WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to the State Department briefing room ready to punish.
September 2nd, he took the lectern and called the International Criminal Court – which investigates war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide – “a completely broken and corrupt institution”. Then he announced sanctions against the chief prosecutor of the court, Fatou Bensouda, and a colleague, trying to stop their investigation into potential war crimes committed by US forces in Afghanistan.
His measure infuriated European allies, human rights activists and even some retired American generals. Many were angry that the Trump administration aimed economic sanctions aimed at warlords, dictators and authoritarian governments at a human rights lawyer.
“It’s really unprecedented,” Ms. Bensouda said in an interview. “These are the types of sanctions that we normally reserve for ourselves to be used as a mechanism to target drug traffickers, notorious terrorists and so on. But not professional lawyers, prosecutors, investigators, judges or others who work tirelessly to prevent atrocious crimes.
The Trump administration has said that since the United States is not a member of the Hague-based international court, Ms. Bensouda does not have the authority to review U.S. activities abroad. Mr. Pompeo denounced his investigations as “illegitimate attempts to bring Americans under his jurisdiction.” The court appeal chamber made a decision dispute that.
Many diplomats and sanctions policy experts have also said that Mr. Trump used such punishment against the C.I.C. not only weakened the country’s moral standing, but also revealed a disturbing trend: The Trump administration has transformed economic sanctions, one of the government’s most effective foreign policy tools, in a way that alienates its close allies.
“It is excruciating,” said Daniel Fried, State Department coordinator for sanctions policy in the Obama administration. “It creates the reality, and not just the impression, of the United States as a one-sided tyrant with disregard for international law and standards.”
Immediately after Mr. Pompeo’s announcement, Bensouda said she learned that her bank account at the United Nations Federal Credit Union had been frozen. Her relatives also found their belongings temporarily blocked, she added, even though they were not the target of the action.
The type of sanction imposed on Ms. Bensouda forces financial institutions to freeze a person’s assets in the United States and prohibits American companies or individuals in the United States from doing business with that person.
Ms Bensouda has faced sanctions over her investigation into potential war crimes committed by US troops and intelligence officials in Afghanistan – although the case largely centers on whether Afghan forces and the Taliban have committed crimes. It has also sparked anger for wanting to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Mr Pompeo called his Afghan investigation an attack on US sovereignty. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described her examination of Israeli actions as “pure anti-Semitism,” although she said she intended to examine the wrongdoing of Palestinians as well. Israel, like the United States, is not a member of the I.C.C.
Ms Bensouda said such criticism was “certainly politically motivated”. She says this his work was authorized under the founding treaty of the court, and that it did not trample on the sovereignty of the United States or Israel. Afghanistan is a member of the Court. In 2015, the Palestinian Authority accepted the jurisdiction of the court. (The prosecutor is charged with investigating and prosecuting suspected war crimes and atrocity crimes in a member country when no other national authority credibly wishes or can do so, the treaty states.)
“We are a court of law, we don’t play politics,” she said. “We have no other program than to honorably fulfill our mandate.”
US sanctions against the C.I.C. garnered early condemnation at home and abroad. Critics demanded Mr Pompeo explain his unfounded accusation of corruption. The highest diplomat in the European Union called action “Unacceptable and unprecedented.” The German Foreign Minister said the sanctions were a “big mistake”.
Washington has had strained relations with the court and has attempted to undermine and block it since it opened in 2002. The Obama administration started to cooperate quietly in some cases. Yet despite the court’s revocation in the past, the United States had never gone this far.
Critics of the sanctions say the action also followed a pattern the Trump administration adopted when publishing those sanctions: imposing them unilaterally and often despite fierce allied objection.
“There is a delicate balance between using sanctions in a way that protects national interests while ensuring buy-in from key partners,” said Eric Lorber, former senior adviser to the Trump administration’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. “Finding this balance has been a challenge for this administration.”
US sanctions have grown in popularity since 2001. Presidents of both political parties have found them useful in achieving foreign policy objectives without committing US troops to combat.
In October, Mr. Trump imposed more than 3,700 sanctions on foreign governments, central banks, authoritarian governments and malicious actors, according to experts at the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. By comparison, President Barack Obama authorized just over 2,000 in his first term. President George W. Bush approved over 1,800 from 2001 to 2004, the law firm found.
