America the Unaccountable

nternational Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda addressing the court, The Hague
Abdullah Asiran/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda addressing the court, The Hague, December 2019

The Trump administration has declared war on the International Criminal Court—the world’s only permanent court whose mandate is to pursue cases of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. President Trump issued an executive order on June 11 that authorizes severe sanctions on ICC employees, as well as the court itself, if it goes forward with planned investigations of alleged war crimes by the US or its allies. (Though not named in the order, Israel is the sole US ally now under ICC scrutiny that fits its terms.)

Sanctions—visa restrictions, asset freezes, and bans on financial transactions with the sanctioned person—are, according to federal law, emergency measures taken against “unusual and extraordinary” foreign threats. They are typically used against terrorists and drug cartels, and in cases of human rights abuses or hostile government actions like the Iranian seizure of US hostages in 1979. Never before has an administration authorized sanctions against judges and prosecutors to stop an investigation of US conduct.

No one at the ICC, which sits in The Hague, has been listed as a target for sanctions yet, but Trump’s executive order plainly aims to weaken the court, deter its employees from continuing their work, and discourage people and companies from doing business with it in any way. Sanctions could block the court from financial transactions with anyone in the world who uses US dollars or wants to stay on the right side of US regulators.1 There is a very real possibility that ICC employees, including judges and prosecutors, would not have their salaries paid. The sanctions cover “services” as well as financial transactions, which could affect lawyers writing amicus briefs, war crimes investigators in the field, and human rights NGOs that aid the ICC. If the court itself is sanctioned, it could lose the ability to pay for its Internet service or even its building. That could doom ICC inquiries into genocidal attacks on the Rohingya people by Myanmar’s military, war crimes committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, and repression by Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela, among other cases, none of which has anything to do with the US or Israel.

The ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, is a particular target of US wrath. Bensouda is a Gambian lawyer and former minister of justice with a long career prosecuting atrocity crimes. Eight years ago, Time proclaimed her one of the hundred most influential people in the world; last year the State Department revoked her US visa. Bensouda’s term ends a year from now, and the search for her successor is already under way. It might become an unenviable and perilous job.

The Trump administration is angry at Bensouda because in 2017 she asked the ICC…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.