The Trump administration has sought to weaken or abandon various international agencies since 2016. Now it is taking aim at the International Criminal Court, a global tribunal that investigates and prosecutes war crimes, torture and genocide.

Claiming the international court’s investigation into alleged war crimes by the United States forces in Afghanistan poses a national security threat, US President Donald Trump issued an executive order on June 11 effectively criminalising anyone who works at the international court.

Its lawyers, judges, human rights researchers and staff could now have their US bank accounts frozen, US visas revoked and travel to the US denied.

On September 2, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the new sanctions would be applied for the first time, against international court’s special prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and her top aide.

The executive order does not target US citizens. But Americans can be sanctioned if they “materially support” the international court by, say, filing an amicus brief to support a case.

Such language usually applies to foreign terrorist organisations and their enablers – not human rights lawyers.

Retired General Wesley Clark called Trump’s order a “tragic mistake” in foreign policy. He says the US “has nothing to fear from the international court”, which exists to deter and punish the kinds of atrocities committed by Germany and Japan during World War II.

I am an international human rights lawyer who has defended and advocated for victims of gross human rights violations in American courts and at the United Nations. For these people, the international court is the only real means to hold their persecutors accountable, even if few of them will ever set foot in the court.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo credit: Manuel Balce Cenata/AFP.

Brief history of the international court

The international court is the only criminal court with a near-global jurisdiction.

Since its founding in 2002 in The Hague, it has successfully prosecuted over 40 high-ranking politicians, warlords and heads of state for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Those imprisoned include Thomas Lubanga, a warlord who recruited child soldiers and forced them to fight in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Bosco Ntaganda, convicted of rape, murder and sexual slavery in the same conflict.

The international court also issues warrants for the arrests of leaders who have fled the court’s justice, such as Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, who stands charged with genocide for the rape, killing and torture of civilians in Darfur. Fugitive suspects are prosecuted by the international court if and when they are extradited to The Hague.

Occasionally, special war tribunals are established outside the international court to prosecute specific cases in specific countries. Recently, a special international tribunal convicted a Hezbollah member for the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Together, the international court and these complementary special tribunals enforce international human rights law. The international court is a court of last resort. It acts only when national governments cannot or will not investigate and prosecute war crimes. Its jurisdiction is intentionally narrow. It means countries with a strong rule of law need not fear international investigation.

US fearful of international justice

In the early 1990s, the US was deeply involved in United Nations negotiations in the Rome Statute, the treaty that created the international court. But in 1998 President Bill Clinton decided not to ask Congress to ratify the Rome Statute, claiming there was no protection against “politicised prosecutions.”

Despite not being one of the court’s 123 member countries, the US has often facilitated the international court’s work. Successive US administrations have imposed a series of sanctions against people under the international court investigation, including members of the Assad regime suspected of committing war crimes in Syria.

The US has also championed the international court’s ongoing examination of crimes committed by the Taliban in Afghanistan and its investigation of Myanmar for possible genocide against the Rohingya Muslims. The US also got involved in the hunt for the infamous Ugandan guerrilla leader Joseph Kony, who was indicted by the court in 2005 for using children as sex slaves and insurgents.

But some of the international court’s newest cases hit close to home.

One is a pending investigation of American military actions in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2004. Dozens of people claim to have been tortured during interrogation by the Central Intelligence Agency in “black sites” created by the Bush administration. Two current Guantanamo detainees, Sharqawi Al Hajj and Guled Duran, who are represented by legal counsel, have provided detailed testimonies to the international court.

Another is the international court’s investigation into possible crimes by Israel related to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel, like its ally the US, is not a member of the international court.

In May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the international court to end its “illegitimate” probes into the US and Israel or else face “consequences”.

International Criminal Court at The Hague, Netherlands. Photo Credit: International Criminal Court.

Limited jurisdiction

The international court persisted, saying the US could fend off the court by investigating the alleged war crimes itself.

“The ICC [international court] is not intent on ‘hauling’ Americans up to trial before it,” wrote international court president Eboe-Osujiin in a June 18 New York Times op-ed responding to Trump’s Executive Order.

It is simply committed to seeing credible claims against the US security personnel in Afghanistan investigated, Eboe-Osuji said.

But the US, like Israel, has refused to acknowledge that war crimes may have been committed. Such standoffs trigger international court’s involvement as the court of last resort.

Historically, the International Criminal Court has almost exclusively prosecuted individuals from weaker nations, primarily in Africa. Some critics have dubbed it the “African criminal court”. Yet most African countries, like other international court members, remain supportive of the court’s work.

The international court is also a slow, cumbersome and expensive form of justice. It has spent over $1.2 billion over the past 12 years to successfully punish only three individuals of the dozens it has prosecuted.

But the court’s importance goes beyond its verdicts. Without its watchful eye and long arm, war criminals would roam free.

In undermining its work, the Trump administration claims to protect American security. But if the US will not cooperate with the international court in international criminal investigations of its own citizens, other countries are less likely to help when the US wants terrorists and war criminals brought to justice.

Susan M Akram is a Clinical Professor at the School of Law at the Boston University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.