In his first major policy address since joining the White House in April, national security adviser John Bolton offered a particularly aggressive demonstration of President Trump’s “America First” agenda. He threatened the International Criminal Court, a U.N.-mandated body based in The Hague, with punitive measures should it pursue an investigation into alleged U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan. He warned that the United States would ban ICC judges and prosecutors from entering the country, sanction their funds in the U.S. financial system and punish any company or government that complies with an ICC investigation into Americans.
In effect, Bolton declared that these officials — including respected jurists and rights activists — could receive the same treatment as certain Kremlin-linked oligarchs or shadowy financiers of extremist groups.
“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 said at an event hosted by the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group. “After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”
Bolton outright urged the collapse of the ICC, casting it as a cabal of unaccountable foreign bureaucrats — not unlike the language used by right-wing populists to tar European Union officials. Like them, Bolton explicitly attacked the “global governance dogma” of the bloc and hailed Britain’s decision to leave it.
The tough rhetoric reflected Bolton’s long-standing animosity toward the ICC, an institution he lobbied against while serving in the George W. Bush administration. Bolton and some Republican allies see the organization’s powers as an illegitimate infringement of national sovereignty and a supposed violation of American constitutional rights.
In truth, the ICC has little jurisdiction over the United States, which, like other major powers including India and China, never ratified the convention that established the court. “Then-president Bill Clinton signed the convention in 2000,” explained Buzzfeed’s Emily Tamkin, “but never presented it to Congress for ratification, and George W. Bush authorized the United States to ‘un-sign’ it in May 2002” — a move vociferously backed by Bolton.
In his remarks, Bolton poured scorn on the court for seeking to exercise “supranational” powers over the United States and mocked it as a toothless instrument of justice. “The hard men of history are not deterred by fantasies of international law such as the ICC,” he said. “The idea that faraway bureaucrats and robed judges would strike fear into the hearts of the likes of Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Stalin, and Gaddafi is preposterous, even cruel.”
Instead, Bolton extolled “the righteous might” of the United States and its allies as “the only deterrent to evil and atrocity” in the world. It was a tidy summation of his worldview, anchored by an ironclad faith in American military power and a deep suspicion of the international bodies that could check it.
Bolton also announced the shuttering of the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in part because Palestinian leaders had called on the ICC to investigate Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank. It’s yet another nail hammered by Trump into the coffin of the Middle East peace process.
“These people have decided to stand on the wrong side of history by protecting war criminals and destroying the two-state solution,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “I told them if you are worried about courts, you should stop aiding and abetting crimes.”
But for Bolton and other Trump administration officials, American misdeeds — or deeds in general — are not the business of outsiders. “The new broadside against the ICC follows steps by the administration challenging international cooperation in other areas,” my colleagues reported. “This year, the administration has withdrawn from the U.N. human rights body and threatened to pull out of the World Trade Organization, in addition to halting U.S. funding for the U.N. body that aids Palestinian refugees.”
In the case of Afghanistan, the ICC’s chief prosecutor announced last November that she had “reasonable evidence” to investigate allegations regarding the abuse, torture and even rape of at least 88 Afghan detainees, allegedly carried out by U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan and at clandestine CIA interrogation centers in Europe between 2002 and 2014.
The announcement angered the Trump administration, but it was welcomed by other American practitioners of international law.
“Should an investigation go forward, the Trump administration’s best response would be to engage openly with the ICC by making a genuine and transparent domestic effort to investigate, and, where warranted, prosecute those Americans most responsible for serious crimes connected with the Afghan war,” wrote Kip Hale, an attorney who has worked at other war-crimes tribunals, in Foreign Affairs last year. “This policy would not only protect American interests by promoting the moral authority of the United States but it is also the most credible and expedient way to put the allegations to rest.”
It’s certainly true that the ICC is far from a perfect institution — critics, for example, point to its disproportionate prosecution of African officials. But it still represents a key cog in the international system, and one that could yet provide justice for the hideous crimes of those like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Myanmar’s generals.
Instead, it may yet become another casualty of Trump’s wider war on liberal internationalism. “It is an all-out bid by Donald Trump to end the ICC, the world’s foremost criminal tribunal, and with it, the very concept of international justice,” wrote the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall. “Bolton is the man wielding the knife. And there is a strong possibility they will succeed.”
This article was published by The Washington Post on the 11th of September.
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.