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Biden Reverses Course on Sanctions Against ICC

April 6, 2021 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced Friday that he is reversing a Trump administration policy that sanctions the International Criminal Court in what he described as another sign of a return of U.S. foreign policy to more cooperation.

Trump criticized the ICC for its policies against war crimes that he believed unfairly targeted American soldiers accused of abuses during their engagements in the Middle East in recent years.

Biden says diplomacy is a better way than sanctions of addressing international concerns.

In similar action, Biden resumed U.S. relations with the World Health Organization, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, the Paris climate accord and sought to restart negotiations with Iran on a deal to limit the country’s access to nuclear material.

Trump pulled the United States out of all those international organizations and agreements.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeated long-standing policy that the United States continues to disagree with some actions by the ICC.

He added, “We believe, however, that our concerns about these cases would be better addressed” through diplomacy “rather than through the imposition of sanctions.”

The ICC, based in the Netherlands, handles genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Its 120 member countries do not include the United States.

The administration of former President Barack Obama sought a policy of “positive engagement” with the ICC but did not fully accept its authority.

Most often the U.S. government said alleged war crimes by its soldiers should be handled as national security issues rather than by a standing international court.

The United States might endorse temporary international tribunals on a case-by-case basis but not the ICC’s universal authority, according to previous policy statements.

The Trump administration was more hostile, threatening prosecutions, visa bans and financial sanctions against ICC judges and staff after they planned to investigate Americans accused of war crimes in Afghanistan. Former President Donald Trump also threatened sanctions against any countries that cooperated in the investigations.

After the Trump administration imposed the sanctions last June, the ICC called them an “attack against the interests of victims of atrocity crimes” and an “unacceptable attempt to interfere with the rule of law.”

Biden’s announcement that he was removing the sanctions was welcomed by international rights organizations.

Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi, president of the ICC’s management body, said the removal of U.S. sanctions promotes “a rules-based international order.”

Amnesty International called the sanctions an “act of vandalism” against international justice but commended Biden for changing course.

The sanctions were aimed primarily at ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and the head of jurisdiction, Phakiso Mochochoko. They led the court’s effort to investigate U.S. and Israeli actions that some Middle Eastern countries called “war crimes.”

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced financial sanctions against the two ICC officials last September. He said the court was “a thoroughly broken and corrupt institution.”

Some ICC actions that angered U.S. officials included an investigation of torture of al-Qaida and Taliban agents at secret CIA detention sites. The Defense Department has acknowledged it used waterboarding against some of its captured enemies.

A 2016 ICC report says, “Members of U.S. armed forces appear to have subjected at least 61 detained persons to torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity on the territory of Afghanistan between 1 May 2003 and 31 December 2014.”

In another case, the ICC alleged human rights abuses by Israeli forces against Palestinians, particularly members of the Sunni-Islamic militant group Hamas.

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