US drops sanctions against war crimes prosecutors

Biden administration was facing criticism for not living up to its commitment to multilateralism

An exterior view of the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands, March 31, 2021. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw
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The US on Friday said it was lifting sanctions imposed by former president Donald Trump's administration on International Criminal Court officials and called for better relations with the tribunal.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US continued to "disagree strongly" with court probes in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories but would nevertheless lift sanctions against prosecutors and visa restrictions on its staff.

“We maintain our long-standing objection to the court’s efforts to assert jurisdiction over personnel of [non-members] such as the United States and Israel,” Mr Blinken said in a statement.

“We believe, however, that our concerns about these cases would be better addressed through engagement with all stakeholders in the [court] process rather than through the imposition of sanctions.”

The Trump administration slapped travel bans and asset freezes on prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and others at The Hague-based tribunal last year for probing war crimes committed by US servicemen and other forces operating in Afghanistan.

The Trump administration also opposed a probe launched in 2019 into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories, including those allegedly committed by Israeli forces.

Neither the US nor Israel are members of the court.

Mr Blinken voiced support for a “broad range of reforms” under consideration that would help the court “achieve its core mission of serving as a court of last resort in punishing and deterring atrocity crimes”.

“We think this reform is a worthwhile effort,” he said.

Court members elected British lawyer Karim Khan as the new ICC prosecutor for a nine-year term last month. He will replace Ms Bensouda in June and is expected to approach the Afghanistan and Palestine files more cautiously.

US President Joe Biden had faced criticism for maintaining sanctions on the court more than 10 weeks after taking office, even as his administration had sought to mend global ties and boost co-operation with multilateral bodies.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass in a statement said the US reversal marked a “good day for the international fight against impunity” and referred to US co-operation with the court before the Trump era.

“The lifting of US sanctions … is an important step to ensure that grave international crimes are independently investigated and perpetrators brought to justice," Mr Mass said in a statement.

"We owe this to the many victims and those left behind."

He noted that Washington had “supported the [court] in a number of important cases” in the past and said Berlin would “maintain an ongoing exchange with our American partners” about reforms to make the tribunal more effective.

Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Centre, a legal campaign group, praised the Biden administration for ending the Trump-era “reckless assault” on the court and urged the US to go further by joining the tribunal.

“Former president Trump’s sanctions were issued to help the US and its close allies evade accountability for their own human rights abuses, but their impact went much further by targeting court officials and their urgent work,” said Ms Radhakrishnan.

“Repeal is a start, but if the Biden administration wishes to be a true champion of human rights and the rule of law, it must fundamentally shift the US relationship with the court.”