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Permanent premises of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands. © 2018 Marina Riera/Human Rights Watch

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on March 17 threatened two staff members of the International Criminal Court (ICC). He called them out by name, claimed they were putting Americans at risk, and intimated that the US could act against them, as well as other ICC personnel and their families.

On March 5, ICC judges authorized the court’s prosecutor to open an investigation into grave crimes committed in connection with the conflict in Afghanistan. That means the Taliban’s indiscriminate and targeted attacks on civilians and the Afghan government’s torture and forced disappearances will come under scrutiny. So too will serious abuses by CIA and US military personnel.

Over the past 18 months, the prospect of an ICC investigation has led the US government to threaten or take action in an effort to scare the court away from an investigation.   

Last year, the US revoked the ICC prosecutor’s entry visa – an extraordinary measure usually reserved for the worst human rights violators, not those seeking to bring them to justice. Pompeo, at the time he announced the visa policy, said the US could use economic sanctions if the ICC moved forward with investigations of US nationals. Immediately after the March 5 decision, he disparaged the court. The ensuing comments against the ICC staffers were even more pointed.

These threats merely distract from the US’s failure under successive administrations to hold perpetrators of torture and other mistreatment in CIA “black sites” to account. The ICC only steps in where national authorities do not genuinely investigate grave crimes. The CIA’s abusive rendition, detention, and interrogation program has been the subject of extensive documentation, including by a Senate intelligence committee report. Yet there has been no meaningful action before US courts. US citizens who commit crimes abroad are already subject to the jurisdiction of foreign courts – which here include ICC member countries Afghanistan, Poland, Romania, and Lithuania – and the ICC draws from that authority.

Pompeo’s threats are serious. ICC member states, which together have vowed to stand united and undeterred, should speak out in support of the court and its staff, and make clear they will fiercely protect its independence. Victims of atrocities around the globe are counting on this court when all other doors to justice are closed.  

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