimes under international law should be able to hide from accountability, under a cloak of impunity.”
Richard Dicker, the international justice director at Human Rights Watch, called it “a stunning perversion of U.S. sanctions, devised to penalize rights abusers and kleptocrats, to persecute those tasked with prosecuting international crimes.”
“The Trump administration has twisted these sanctions to obstruct justice, not only for certain war crimes victims, but for atrocity victims anywhere looking to the International Criminal Court for justice,” he said.
In March 2019, Pompeo ordered the revocation or denial of visas to ICC staff seeking to investigate allegations of war crimes and other abuses by U.S. forces in Afghanistan or elsewhere. He also said he might revoke the visas of those who seek action against Israel.
Prosecutors have been conducting a preliminary inquiry since 2015 in the Palestinian territories, including Israel’s settlement policy, crimes allegedly committed by both sides in the 2014 Gaza conflict and Hamas rocket attacks aimed at Israeli civilians.
The court was created to hold accountable perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity in cases where adequate judicial systems were not available. The U.S. has not joined the ICC because of concerns the court might be used for politically motivated prosecutions of American troops and officials.
Subsequent U.S. administrations have reiterated that stance, although some, including President Barack Obama's, have agreed to limited cooperation with court. The Trump administration, however, has been openly hostile to the tribunal and lashed out against Bensouda along with others for pursuing prosecutions of Americans.
Associated Press writers Mike Corder in The Hague and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.