THE HAGUE: The EU has welcomed the United States’ lifting of sanctions imposed by former leader Donald Trump on the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor.
Trump’s top diplomat hit Fatou Bensouda and another senior court official with financial sanctions and visa bans last year after the prosecutor launched an investigation into alleged war crimes by US military personnel in Afghanistan.
New President Joe Biden’s administration on Friday announced it was repealing the measures as it seeks a more cooperative approach on a dispute that has alienated allies.
“This important step underlines the US’s commitment to the international rules-based system,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.
“The ICC plays an important role in delivering justice to the victims of some of the world’s most horrific crimes. Protecting the impartiality and judicial independence of the ICC is paramount to its effectiveness and proper functioning.”
Borrell said the EU was “unwavering in its support” of the tribunal and the “universality” of the Rome Statute that founded the court.
“We will stand together with all partners to defend the court against attempts aimed at obstructing the course of justice and undermining the international system of criminal justice,” he said.
The US remains out of the Rome Statute with little prospect of it joining.
Washington says it is encouraged by reforms taking place at the tribunal, but Biden’s administration continues to oppose the Afghan probe, as well as a separate investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories by US ally Israel.
Gambian-born Bensouda is leaving her job in June and will be replaced by British human rights lawyer Karim Khan, who now can start his work without the burden of looming sanctions.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last year denounced the “kangaroo court” in The Hague and imposed both financial sanctions and a US visa ban on its Gambian-born chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.
Pompeo acted after she launched an investigation into alleged war crimes by US military personnel in Afghanistan.
The ICC plays an important role in delivering justice to the victims of some of the world’s most horrific crimes.
Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief
Biden revoked an executive order by Trump on the sanctions, also lifting sanctions against senior ICC official Phakiso Mochochoko and visa bans on other court staff.
Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi, the head of the Association of States Parties to the ICC, voiced hope that the decision “signals the start of a new phase of our common undertaking to fight against impunity” for war crimes.
France hailed the reversal and pledged support for the ICC.
“This decision is excellent news for all who are committed to the fight against impunity, for multilateralism and for an international order founded on the rule of law,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
Blinken noted that the US has supported specific international judicial initiatives to provide accountability for war crimes or crimes against humanity including in the Balkans, Cambodia and Rwanda.
“Our support for the rule of law, access to justice and accountability for mass atrocities are important US national security interests that are protected and advanced by engaging with the rest of the world to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow,” Blinken said.
Blinken announced the decision days before the administration needed to respond to a lawsuit against Trump’s executive order filed by the Open Society Justice Initiative, which promotes human rights and democracy.
James Goldston, executive director of the initiative, welcomed Biden’s action as a “restoration of US ideals.”
“The United States has a long history of using sanctions to punish human rights abusers, but never before was this tool used to punish an independent court that seeks justice for victims of atrocities,” he said.
Human Rights Watch praised Biden for ending “this unprecedented and downright warped use of sanctions” and turning the page on Trump’s “assault on the global rule of law.”
Trump in his final weeks in office granted clemency to three US troops convicted of crimes in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with one of the men later meeting him.