Biden administration lifts Trump sanctions on ICC officials

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  April 2, 2021

Secretary of State Antony Blinken stresses US remains opposed to ICC investigations into actions of Israel and the US, neither of which are signatories to the court.

The US revoked sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on prosecutors and officials associated with the International Criminal Court (ICC), Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced. 

Blinken, in a statement on Friday, said that while the sanctions have been lifted, the administration remains concerned over the court’s investigations regarding citizens of the United States and Israel, neither of which are signatories to the ICC.  

“We maintain our longstanding objection to the Court’s efforts to assert jurisdiction over personnel of non-States Parties such as the United States and Israel,” Blinken said. 

“We believe, however, that our concerns about these cases would be better addressed through engagement with all stakeholders in the ICC process rather than through the imposition of sanctions,” he continued.

The sanctions had been levied against ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and Phakiso Mochochoko, another top ICC official. The Biden administration also terminated a separate 2019 policy on visa restrictions on certain ICC personnel.

“These decisions reflect our assessment that the measures adopted were inappropriate and ineffective,” Blinken said.

ICC spokesperson Fadi El Abdallah told Middle East Eye that the court welcomed the decision to revoke the Trump-era sanctions, without providing further details. 

The Center for Constitutional Rights also welcomed the move, saying it was “overdue” and adding that Trump’s sanctions “set a dangerous precedent for attacks on victims, lawyers, human rights advocates, and courts”.

“Both the United States and Israel had the opportunity to investigate and hold their own citizens accountable for international crimes  and failed to do so,” the group said in a statement on Friday. “Victims have the right to turn to the ICC as a court of last resort to end impunity.”

On Thursday, a State Department spokesperson told MEE that the administration was “thoroughly reviewing sanctions” levied against the court to determine its “next steps”. 

The move comes one month after ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced a decision to open a formal investigation into war crimes in the Palestinian Territories. 

The Biden administration is firm in its opposition to the investigation, saying it would oppose actions that treat Israel unfairly. It maintains that the Palestinians do not qualify as a sovereign state and are therefore not qualified to obtain membership to the ICC. 

The administration is also concerned over the court’s actions relating to the US’s role in Afghanistan. 

Trump’s ICC sanctions

Trump first authorised sanctions on ICC officials through an executive order in June 2020 after the court decided to open an investigation into suspected war crimes in Afghanistan, including by the US.

Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had discussed the executive order with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prior to its announcement, according to an Axios report.

The White House issued a press statement following the executive order saying that the ICC was pursuing “politically-motivated investigations” against the US and its ally Israel.

Then, last September, Pompeo announced the US imposed travel restrictions and financial sanctions on the ICC’s Bensouda and a senior aide for engaging in “illegitimate attempts to subject Americans to its jurisdiction”.

The move to lift the Trump-era sanctions also comes after months of pressure on the Biden administration from human rights organisations.

In February, more than 80 groups signed a letter that called on Biden to repeal the Trump-era designations. 

“These actions were an unprecedented attack on the court’s mandate to deliver justice and the rule of law globally, an abuse of the US government’s financial powers, and a betrayal of the US legacy in establishing institutions of international justice,” the letter read.

Still, last December, Netanyahu asked Biden to keep the sanctions in place, according to a report published in Axios