Commentary on John Bolton’s Speech Regarding New American Policy on the International Criminal Court

National Security Advisor, John Bolton, delivered remarks today on “Protecting American Constitutionalism and Sovereignty from International Threats.”  In his remarks, Bolton announced a new American policy vis-a-vis the International Criminal Court (ICC or Court).  According to Bolton, the ICC “has been ineffective, unaccountable, and indeed, outright dangerous.”  While Bolton, and others in the Trump Administration, are certainly allowed to express their opinion and to craft new policies, it is important that such policies be based on accurate (and not alternative) facts.  The purpose of this post is to highlight some of the most egregious factual errors from Bolton’s remarks.  Any government policy based on inaccurate information and “advertised” through reliance on misleading and inaccurate claims is “ineffective, unaccountable… and outright dangerous.”  In addition, this post will criticize some of Bolton’s arguments as misguided and contrary to the United States’ interests.

Bolton argues in his speech that “[t]he ICC and its Prosecutor had been granted potentially enormous, essentially unaccountable powers, and alongside numerous other glaring and significant flaws, the International Criminal Court constituted an assault on the constitutional rights of the American People and the sovereignty of the United States.”  It is incorrect that the ICC and its Prosecutor have “enormous” or “unaccountable powers.”  The ICC’s jurisdiction is limited temporally as well as rationae materiae (the court can only exercise jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes – and in very limited instances, aggression); the court is also constrained by the application of principles of gravity and complementarity.  Moreover, the Assembly of States Parties is an important accountability mechanism over the court – as many readers know, judges can be removed by a two-thirds vote of states parties to the Rome Statute, and a prosecutor can be removed by a majority vote of states parties. Thus, to claim that the ICC somehow wields Harry Potter-like powers which transcend any accountability is simply false.  And, it is unclear why the establishment of the ICC constitutes a constitutional and sovereignty assault against the United States.  The ICC is a treaty-based body; any state, including the United States,  is free to join or not to join this treaty.  If the United States chooses to join the ICC, or any other treaty, potential conflicts with the U.S. Constitution would be resolved through the Supremacy Clause, which establishes the primacy of the Constitution over any inconsistent treaty obligations.  Thus, it is surprising and misleading to claim that the negotiation of a new treaty, like the ICC, is somehow a threat to the United States’ sovereignty or the role of its Constitution.

In addition, Bolton argues that “the Court’s structure is contrary to fundamental American principles, including checks and balances on authority and the separation of powers…..The International Criminal Court, however, melds two of these branches together: the judicial and the executive. In the ICC structure, the executive branch—the Office of the Prosecutor—is an organ of the Court. The Framers of our Constitution considered such a melding of powers unacceptable for our own government, and we should certainly not accept it in the ICC. ”  This is a curious argument: while it may be true that the ICC does not espouse the same separation of powers structure that the United States government does, the United States cannot possibly expect that every treaty-based organization adopt American governance principles.  Multilateral treaties bind multiple nations together and often adopt compromise positions and the “lowest common denominator” of norms; it is not reasonable to expect that treaties would replicate Unites States’ constitutional structures.  And, such replication is not constitutionally mandated.  The United States can become a member of various treaty-based bodies, so long as its obligations under such treaty mechanisms do not directly conflict with the Constitution.  Nothing in the ICC Statute would create such a constitutional conflict.  Thus, Bolton’s argument here is both surprising and unsupported by the Constitution.

Bolton also argues that the ICC “claims ‘automatic jurisdiction,’ meaning that it can prosecute individuals even if their own governments have not recognized, signed, or ratified the treaty.”  This is not true either: the ICC does not have automatic jurisdiction, and Article 12 of its Rome Statute posits that a precondition to the court’s exercise of jurisdiction is that the alleged crimes be committed by a national of a state party, or on the territory of a state party (or if a state accepts the court’s jurisdiction).  Thus, while the ICC may be able to prosecute nationals of a non-party state, this situation is far from automatic, and may only occur if such nationals commit crimes on the territory of a state party.

