Mike Pompeo
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington DC, September 2, 2020 (Nicolas Kamm/Pool via Reuters)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday said Washington will impose sanctions on International Criminal Court officials, accusing the court of “illegitimate attempts to subject Americans to its jurisdiction,” regarding a probe of Americans for allegedly torturing detainees in Afghanistan in 2003-2004.

More specifically, Pompeo said the US will blacklist ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and Phakiso Mochochoko, the Head of the Jurisdiction, Complementarity and Cooperation Division, and impose visa restrictions on certain individuals.

Pompeo’s announcement is the next step after US President Donald Trump signed an executive order in June authorizing both financial and travel sanctions against International Criminal Court personnel in retaliation for the body’s war crimes probe against the US.

The June order authorized Pompeo, in consultation with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, to block assets in the US of ICC employees involved in the probe. It also authorized Pompeo to block entry into the US of these individuals.

“The International Criminal Court’s actions are an attack on the rights of the American people and threaten to infringe upon our national sovereignty,” said White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany in a June statement.

“The International Criminal Court was established to provide accountability for war crimes, but in practice, it has been an unaccountable and ineffective international bureaucracy that targets and threatens United States personnel as well as personnel of our allies and partners,” McEnany added.

The Trump administration had previously rescinded ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s visa for traveling to the US and has explicitly threatened other measures, including sanctions.

Both past and expected future measures against ICC personnel come in response to its position against the US for alleged torture of detainees in Afghanistan in 2003-2004 as well as Bensouda’s push for a full criminal war crimes probe of Israelis regarding the settlement enterprise and the 2014 Gaza War.

Pompeo has also faced bipartisan pressure to defend Israel from any ICC probe. Hundreds of legislators from both the Senate and the House of Representatives sent a letter in mid-May calling on Pompeo to prevent “politicization” and “misuse” of the ICC against Israel.

Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Australia, Austria, Brazil and Uganda all filed legal briefs with the ICC Pretrial Chamber asking it to veto Bensouda’s decision to move forward against Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the ICC a “rare strategic threat” and blasted the ICC as the latest example of international organizations biased against Israel.

The ICC Prosecution has responded that it is objective and has pointed out that it is also probing Hamas for war crimes and that its decision was not rushed, but came after over five years of receiving information from both sides.By comparison, the US case is far more advanced than the Israeli case.

Bensouda announced she was ready to move against the US in 2017. The last two-plus years have seen multiple contrary ICC court decisions for and against a full war crimes probe until March when the ICC’s top Appeals Chamber gave the final green light for the case to go forward.

That decision propelled forward a probe against the US for seemingly “less serious” crimes like torture, appearing to signal a greater likelihood that the ICC will approve a probe against Israel relating to the deaths of 2,100 Palestinians (of which 50-80% were civilians) in 2014.

At the same time, no ICC court has ruled against Israel yet, and even if the ICC Pretrial Chamber rules against Israel, it could send the issue to the Appeals Chamber which could take time to handle the issue.