John Bolton's Threats to the International Criminal Court, Put Simply

By Campaign Agent Sam Jacobsen

John Bolton, a senior aide to President Trump in the White House, is not pleased that the International Criminal Court (ICC) is poking its nose into US affairs. Bolton has made it clear that the United States government will not cooperate with any potential ICC investigation into alleged war crimes committed by the US during the war in Afghanistan. Not only that, he has labelled the international body ‘illegitimate’, and threatened retaliation against its judges and prosecutors if they dare to challenge American sovereignty. 

Ordinarily, criminal prosecution is not something the accused can opt out of. If you are served with a court summons for burglary or drink-driving, you cannot simply question the legitimacy of your local Crown Court, and swear revenge against the people who work there. That would just land you in even more trouble. The difference here is that international law is a relatively new phenomenon, and is far more complicated than domestic law. Although the ICC has successfully prosecuted a number of cases since its jurisdiction began in 2002, its legitimacy has never been universally accepted. Several countries, including the United States, have refused to recognise its authority, arguing that each state should have ultimate authority over its own affairs. 

Perhaps this stance is only logical. The United States is the most powerful country on earth. If it wants to compel another country to do something, it can generally use its own economic or military power. It has little to gain from ceding power to an international institution, and potentially a lot to lose. But the danger is that the ICC becomes somewhat of a sham court that only prosecutes crimes in less powerful countries with less autonomy to resist. Theoretically, it can intervene in any country, regardless of whether that country has signed up to its jurisdiction. ICC prosecutors may well feel that shying away from action in this case would make a mockery of its mission to enforce universal justice. 

Not that all American officials agree with John Bolton. The Obama administration, while falling short of joining the ICC, co-operated with its prosecutors on a number of cases based in other countries.  Bolton is a well-known Washington ‘hawk’, who has supported every US war of recent times, and has advocated for many more. It is no surprise that he does not wish to expose the American military to scrutiny. In a speech, he evoked the rhetoric of brave American patriots, fighting overseas in the wake of 9/11, being persecuted by a callous, illegitimate international court.  Bolton’s critics see this as a cynical attempt to intimidate the international community, so the US can escape justice for its appalling actions.

Some even suspect that defending the US record in Afghanistan is not Bolton’s primary reason for attacking the ICC. In his speech, Bolton declared that the US would ‘not sit quietly’ if the court came after its citizens, or its allies, specifically mentioning Israel. Israel - a crucial US ally in the Middle East - has been accused of various international crimes, pertaining to the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The US Government has certainly been critical of Palestinian efforts to refer Israel to the ICC, even closing down a Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington DC for this very reason. 

There is nothing that can be done to compel the US to comply with any potential ICC investigation, and while Trump is president it is highly unlikely it would choose to do so. But this is a country that has repeatedly intervened in the affairs of others in the name of defending freedom and democracy. When a country like that refuses to cooperate with the international community, its moral legitimacy will certainly be questioned. That could have long-lasting consequences for the United States that no threat from John Bolton can negate.  

Sources and further reading 

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