It has long been known that US National Security Advisor John Bolton is no fan of the International Criminal Court (ICC). But today marked a dramatic step up in his rhetoric, ahead of the ICC’s decision about an investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan. Despite the fact than any ICC investigation will probably focus on the Taliban, the US is worried that American troops stationed in the country may be vulnerable to prosecution.
Ahead of the ICC’s announcement, Bolton claimed that the US 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.” (However, it seems unclear if the President actually has the legal authority to do this.)
John Bolton is right about one thing: the ICC should not be able to prosecute Americans for war crimes or crimes against humanity. The fact that the ICC can reveals huge gaps in the American domestic legal system’s ability to hold citizens and foreign nations residing in the US accountable for mass atrocities.
Bolton’s pronouncements to the contrary, the ICC only has jurisdiction over crimes included in its statute committed by citizens or in the territory of states party to the Rome Statute. That is why the ICC only theoretically has jurisdiction over Americans for crimes committed in Afghanistan (and not, for instance, Yemen). Furthermore, the ICC is a court of last resort. The principle of complementarity means that the ICC can only prosecute individuals if other states are unwilling or unable to prosecute them first.
Despite Bolton’s claim that his opposition to the ICC is to protect American service members, US military personnel are arguably more protected from ICC prosecution by the principle of complementarity than other American civilians. The US military’s court martial system is generally ‘willing and able’ to hold service members accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, there is a huge gap in the American legal systems’ ability to hold American civilians and foreign nationals residing in the United States accountable for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed abroad.