Bolton’s Attack on the International Criminal Court May Backfire

The US national security advisor’s recent threats look damaging but they may in fact strengthen support for the ICC from other states.

Expert comment Published 20 September 2018 Updated 25 August 2021 2 minute READ

Dr Max du Plessis

Former Associate Fellow, International Law Programme

John Bolton speaks to the Federalist Society on 10 September. Photo: Getty Images.

John Bolton speaks to the Federalist Society on 10 September. Photo: Getty Images.

On 10 September, US National Security Advisor John Bolton used his first major speech since joining the White House to attack the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) potential investigation of American personnel in Afghanistan. The ‘American patriots’, as Bolton describes them, are being investigated for potential torture and ill-treatment of detainees, mostly in 2003 and 2004, during the United States-led invasion of the country.

Bolton has a long history of opposition to the ICC. Although the US signed the ICC Statute under president Bill Clinton, it was ‘unsigned’ by Bolton, then an under-secretary of state in the George W Bush administration.

And when the court first opened its doors in 2002, Bolton helped secure, in what he described on 10 September as one of his ‘proudest achievements’, around 100 bilateral agreements with other countries to prevent them from delivering US personnel to the ICC. Those agreements were often extracted under pressure, with the US threatening to cut off military and other aid to countries that refused to sign.

In recent years under the Obama administration, relations between the US and the ICC improved, and the US offered help and support to the court. Bolton’s attack is aimed at reversing those gains – with measures aimed directly at the court and its staff.

These include: (i) negotiating ‘even more binding, bilateral agreements to prohibit nations from surrendering US persons to the ICC’; (ii) banning ICC judges and prosecutors from entering the US, sanctioning their funds in the US financial system and prosecuting them in the US criminal courts (and doing the ‘same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans’); and (iii) ‘taking note if any countries cooperate with ICC investigations of the United States and its allies, and remember[ing] that cooperation when setting US foreign assistance, military assistance and intelligence sharing levels’.

These are serious threats – they would potentially undermine the work of a court that is designed to prosecute the world’s worst crimes. The ICC prosecutor and its judges would be barred entry from the US to attend to vital work of the court.

Some of that work, ironically, is at the behest of the US. For instance, two of the UN Security Council’s referrals to the ICC, one in relation to atrocities committed in Sudan, the other in respect of the crimes committed by Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, were referred with US support.

Also, the meetings of the ICC Assembly of States Parties are held each year at UN headquarters in New York. Those meetings may have to be held elsewhere if the ICC judges and staff are under threat of arrest.

In the case of the potential torture linked to operations in Afghanistan, the ICC has not been acting on its own initiative in investigating. For example, the Center for Constitutional Rights submitted ‘victim’s representations’ to the ICC on behalf of two of their clients, Sharqawi Al Hajj and Guled Hassan Duran, emphasizing the importance of an ICC investigation of US officials for serious crimes arising out of post-9/11 detention and interrogations.

According to the center, both Al Hajj and Duran were detained by the CIA in black sites or ‘proxy-detention’ by other countries, tormented and tortured.

Although the US is not a party to the ICC Statute, Afghanistan is, and therefore the court has jurisdiction over US nationals who allegedly committed atrocities in Afghanistan. And it should be noted that the investigation includes pursuing any atrocities committed by the Taliban and Afghan security forces during the same period.

So the basis for attacking the work of the ICC based on this is shaky, and Bolton’s threats raise a number of important international law questions going forward.

For one, they may be unlawful retaliatory steps, given that the US has obligations to accord at least some privileges and immunities to judges and other personnel of the ICC under the 1947 UN Headquarters Agreement between the UN and US. Counter-measures might be considered by member states of the ICC, either alone, or collectively.

In this regard, Bolton’s comments about the EU will not go unnoticed: he suggests Europe is a region where ‘the global governance dogma is strong’. The US may yet come to learn just how strong that ‘dogma’ is.

With US abstention from the ICC, the opening remains for Europe and other regions to position themselves at the heart of the international criminal justice regime, thereby – as in response to the US attitude towards climate change – building a network of partnerships with other like-minded nations to compensate for US disengagement.

Further, while the ICC has many critics, and could be improved as an institution, Bolton’s speech may have the effect of galvanizing support for the world’s first permanent international criminal court. That could be a good thing for the court, which is sorely in need of support for its work.

Whatever concerns states may have about the ICC, they may be outweighed by a mutual desire to stand up to perceived bullying by the Trump administration, in favour of the international rule of law.