Washington – U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday revoked sanctions imposed by Donald Trump on the top prosecutor of the International Criminal Court as the new administration seeks a more cooperative approach, resolving an intense disagreement with European allies.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last year denounced the “kangaroo court” in The Hague and imposed both financial sanctions and a U.S. visa ban on its Gambian-born chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.
Pompeo acted after she launched an investigation into alleged war crimes by U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan.
The court in The Hague further annoyed the United States by opening an investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories by Israel, a U.S. ally which rejects the authority of the court.
Biden said the United States still has concerns with the ICC.
But “the threat and imposition of financial sanctions against the Court, its personnel, and those who assist it are not an effective or appropriate strategy,” he said in a statement.
Pompeo’s successor, Antony Blinken, said the United States continued to “disagree strongly” with the moves on Afghanistan and Israel.
“We believe, however, that our concerns about these cases would be better addressed through engagement with all stakeholders in the ICC process rather than through the imposition of sanctions,” Blinken said in a statement.
Biden revoked an executive order by Trump on the sanctions, also lifting sanctions against senior ICC official Phakiso Mochochoko and visa bans on other court staff.
Bensouda is leaving her job in June and will be replaced by British human rights lawyer Karim Khan, who now can open his work without the burden of looming sanctions.
Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi, the head of the Association of States Parties to the ICC, voiced hope that the decision “signals the start of a new phase of our common undertaking to fight against impunity” for war crimes.
France, which like other European allies had been aghast by the last administration’s move, hailed the reversal and pledged support for the ICC.
“This decision is excellent news for all who are committed to the fight against impunity, for multilateralism and for an international order founded on the rule of law,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
Blinken said he was encouraged by reforms being undertaken by the court, which has also come under scrutiny over internal matters including judges’ salaries.
He noted that the United States has supported specific international judicial initiatives to provide accountability for war crimes or crimes against humanity including in the Balkans, Cambodia and Rwanda.
“Our support for the rule of law, access to justice and accountability for mass atrocities are important U.S. national security interests that are protected and advanced by engaging with the rest of the world to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow,” Blinken said.
Blinken announced the decision days before the administration needed to respond to a lawsuit against Trump’s executive order filed by the Open Society Justice Initiative, which promotes human rights and democracy.
James Goldston, executive director of the initiative, welcomed Biden’s action as a “restoration of U.S. ideals.”
“The United States has a long history of using sanctions to punish human rights abusers, but never before was this tool used to punish an independent court that seeks justice for victims of atrocities,” he said.
Human Rights Watch praised Biden for ending “this unprecedented and downright warped use of sanctions” and turning the page on Trump’s “assault on the global rule of law.”
Trump in his final weeks in office granted clemency to three U.S. troops convicted of crimes in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with one of the men later meeting him.
Critics said Trump’s intervention undercut his argument in the ICC sanctions — that the United States had its own judiciary capable of ensuring accountability.
While Democratic administrations have been more supportive of the ICC, the United States remains out of the Rome Statute that established the tribunal with little prospect of it joining amid intense opposition from the Republicans.
The U.S. Congress in 2002 even passed a law authorizing military force to free any U.S. personnel held by the court, theoretically giving the president authority to invade NATO ally The Netherlands.
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