President Joe Biden on Friday lifted sanctions that Donald Trump had imposed on two top officials of the International Criminal Court, undoing one of the past administration's more aggressive moves targeting international institutions and officials.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement stressed that the United States still strongly disagreed with some actions by the court, which is a standing body based at The Hague in the Netherlands charged with handling genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The United States is not one of the about 120 member countries of the court.
“We believe, however, that our concerns about these cases would be better addressed” through diplomacy “rather than through the imposition of sanctions," Blinken wrote.
The removal of the sanctions was the latest signal that the Biden administration is intent on returning to the multilateral fold. The Trump administration had unapologetically removed the United States from numerous international institutions and agreements and harshly criticized others, including the ICC, deeming them flawed and working against American interests.
Since Biden took office, his administration has rejoined the World Health Organization, re-engaged with the U.N. Human Rights Council, returned to the Paris climate accord and on Friday started talks aimed at returning to the Iran nuclear deal. Trump had pulled out of all five.
The court was created to hold accountable perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity in cases where adequate judicial systems were not available. The U.S. has not joined the ICC, which began operations in 2002 after enough countries ratified the treaty that created it, because of concerns the court might be used for politically motivated prosecutions of American troops and officials.
Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi, president of the court's management body of member states, said the U.S. removal of sanctions was helpful in promoting “a rules-based international order.” She noted the court and its managing states are currently studying the tribunal's procedures to improve its work providing accountability in the worst crimes of international concern.
Rights groups on Friday applauded Biden for throwing out Trump's sanctions — Amnesty International called those an “act of vandalism” against international justice — but called for Biden to go further, by supporting the court's work and making the United States a member country.
The U.S. sanctions had targeted ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and the court’s head of jurisdiction, Phakiso Mochochoko, for pressing ahead with investigations into the United States and its allies, notably Israel, for alleged war crimes. Two sets of sanctions were imposed, the first being a travel ban on Bensouda in March 2019, and then 18 months later a freeze on any assets she and Mochochoko may have in the United States or U.S. jurisdictions. The second round also made giving the pair “material support” a potentially sanctionable offense.
Both sets of sanctions had been roundly denounced by the ICC itself as well as a number of court members and human rights groups. When former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo imposed the financial penalties in September 2020, he attacked the court as “a thoroughly broken and corrupt institution” and said “we will not tolerate its illegitimate attempts to subject Americans to its jurisdiction.”
U.S. presidents since Bill Clinton have expressed deep reservations about the court, although some, including President Barack Obama, agreed to limited cooperation with it.
The Trump administration, however, was openly hostile to the tribunal and lashed out at Bensouda and others for pursuing prosecutions of Americans for actions in Afghanistan and Israelis for actions against the Palestinians. Israel is not a member of the ICC and, along with the U.S., rejects Palestinian membership because it is not a state.
Blinken said the United States sees accountability for atrocities as a national security interest, and pointed to U.S. support for other, often temporary, tribunals globally.
This story has been corrected to show that the statement was from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, not President Joe Biden.