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President Trump Authorizes Sanctions Against International Criminal Court Officials


The Trump administration is targeting another global institution. This time, it's the International Criminal Court. The court has been looking into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, including actions taken by American personnel. Today, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, President Trump authorized sanctions against court officials involved in that investigation.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: It was a show of force in the State Department's briefing room today. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Attorney General William Barr and national security adviser Robert O'Brien joined Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in blasting the International Criminal Court. Pompeo accuses the court of an ideological crusade against Americans who served in Afghanistan.


MIKE POMPEO: We cannot and we will not stand by as our people are threatened by a kangaroo court. And indeed, I have a message to many close allies around the world - your people could be next, especially those from NATO countries who fought terrorism in Afghanistan right alongside of us.

KELEMEN: None of the men took questions. Barr said he has credible information about financial corruption and malfeasance in the prosecutor's office.


WILLIAM BARR: Worse yet, we are concerned that foreign powers, like Russia, are also manipulating the ICC in pursuit of their own agenda.

KELEMEN: Barr did not back up his allegations. American University law professor Diane Orentlicher, who served in the Obama administration, says the action the Trump administration is taking against the court is, in her words, over the top.

DIANE ORENTLICHER: For us to roll out bullying tactics against a court that has no job other than to provide a backstop for impunity is, frankly, deeply, deeply troubling.

KELEMEN: She points out that this is a court of last resort for victims of atrocities, and Afghanistan is a party to it. ICC judges ruled in March that an investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan can proceed. Secretary Pompeo says the court is also threatening an investigation into alleged Israeli war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Indiana University's David Bosco believes today's action is as much about Israel as it was about Afghanistan.

DAVID BOSCO: Because while the ICC has already decided to launch an investigation in Afghanistan, it has not yet made that decision definitively on Palestine.

KELEMEN: And the U.S. wants to deter that, he says, pointing out that the executive order signed by President Trump threatens sanctions on ICC officials involved in investigating either the U.S. or its allies.

BOSCO: The administration here is clearly priming the pump to be ready to impose measures on the court if it pursues the Palestine investigation further.

KELEMEN: To some, the court has been a disappointment. Duke University professor Madeline Morris says the ICC was set up to deter and curb war crimes and, on that front, it's been ineffective.

MADELINE MORRIS: It just probably can't do better. That is, given geopolitics and what they are - very different than what they were 20 years ago when the court was initiated - it's probably not surprising that we don't see great success.

KELEMEN: But it did have one break. Just this week, a militia leader in the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, was transferred to The Hague. The lead prosecutor called it a pivotal development for victims who have waited so long for justice.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF COCTEAU TWINS' "LAZY CALM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.