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US must stop threatening ICC over possible war crime probes, UN experts say

US officials have threatened punitive action against anyone seeking to hold US or Israeli citizens accountable at ICC
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued visa restrictions on anyone aiding ICC investigations (Reuters/File photo)

Two United Nations experts have urged the United States to stop making threats against the International Criminal Court, saying recent statements by top Trump administration officials may hinder the work of the international body.

In a statement shared by the UN’s human rights body (OHCHR), the experts expressed concern on Friday about specific comments made by the US president's national security adviser, John Bolton, and by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

They pointed to a September statement from Bolton, who said at the time "that ICC judges, prosecutors and staff would face measures if they went ahead with investigating alleged war crimes by the US, Israel or other US allies".

Bolton threatened to institute a "ban on ICC judges and prosecutors entering the United States", and he said that the US would consider "freezing their funds in the US financial system; and ultimately, their prosecution in the US".

"These threats constitute improper interference with the independence of the ICC and could hinder the ability of ICC judges, prosecutors, and staff to carry out their professional duties," the UN experts said in their statement.

Last week, Pompeo said the US was imposing visa restrictions on individuals aiding the ICC initiative or further investigations into American and Israeli citizens.

"I'm announcing a policy of US visa restrictions on those individuals directly responsible for any ICC investigation of US personnel," Pompeo said.

"This includes persons who take or have taken action to request or further such an investigation. These visa restrictions may also be used to deter ICC efforts to pursue allied personnel, including Israelis, without allies' consent," he added.

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The UN experts said they were particularly concerned "in light of recent reports of senior ICC staff resigning from their positions as a consequence of these threats".

In the past several years, Palestinian leaders and human rights groups have said they intend to go to the ICC in order to hold Israel accountable for human rights abuses and possible war crimes.

UN investigators have suggested that Israel may have committed war crimes in its heavy-handed response to the Great March of Return protests in Gaza.

Israeli forces have killed hundreds of Palestinians since the protests began on 30 March last year.

In late February, a UN panel report on the killings of Palestinians was handed over to the ICC for investigation.

"The Israeli security forces killed and maimed Palestinian demonstrators who did not pose an imminent threat of death or serious injury to others when they were shot, nor were they directly participating in hostilities," the panel report said.

Afghanistan and Palestine

Middle East Eye also reported in October that the ICC was on the verge of opening a war crimes probe into American soldiers and CIA officers operating in Afghanistan.

The US has never joined the ICC, but both Afghanistan and Palestine are members.

In a statement in September, shortly after Bolton's comments, Human Rights Watch said his threats could be linked to both cases.

"Afghanistan is an ICC member, which means the court has jurisdiction over alleged war crimes committed there,"  Elizabeth Evenson, the associate director of HRW's international justice programme, said in a statement.

"Palestine is also an ICC member. Bolton used the speech to announce a decision to close down the PLO representative office in Washington over its support for an ICC probe into serious crimes committed in Palestine."

She added that despite his threats, "ICC officials and member countries are unlikely to be cowed by Bolton's disdain for the court".

"But his speech was a stark affront to victims of atrocity crimes seeking justice," she said.