The US has imposed sanctions on the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court just weeks after she allowed a complaint of Israeli “war crimes” to proceed.
Announcing sanctions against the ICC’s Fatou Bensouda, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the court “continues to target Americans”, in apparent reference to investigations into US Army actions in Afghanistan.
He also announced sanctions against Phakiso Mochochoko, an ICC director, calling the pair “specially designated nationals” – a phrase usually used for terrorists.
The US vehemently opposes the court’s scrutiny of alleged Israeli crimes against Palestinians, even though its investigation is also looking at alleged abuses carried out by Palestinian security forces. No US allies have supported its stance.
In response, the ICC described the US sanctions against two senior court officials as “coercive acts” that were “unprecedented”. It added: “They constitute serious attacks against the court…and the rule of law more generally.”
The ICC is an international tribunal that sits in The Hague and considers charges against those accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and aggression, with 123 member states.
Israel is not a member, but ‘the State of Palestine’ joined in 2015, quickly filing a complaint alleging crimes committed in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. After a five-year investigation, Bensouda has now said that there is a reasonable basis to believe that crimes were committed by both sides.
Lawyers argue that the ‘State of Palestine’ cannot empower the ICC to conduct proceedings, and that the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip are not universally recognised as the territory of any Palestinian state.
The points raised are are complex legal issues, on which the court has never expressed an opinion, so Bensouda has asked that the ICC confirm her legal position before she proceeds.
The alleged Israeli war crimes that she has been investigating include the transfer of civilian populations to occupied territory after 2014, meaning the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.
Other accusations include Israel’s “deliberate or disproportional attacks on civilians and on civilian and medical targets during Operation Protective Edge” in 2014, and its “use of disproportionate force” to disperse demonstrations along the Gaza border fence, after protests began in 2018.