But Mr. Trump’s sanctions strategy has met with little success, critics said. Economic sanctions against Iran have not brought the country any closer to negotiating an end to its nuclear program. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela remain firmly in power, despite attempts by the administration to use sanctions to overthrow them.
When asked if the sanctions would prevent her from focusing more on US and Israeli actions, Ms Bensouda replied, “Frankly, no. This will not deter us. It won’t stop us. We will continue to do our job. “
Julia friedlander, a Treasury Department sanctions official who left in June, said the unilateral actions taken by the Trump administration have shocked allies, who believe, “You don’t really care what we think about it, n ‘is this not? You don’t care what impact this will have on our economy. She added: “They are completely, politically anathema to what our allies would do. “
The idea of penalizing Ms Bensouda began with John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser who has criticized the tribunal since its inception. In 2018, he threatened sanctions against her, saying Ms. Bensouda’s investigation into possible US and Israeli war crimes was an “unfair prosecution” and that he wanted to “leave the C.I.r. die all alone.
Although Mr. Bolton left the Trump administration in 2019, the idea of punishing the court stuck. That same year, Ms. Bensouda was banned from traveling in the United States, except when dealing with the United Nations.
In June, Mr. Trump signed an executive order authorizing sanctions against persons employed by the International Criminal Court. In September, Ms. Bensouda and her colleague Phakiso Mochochoko were appointed.
Beyond the sanctions imposed in court, the use of these sanctions by the Trump administration has provoked unintended backlashes, no more evident than in its strategy towards Iran.
The renewal of US sanctions against Tehran has brought Iran and China closer together. In July, The New York Times reported that countries negotiate an economic and military partnership that would defy US sanctions and expand China’s telecommunications, banking and infrastructure presence in the region. China would receive a steady, low-cost supply of oil for the next 25 years.
The unilateral sanctions against Iran aroused such anger that European allies created a financial mechanism that would allow goods to be traded between Iranian and foreign companies without using the dollar. European company, Instex, is emerging, but in March a German exporter shipped for more than 500,000 euros, or approximately $ 586,000, in medical supplies to Iran using this system, paving the way for future transactions that could defy US sanctions and mean greater pain to the US financial system.
“Right now, the US banking system is supreme because many transactions go through US dollars and go through New York,” said Richard Nephew, Principal Investigator at Columbia University. “We are in the billions of lost economic value to the United States which could be lost if people turn to an alternative system that does not involve us as much.”
Human rights scholars agree that the Trump administration has been successful in targeting a number of human rights violations through economic sanctions.
In 2017, Mr. Trump issued an executive order extending the authority of the Global Magnitsky Act, passed in 2016, which authorizes the freezing of assets and the travel ban for perpetrators of human rights violations. To date, under the Trump administration, the government has sanctioned 214 people or entities from 27 countries for human rights atrocities using the law, targeting places like China, Myanmar, Nicaragua and the United States. Democratic Republic of Congo, Human Rights First, an advocacy group, found.
Yet there are glaring omissions. Although the Trump administration imposed sanctions on 17 people involved in the premeditated assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia has been spared, although US intelligence agencies had concluded that he was probably involved.
Despite the sanctions, Ms. Bensouda’s investigations have not stopped. In March, Ms. Bensouda received approval from the court’s appeal judges to continue her investigation in Afghanistan. She has since accepted a request from government officials there to show, for now, that they can deliver justice and prosecute would-be war criminals on their own. If she’s not happy with their action, she said she could go ahead with her investigation.
As for the Israeli investigation, she said the conditions for investigating war crimes in Palestinian areas were met. She is awaiting a ruling from the judges of the Court on whether the war crimes committed in the Palestinian areas she wishes to investigate fall within her territorial jurisdiction.
Even US military leaders have said that the Trump administration’s decision to wage war on international institutions like the International Criminal Court would harm not only future sanctions campaigns, but also the position of the United States.
“It is very dangerous and it weakens the United States not to respect the international institutions which promote law and order,” said Wesley clark, retired four-star army general and former NATO commander. “It puts us on the same level as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. This is not where we want to be. “
Marlise Simons contributed to the Paris report.