The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump administration applauds international court’s decision to abandon Afghan war crimes probe

National security advisor John Bolton called the ICC’s decision vindication of his long-standing opposition to the court.
National security advisor John Bolton called the ICC’s decision vindication of his long-standing opposition to the court. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)
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Trump administration officials took a victory lap Friday after the International Criminal Court decided not to proceed with an investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan, hailing it as vindication of their insistence that the court has no jurisdiction over U.S. forces who might have been implicated in a probe.

The judges’ decision appeared to end the quest for accountability for victims of abuses following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The prosecutor was particularly interested in looking at the alleged abuse of detainees taken in by U.S. forces and the CIA. Although the judges said there was a basis to believe crimes had been committed, a lack of cooperation from the United States, Afghan authorities and the Taliban made the chances of a successful prosecution remote.

President Trump called the decision “a major international victory, not only for these patriots, but for the rule of law.”

“Any attempt to target American, Israeli or allied personnel for prosecution will be met with a swift and vigorous response,” he added in a statement.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who last month said the United States would deny or revoke visas to ICC investigators looking into abuses by U.S. citizens and allies, also characterized it as a victory.

“The United States will always protect allied and American military and civilian personnel from living in fear from unjust prosecution for actions taken to defend our great nation,” he said in a statement.

National security adviser John Bolton was triumphant, calling it a vindication of his long-standing opposition to the court, which is based in The Hague in the Netherlands.

The United States signed the Rome Statute creating the court in 2000 during the Clinton administration but never joined, as have 123 other countries.

Bolton was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2002 when he “unsigned” the United States from the court’s jurisdiction, an action he has called “my happiest day in government.”

“Today is the second happiest day of my life,” he said Friday.

The U.S. refusal to cooperate in any investigation by the court was one of the key reasons the judges rejected the 2017 request by chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan. Bensouda said on April 5 that her visa to the United States had been revoked.

Bensouda’s request said there was reason to believe that members of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies had “committed acts of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, rape and sexual violence against conflict-related detainees in Afghanistan and other locations, principally in the 2003-2004 period.”

She alleged that the Taliban and other militants had have killed more than 17,000 civilians in the past decade, and Afghan forces have tortured prisoners.

Human rights groups said the court’s decision was a capitulation to U.S. threats and bullying. Amnesty International called it “a shocking abandonment of victims.” Human Rights Watch said it dealt “a devastating blow for victims who have suffered grave crimes without redress.”

The Trump administration has been openly dismissive of the court’s authority, particularly after the Palestinian Authority tried last year to get the court to build a case against Israel.

Bolton has been the most vociferous and scornful. On Friday, he handed reporters copies of a speech he gave to the Federalist Society in September and read aloud his own words: “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 his own. For all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”

Bolton denied that the United States had bullied the court.

“I don’t think it’s bullying to stand up to protect innocent American service members, members of the intelligence community who are unjustly accused,” he said. “When Americans violate their training and doctrine, whether they’re in the military or in the intelligence community, as a democratic, constitutional society we are capable of holding our own citizens accountable.”