Bolton claims that the ICC Prosecutor’s request  to investigate Americans for alleged detainee abuse in Afghanistan is “an utterly unfounded, unjustifiable investigation.”  This investigation is not unfounded in and of itself; the investigation will permit the Prosecutor to ascertain enough facts to decide whether to go forward with any possible prosecutions.  Moreover, the investigation is not unjustifiable, as it falls within the Court’s mandate, and as potential prosecutions would satisfy the Court’s temporal and subject-matter jurisdiction.

Bolton proceeds to criticize the ICC because it “claims jurisdiction over crimes that have disputed and ambiguous definitions, exacerbating the Court’s unfettered powers.  The definitions of crimes, especially crimes of aggression, are vague and subject to wide-ranging interpretation by the ICC.”  This claim is inaccurate: the ICC Statute specifically defines the crimes over which the Court has jurisdiction, and the interpretation and application of these definitions is appropriately left in the hands of the Court’s judiciary, in the same manner that the interpretation and application of domestic statutes is bestowed upon domestic judiciaries.  In addition, Bolton then argues that the ICC would somehow claim universal jurisdiction.  “The next obvious step is to claim complete, universal jurisdiction: the ability to prosecute anyone, anywhere for vague crimes identified by The Hague’s bureaucrats.”  There is nothing in the ICC’s Statute to support this conclusion, and while the Rome Statute negotiating record reveals that different states held different views regarding the Court’s reach and structure, it is false to claim that any serious intentions existed to provide the Court with universal jurisdiction over “anyone” or over “vague crimes.”

Finally, some of Bolton’s claims are, while not completely factually inaccurate, misguided and contrary to United States’ interests.  First, Bolton claims that the ICC is ineffective, as it has spent too much money, has prosecuted few individuals, and has not deterred the commission of atrocities in places such as the DRC, Sudan, Libya, or Syria.  This may be a fair criticism of the Court, but accepting such criticism could lead one to adopt a pro-ICC policy, to support the Court, and to ensure that the Court has better funding and better opportunities to truly deter the commission of atrocities, through its investigative and prosecutorial mechanisms.  This approach would benefit both the Court and all states which are committed to principles of accountability and individual criminal responsibility (United States should be positioned as a leader within this group of countries).  Second, Bolton believes that the ICC is superfluous, because of superior United States’ judicial and ethical standards.  According to Bolton, we do not need the ICC because the United States can handle its own investigations much better.  Bolton argues that the ICC’s application of the complementarity principle is “farcical” and  that the Prosecutor will decide which investigation to pursue based on political motives.  While the ICC has been criticized on complementarity grounds (in the Libya case in particular), there is nothing to suggest that the Prosecutor does not consider complementarity issues seriously, in each case that has been initiated with the Court.  And, even accepting that the United States’ judicial system is superior to the ICC, one could imagine a situation where the United States is unwilling to investigate its own wrongdoing; the ICC’s role is to act in such situations and to provide justice and accountability against perpetrators whose home countries choose to shield them.

Last but not least, most troubling is Bolton’s threat against those who cooperate with the ICC.  “We will respond against the ICC and its personnel to the extent permitted by U.S. law.  We will ban its judges and prosecutors from entering the United States. We will sanction their funds in the U.S. financial system, and, we will prosecute them in the U.S. criminal system. We will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans.”  It is absolutely within the United States’ sovereignty to refuse to issue visas/entry to ICC officials who may be foreign nationals (although this would be terrible policy).  However, it is simply unbelievable to announce that the United States would prosecute ICC officials, and other companies or states who assist the ICC, in the U.S. domestic system.  ICC officials are highly respected experts in international criminal law; judges, prosecutors, investigators, and other individuals who have committed their careers to the pursuit of international justice.  Those who assist or have assisted the ICC include our colleagues – the most prominent experts in international criminal law, who have provided advice and expertise to the Court.  What crimes have such individuals committed under United States law? And, how would such prosecutions (even if grounded in U.S. law) affect the United States’ role in international relations and in the world community? John Bolton’s speech is both factually inaccurate as well as misguided, and a new American policy vis-a-vis the ICC, built on Bolton’s remarks, will be detrimental to our own interests and our position in the global community.

For other commentary regarding Bolton’s speech, see here and here.

 

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