Wednesday 23 January 2019

US threatens any countries who back war crimes court

Probes: American Marines evacuate an injured Afghan policeman in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in 2009. Photo: PA
Probes: American Marines evacuate an injured Afghan policeman in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in 2009. Photo: PA

Rob Crilly in New York

The US yesterday threatened to punish countries and companies that co-operate with the International Criminal Court - freezing finances or stripping foreign aid - in any investigations of Americans or its allies.

The court's aim is to bring to justice the perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

In a blistering speech to an audience of conservatives, John Bolton, Donald Trump's national security adviser, also said the State Department was closing the Palestinian Liberation Organisation's (PLO) office in Washington over its pressure for an ICC probe into Israel.

"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.

At a time when the White House has been struggling to impose its agenda on the headlines and contain negative portraits of a failing administration, Mr Bolton's words offer one of the clearest recent expositions of Mr Trump's populist America First agenda.

His onslaught was provoked by concerns that the ICC is poised to formally investigate allegations that American personnel engaged in torture during the conflict in Afghanistan.

He railed against a supra-national court dreamed up by "global governance advocates", and accused the ICC of exerting overly broad jurisdiction over American soldiers and citizens as part of an attempt to "intimidate" the US.

He listed the actions Washington would take if the court pressed ahead with a war crimes investigation in Afghanistan:

  • The US would ban judges and prosecutors from entering the United States;
  • Impose sanctions on any funds they have in the US financial system;
  • And prosecute them in American courts.

"We will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans," he said, adding that countries risked losing US foreign assistance, military assistance, and access to intelligence.

He said such strong action against a "deeply flawed" institution was essential to protecting American democracy.

"I hope that's clear to everybody," he said to laughter at the Federalist Society in Washington.

The US has never recognised the ICC since it was established in 2002 as the first permanent, independent tribunal with authority to investigate crimes against humanity wherever they may occur.

It has always argued that US personnel should be protected from prosecution.

But the strength of Mr Bolton's words sparked anger across the Middle East as well as widespread concern about whether increased American hostility to the court would allow international war criminals to escape punishment.

As he spoke, the State Department confirmed it was closing the PLO office, accusing the group of failing to open meaningful peace talks with Israel. "The United States will always stand with our friend and ally, Israel," Mr Bolton said.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, described the US move as "crude and vicious blackmail".

"The US would do better to finally understand that the Palestinians will not surrender and that no amount of coercion or unwarranted collective punitive measures will bring the Palestinian leadership or people to their knees," she said.

The Palestinians said they were undeterred from going to the ICC. They described the planned PLO mission closure as the latest pressure tactic by a Trump administration that has slashed funding to a UN agency for Palestinian refugees and to hospitals in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as capital of a future state.

"We reiterate that the rights of the Palestinian people are not for sale, that we will not succumb to US threats and bullying," Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said in a statement.

Analysts said Mr Bolton contradicted himself in his analysis, arguing both that the ICC was weak and flawed while at the same time posing a threat to the US.

Mark Kersten, an expert on the ICC at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, said: "It is something of a vindication of the ICC that, over a decade after he first went crazy over the court, John Bolton is still having a hissy-fit and is still afraid of its reach."

Palestinians have reacted with dismay to the US funding cuts, warning that they could lead to more poverty and anger - both among factors stoking their decades of conflict with Israel. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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