Biden Administration Lifts Trump Sanctions on ICC Officials

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The International Criminal Court in The Hague, last month.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague, last month.Credit: PIROSCHKA VAN DE WOUW/ REUTERS

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration announced Friday that it was lifting sanctions imposed by former U.S. President Donald Trump on International Criminal Court officials.

The move comes nearly one month after ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced the decision to open a formal investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian Territories, which will examine both sides in the conflict.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority have until April 9 to seek a deferral of the probe by informing the court if they are conducting their own investigations into the alleged crimes.

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"We continue to disagree strongly with the ICC's actions relating to the Afghanistan and Palestinian situations," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Friday. "We maintain our longstanding objection to the court's efforts to assert jurisdiction over personnel of non-States Parties such as the United States and Israel. We believe, however, that our concerns about these cases would be better addressed through engagement with all stakeholders in the ICC process rather than through the imposition of sanctions."

Blinken spoke with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi on Friday, prior to the ICC announcement. A readout of the call did not specifically mention the ICC, though it did note they discussed "regional security challenges, humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, and the normalization of relations with Arab and Muslim majority countries." Blinken also emphasized the Biden administration's belief that "Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy" while reiterating the strong U.S. commitment to Israel and its security.

The move lifts the sanctions imposed on Bensouda and removes Phakiso Mochochoko, head of the ICC's Jurisdiction, Complementarity and Cooperation Division, from the Specially Designated Nationals list. Blinken said the State Department had also terminated a separate 2019 policy on visa restrictions on certain ICC personnel and added: "These decisions reflect our assessment that the measures adopted were inappropriate and ineffective."

Blinken said Washington was encouraged that a broad range of reforms were being considered to help the ICC "prioritize its resources and to achieve its core mission of serving as a court of last resort in punishing and deterring atrocity crimes."

Washington quickly announced its firm opposition to and disappointment in Bensouda's decision to open an investigation into alleged war crimes after it was announced, claiming that the ICC has no jurisdiction over the matter since Israel is not a party to the ICC and that the Palestinians do not qualify as a sovereign state. Israel and the Palestinian Authority have until April 9 to seek a deferral of the probe by informing the court if they are conducting their own investigations into the alleged crimes.

Trump first imposed the sanctions in June of 2020 in retaliation for the court's intention to probe the conduct of U.S. forces in Afghanistan – a move that former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel was not mentioned in Trump’s original executive order imposing the sanctions, but it was mentioned in a White House press statement that explained the decision. 

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential lobbying group supporting Israel in the United States, has since urged Biden to maintain the sanctions on ICC officials pursuing what it called "illegitimate, politically motivated investigations into the U.S. and Israel."

The pro-Israel, left-wing J Street group welcomed the Biden adminsitration's decision on Friday, saying the administration was "sending an important message that whatever disagreements they may have with the ICC or other international bodies, they will not act to improperly interfere with their proceedings or to intimidate and bully their personnel." They also criticized "right-wing advocates" for "shamefully" urging Biden to maintain sanctions, offering implicit criticism of AIPAC's tactics. "We appreciate that the administration rejected such a harmful approach," J Street added.

AIPAC expressed its disappointment with the Biden administration's decision, urging it to "continue and increase the use of all of its diplomatic tools to stand with Israel against the ICC’s discriminatory campaign." It added that "bipartisan majorities in Congress oppose the ICC’s actions against Israel, and the U.S. must continue to stand with our ally."

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