In a move that angered the United States’ European partners, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last year denounced the ICC as a “unauthorized court” and imposed both financial sanctions and a visa ban on its chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.
Pompeo took these measures after Bensouda started an investigation into possible war crimes committed by American military personnel in Afghanistan.
The Hague-based court further angered the United States by opening an investigation into alleged war crimes in Palestinian territories committed by Israel, an American ally that rejects the authority of the ICC.
Pompeu’s successor, Antony Blinken, said the United States remains “in total disagreement” with the actions taken by the ICC in Afghanistan and Israel, but considered that the Trump administration’s measures were “inappropriate and ineffective”.
“We believe, however, that our concerns about these cases would be better addressed through the participation of all stakeholders in the ICC process rather than through the imposition of sanctions,” Blinken said in a statement.
Biden revoked a Trump decree on sanctions imposed in September 2020, which also suspended punitive measures against the head of the Attorney’s Jurisdiction, Complementarity and Cooperation Division, Phakiso Mochochoko.
In addition, the State Department ended several visa restrictions decided in 2019 against members of the court.
Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, born in Gambia, will step down in June and be replaced by British human rights lawyer Karim Khan.
Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi, director of the Association of States Parties to the ICC, expressed her hope that the decision “marks the beginning of a new phase in our common commitment to fight impunity” for war crimes.
France, which, like other European allies, had been appalled by the measure taken by Trump, welcomed the change of course and pledged to help the ICC.
“It is excellent news for everyone who is committed to the fight against impunity, multilateralism and an international order based on the rule of law,” said French Chancellor Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Blinken positively highlighted the reforms carried out by the ICC, which is also the subject of scrutiny on some internal issues, including the salaries of judges.
The United States, which signed but did not ratify the Rome Statute that established the ICC in 1998, supported international judicial initiatives to hold those who committed war crimes or crimes against humanity to account, including those in the Balkans, Cambodia and Rwanda.
“Our support for the rule of law, access to justice and the possibility that those responsible for massive atrocities are accountable are important national security interests for the United States,” said Blinken.
“Restoration of American ideals”
The head of American diplomacy announced the end of sanctions against ICC officials two days before the government had to respond to an action against Trump’s decree, filed by the Open Society Justice Initiative, a group that promotes human rights and democracy .
James Goldston, executive director of the initiative, hailed Biden’s decision as a “restoration of American ideals”.
“The United States has a long history of using sanctions to punish human rights violators, but never before has this tool been used to punish an independent court that seeks justice for victims of atrocities,” he said.
Human rights NGO Human Rights Watch praised Biden for ending “this unprecedented and totally deformed use of sanctions” and for turning the page on “Trump’s attack on the world rule of law”.
In his final weeks in office, Trump pardoned three American soldiers convicted of crimes committed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to his critics, this undermined the Trump administration’s own argument in punishing the ICC: that the United States had its own judiciary, capable of guaranteeing accountability.
Democratic governments have been more supportive of the ICC, but the United States remains outside the Rome Statute and the intense opposition from Republicans precludes the possibility that the country will join it.
In 2002, the American Congress even passed a law that authorized the use of military force to free any American in power from the ICC, which theoretically gives the president the authority to invade the Netherlands, a NATO ally.
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