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  • National Security Adviser John Bolton on Monday made the unprecedented move of threatening the International Criminal Court if it follows through with investigations of alleged war crimes committed by US troops and intelligence officials in Afghanistan. 
  • Bolton described the ICC as a threat to US sovereignty and national security.
  • Human-rights groups blasted Bolton over his threats and accused him of signalling to the world that the US is "hostile to human rights and the rule of law".


US National Security Adviser John Bolton on Monday made the unprecedented move of threatening the International Criminal Court (ICC) with retaliation, including sanctions, if it follows through with investigations of alleged war crimes committed by US troops and intelligence officials in Afghanistan. 

"The United States will use any means necessary to protect our citizens and those of our allies from unjust prosecution by the illegitimate court," Bolton said in a speech to the Federalist Society in Washington, DC. 

Bolton described the ICC as antithetical to American values and a threat to US sovereignty and national security. 

"We will not cooperate with the ICC. We will provide no assistance to the ICC. We will not join the ICC. We will let the ICC die on its own," Bolton said. "After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us."

Among other potential repercussions, Bolton threatened to pursue sanctions against ICC officials if the court moves forward with investigations into US citizens. "We will ban its financial system and we will prosecute them in the US criminal system," Bolton said. "We will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans."

South Africa officially still intends to withdraw from the ICC, although there are doubts that course will be maintained.

Bolton's verbal assault against the ICC came as the Trump administration announced the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's (PLO) mission in Washington. The State Department said in a statement this is because the PLO has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel. 

During his speech, Bolton said this move was linked to concerns in Washington over Palestinian attempts to see Israel punished for alleged crimes in the ICC. "We will not allow the ICC or any other organisation to constrain Israel’s right to self-defence," Bolton said. 

The US opposed the ICC for years, with Bolton leading the charge

The ICC was founded in 2002 to prosecute individuals for international crimes such as genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression.

The US is not a signatory to the convention that established the ICC. Former President Bill Clinton signed the convention in 2000, but it was never presented to Congress for ratification and former President George W. Bush unsigned the statute in 2002.

Bolton, who worked in the Bush administration at the time, was among the most vocal opponents to the US supporting the court's establishment. The Bush administration was accused by human-rights advocates of being on the wrong side of history' for its opposition to the ICC. 

"'Unsigning' the treaty will not stop the court. It will only throw the United States into opposition against the most important new institution for enforcing human rights in fifty years," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in May 2002.

South Africa was a founding member of the ICC, and initially a strong supporter of the court. After the ICC rebuked SA for not arresting Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir in 2015, SA tried to withdraw from the court, only to be forced to retract that decision on procedural grounds.

Recently the government, and the ANC, have suggested the decision to withdraw from the ICC, under the Zuma administration, may be due for revision.

'The United States' attack on the International Criminal Court is an attack on millions of victims and survivors'

Human-rights groups like Amnesty International blasted the US national security adviser's remarks on Monday. 

Adotei Akwei, deputy director of advocacy and government relations at Amnesty International USA, in a statement described Bolton's remarks on the ICC as "an attack on millions of victims and survivors who have experienced the most serious crimes under international law and undermines decades of groundbreaking work by the international community to advance justice".

Akwei said Bolton's rhetoric and threats toward the ICC "sends a dangerous signal that the United States is hostile to human rights and the rule of law".

Bolton's threats against the ICC fall in line with the Trump administration's consistent criticism of international institutions such as the UN and NATO, and related actions such as withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord.

This unilateral, unorthodox approach to foreign policy has led to historic tensions with key US allies, especially France, Germany, and the UK.

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