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The International Criminal Court (ICC) is a court of last resort to hold government officials and other powerful actors accountable when domestic courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute the most serious crimes under international law. The Court has secured successful prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The primary beneficiaries of the Court are the many civilian victims who can secure no justice elsewhere and the communities subject to cycles of violence fueled by impunity. They include many victims and survivors of violence for whom the United States has been a strong, vocal advocate for justice and accountability.
The ICC exists because it is difficult to hold government officials and other powerful actors accountable when they commit war crimes or grave human rights violations. That impunity, in turn, is corrosive to the broader rule of law, the prospects of lasting peace, and respect for the dignity of all. Since the ICC’s establishment in 2002, diverse coalitions of faith-based organizations, human rights advocates, legal practitioners, survivors of atrocities, and other constituencies have often looked to it to complement and reinforce their work for justice.
Recently, the White House has waged a reckless campaign of intimidation against the International Criminal Court, attempting to thwart the court’s investigation into war crimes by U.S. nationals in Afghanistan. On September 2, 2020, the United States levied sanctions against ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, and the ICC’s Head of Jurisdiction, Complementary, and Cooperation Division, Phakiso Mochochoko. The U.S. Treasury Department listed Bensouda and Mochochoko on the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, usually reserved for individuals accused by the U.S. government of terrorism, narcotrafficking, proliferating weapons of mass destruction, and other threats to international peace and security. Additionally, the State Department restricted the issuance of visas for certain individuals involved in the ICC’s efforts to investigate U.S. personnel.
It is unacceptable that the United States would enact sanctions against the senior staff of a court that more than 120 countries have joined—including U.S. allies in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and the Asia-Pacific region—using tools that are designed to stigmatize war criminals and disrupt criminal networks. These sanctions 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. No one responsible for the most serious crimes under international law should be able to hide from accountability.
Like all other human institutions, the ICC has room for improvement. Nevertheless, from the situations in Uganda and the Central African Republic, to those in Darfur, Bangladesh and Myanmar, the ICC continues to play a vital role, filling gaps in the justice system by independently investigating and prosecuting atrocity crimes when national authorities do not do so, or when they seek out help.
At times, governments may take issue with the ICC’s jurisprudence and assertions of jurisdiction. However, concerted diplomatic efforts and engagement with the ICC will enhance its effectiveness more than punishing individuals who have dedicated their careers to delivering justice to victims of egregious crimes.
The United States can and should be a powerful voice for justice and accountability for mass atrocities. Punitive measures against the ICC diminish the credibility of that voice. We urge the administration to reverse the steps it has announced, and we urge members of Congress to clearly and publicly oppose this policy.
- The ICC prosecutes the most serious crimes under international law—genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression. Resuming attacks against the Court sends a dangerous signal that the United States is hostile to human rights and the rule of law.
- The United States’ attack on the International Criminal Court is an attack on millions of victims and survivors who have experienced the most serious crimes under international law and undermines decades of groundbreaking work by the international community to advance justice.
- The ICC remains the only path to justice for thousands of victims of war crimes and serious violations of human rights across the world. The United States must help strengthen rather than to weaken the Court.
- The President must immediately revoke sanctions against ICC staff and rescind Executive Order 13928 on “Blocking Property of Certain Persons Associated with the International Criminal Court.”
- The United States should once and for all reaffirm its signature of the Rome Statute establishing the ICC, and support—not impede—its investigations.
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Advocacy Director, Europe and Central Asia