John Bolton threatens ICC with US sanctions

  • Published
Media caption,

Bolton: "The ICC is dead to us"

The US has threatened sanctions against the International Criminal Court (ICC) if it goes ahead with prosecutions against Americans.

The court is currently considering prosecuting US servicemen over alleged detainee abuse in Afghanistan.

National Security Adviser John Bolton called the court "illegitimate" and vowed the US would do everything "to protect our citizens".

The US is among dozens of nations not to have joined the court.

What is the ICC?

The court investigates and brings to justice people responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, intervening when national authorities cannot or will not prosecute.

The ICC was established by a UN treaty in 2002, and has been ratified by 123 countries, including the UK.

However several countries, including China, India, and Russia, have refused to join.

Some African countries have called for withdrawal from the court over perceived unfair treatment of Africans.

Why is John Bolton opposed to it?

The US has been critical of the ICC since it was established - and Mr Bolton has been particularly vocal in his opposition to the court.

In his speech on Monday in Washington, Mr Bolton attacked two areas of the court's work.

The first was ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda's request last year for a full investigation into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, which would include any committed by US military and intelligence officials.

A 2016 report from the ICC said there was a reasonable basis to believe the US military had committed torture at secret detention sites in Afghanistan operated by the CIA, and that the Afghan government and the Taliban had committed war crimes.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
US personnel in Afghanistan could be subjected to ICC investigations

Mr Bolton said neither Afghanistan nor any government signatory to the ICC's statute had requested an investigation.

However, ICC prosecutors also have the ability to take independent action, although any prosecutions must be approved by a panel of judges.

The second area Mr Bolton addressed was the Palestinian move to bring Israel before the ICC over allegations of human rights abuses in Gaza and the occupied West Bank - a move dismissed by Israel as politicised.

In his tirade against the court, Mr Bolton said it:

  • Was a threat to "American sovereignty and US national security"
  • Lacked checks and balances, claimed "jurisdiction over crimes that have disputed and ambiguous definitions" and failed to "deter and punish atrocity crimes"
  • Was "superfluous" as the US administration did "not recognise any higher authority than the US Constitution"

Mr Bolton said: "We will not co-operate with the ICC. We will provide no assistance to the ICC. We will not join the ICC. We will let the ICC die on its own. After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us."

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders backed Mr Bolton, saying President Donald Trump would use "any means necessary to protect our citizens [and] those of our allies from unjust prosecution from the ICC".

What steps could the US take?

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The court in The Hague was founded in 2002 by a treaty known as the Rome Statute

ICC judges and prosecutors would be barred from entering the US and their funds in the US would be targeted.

"We will prosecute them in the US criminal system. We will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans," Mr Bolton said.

More "binding, bilateral agreements" would be signed to stop countries submitting US citizens to the court's jurisdiction.

What has the response been?

The ICC has pledged to "continue to do its work undeterred, in accordance with... the overarching idea of the rule of law".

"The ICC, as a judicial institution, acts strictly within the legal framework of the Rome Statute and is committed to the independent and impartial exercise of its mandate," it said in a statement, referring to the treaty that established the ICC.

Liz Evenson, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, told AFP news agency that Mr Bolton had shown "callous disregard for victims of atrocity crimes" and that the US was "more concerned with coddling serial rights abusers... than supporting impartial justice".

How have previous US administrations dealt with the ICC?

The US has had a varied history with the ICC.

The US signed a treaty to establish the ICC in 2000, under President Bill Clinton's administration.

The US said it strongly supported "international accountability" but believed the treaty, known as the Rome Statute, had "significant flaws" that still needed addressing.

However, the US never ratified the treaty.

Image source, The White House
Image caption,
Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and George W Bush all took different approaches to the ICC

In 2002, shortly before the court was formally established, President George W Bush's administration told the UN that the US would not join the ICC.

President Barack Obama took a more positive approach to the ICC. He sought to develop co-operation with the ICC and sent observers to the court, although his administration also opted not to ratify the Rome Statute.

'America First' writ large

By Tara McKelvey, BBC White House reporter

As a diplomat, John Bolton was famously bellicose: he once said if the UN building in New York "lost 10 storeys, it wouldn't make a bit of difference".

And he's made clear how he stands on carrot-and-stick diplomacy, saying: "I don't do carrots." As national security adviser, he's been more aggressive than the president at times - and has been reined in.

On Monday, though, Mr Bolton made his first major address as national security adviser and showed he's in sync with the president.

In threatening to take sanctions against ICC judges, he is helping to reinforce the president's "America First" policy.