Bolton Says International Criminal Court is 'Illegitimate'

Patrick Goodenough | September 10, 2018 | 8:31pm EDT
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The International Criminal Court in The Hague. (Photo: ICC/Max Koot)

( – The United States is already not party to the International Criminal Court, but in a striking decision announced Monday by National Security Advisor John Bolton the Trump administration said it would not cooperate at all with the tribunal – and will moreover take punitive steps against it if it goes after U.S. or allied nationals.

Describing the ICC as “ineffective, unaccountable and indeed, outright dangerous,” Bolton said in a speech to the Federalist Society that the U.S. “will use any means necessary to protect our citizens and those of our allies from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court.”

He said if the court proceeds with investigations into alleged wrongdoing by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, or takes action against Israel or other U.S. allies, “we will not sit quietly.”

Among other steps, Bolton warned of the possibility of sanctions, and even criminal prosecutions, against ICC officials.

“We will respond against the ICC and its personnel to the extent permitted by U.S. law,” he said. “We will ban its judges and prosecutors from entering the United States. We will sanction their funds in the U.S. financial system, and we will prosecute them in the U.S. criminal system.”

Bolton said the administration would also take note of other countries’ dealings with the ICC, and hinted that any government that cooperates with ICC investigations into the U.S. or its allies could forfeit economic and military aid.

“The United States will use any means necessary to protect our citizens and those of our allies from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court,” he said. “We will not cooperate 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,” Bolton continued. “After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”

‘Dismal record’

The move by the Trump administration comes on the eve of the anniversary of al-Qaeda’s attacks on the U.S. in 2001, which prompted the U.S. to invade Afghanistan to topple the terrorist group’s Taliban ally.

Last November the ICC prosecutor formally asked judges to authorize an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity linked to that conflict, citing allegations of “torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, and rape” by U.S. troops against detainees in Afghanistan, and by CIA personnel against detainees at secret facilities in eastern Europe.

(The investigation is also looking into alleged abuses by the Taliban and Haqqani network terrorist groups, and by the Afghan armed forces.)

Asked about the timing of Monday’s announcement, Bolton pointed to the Afghanistan investigation procedures underway in The Hague.

“We just wanted to make it clear to the ICC how we feel about that – which is not much – especially after eight years of the Obama administration,” he said. “That really is what dictated the timing here, although it is no coincidence that tomorrow is September 11, which is how this conflict in Afghanistan for us started.”

Under the Rome Statute, the ICC is authorized to investigate and prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and “crimes of aggression.”

Bolton’s appraisal of the now 16-year-old court was harsh, as he pointed not only to its potential strength – and thus the challenges to U.S. sovereignty – but also to its “manifest weakness.”

He noted that the court has spent more than $1.5 billion since 2002, and obtained a mere eight convictions.

“This dismal record is hardly a deterrent to dictators and despots determined to commit horrific atrocities,” he said. “In fact, despite ongoing ICC investigations, atrocities continue to occur in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Libya, Syria, and many other nations.”

Bolton said the “hard men of history” – he cited Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin – would never be deterred by “fantasies of international law.”

“Time and again, history has proven that the only deterrent to evil and atrocity is what Franklin Roosevelt once called ‘the righteous might’ of the United States and its allies – a power that, perversely, could be threatened by the ICC’s vague definition of aggression crimes.”

That Bolton made Monday’s announcement was fitting. His opposition to the ICC goes back to the 1990s, when from outside of government he argued that the proposed initiative would compromise U.S. constitutional guarantees and sovereignty.

When the Rome Statute – the ICC’s founding treaty – was established in 1998, President Clinton chose not to forward it to the Senate for advice and consent, calling it flawed.

The ICC formally came into being in mid-2002, and as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security under President George W. Bush, Bolton played a central role in that administration’s response to it.

Bolton “unsigned” the Rome Statute on behalf of Bush, and then oversaw the negotiating of more than 100 agreements with nations which promised not to surrender American citizens to the ICC without U.S. consent. On Monday he called that “one of my proudest achievements.”

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