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Gambian war crimes lawyer Fatou Bensouda takes the oath during a swearing-in ceremony as the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor in The Hague, on June 15, 2012. (Photo: Bas Czerwinskini/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

Gambian war crimes lawyer Fatou Bensouda takes the oath during a swearing-in ceremony as the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor in The Hague, on June 15, 2012. (Photo: Bas Czerwinskini/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

'Critical First Step' But 'Long Overdue': Biden Repeals Trump Sanctions on the ICC

"Trump's sanctions set a dangerous precedent for attacks on victims, lawyers, human rights advocates, and courts."

Jessica Corbett

Progressives in Congress and human rights organizations on Friday welcomed the Biden administration's repeal of sanctions on the International Criminal Court imposed under former President Donald Trump in a bid to pressure the Hague-based tribunal to not investigate alleged U.S. and Israeli crimes.

"This is a long overdue victory for international justice and the rule of law."
—Rep. Ilhan Omar

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced in a statement that President Joe Biden revoked Trump's Executive Order 13928, "ending the threat and imposition of economic sanctions and visa restrictions in connection with the court."

The move ends sanctions imposed against outgoing ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and Phakiso Mochochoko, head of the Jurisdiction, Complementarity, and Cooperation Division of the Office of the Prosecutor.

"The Department of State also terminated the separate 2019 policy on visa restrictions on certain ICC personnel. These decisions reflect our assessment that the measures adopted were inappropriate and ineffective," Blinken said. He added that "we continue to disagree strongly with the ICC's actions relating to the Afghanistan and Palestinian situations," but believe that "our concerns about these cases would be better addressed through engagement with all stakeholders."

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) responded to the development on Twitter, declaring that "this is a long overdue victory for international justice and the rule of law."

"It is time for us to mean what we say and say what [we] mean on human rights once and for all," said Omar, adding that she was proud to join with Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) and Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) in pushing for the sanctions to be lifted.

The ICC investigates and tries individuals charged with genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression. It was established by a 1998 treaty that entered into force in 2002, shortly after the Bush administration told the United Nations secretary-general that the U.S. would not become a party.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)—which represents victims in the ICC investigations into the Situation in Afghanistan and the Situation in Palestine—said Friday that "Trump's sanctions set a dangerous precedent for attacks on victims, lawyers, human rights advocates, and courts, and Biden's repeal is a welcome—if overdue—step toward curtailing U.S. obstruction of accountability at the International Criminal Court for the most serious crimes."

"Prosecutor Bensouda rightly moved to open an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Palestine and Afghanistan, including of U.S. torture, because grave and widespread crimes against civilians in both situations had gone unpunished," the CCR statement said. "Both the United States and Israel had the opportunity to investigate and hold their own citizens accountable for international crimes—and failed to do so. Victims have the right to turn to the ICC as a court of last resort to end impunity. These investigations must now proceed expeditiously."

Denouncing the "odious" executive order and a Trump presidency "marked by utter disregard for human rights and the rule of law," the group emphasized that now "the United States has an opportunity to reset its relationship with the ICC—and justice issues more broadly."

The ACLU, whose senior staff attorney Steven Watt represents six survivors and victims of alleged crimes by U.S. military and CIA personnel in Afghanistan, also welcomed the new administration's shift in policy.

"We are pleased President Biden has finally rescinded President Trump's unconstitutional sanctions order. This is a victory for our clients and all those who support the ICC's pursuit of justice," said Scarlet Kim, staff attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project. "The unprecedented sanctions on the ICC were yet another terrible legacy of the Trump administration, which made clear its disregard for human rights and the rule of law."

Attorneys represented by the ACLU and Covington & Burling sued the Trump administration over the sanctions in January. One of the plaintiffs was Leila N. Sadat, special adviser on crimes against humanity to the prosecutor of the ICC.

"This decision by the Biden administration opens the door for me and my co-plaintiffs to be able to return to our essential human rights work," Sadat explained Friday. "The sanctions regime ground my work to a halt by preventing me from providing legal advice and assistance for ICC investigations and prosecutions of crimes against humanity around the world."

Daniel Balson, advocacy director at Amnesty International USA, blasted Trump's sanctions as "an act of vandalism against a foundational mechanism of international justice." He called the repeal "a critical first step towards removing obstacles to international justice and holding human rights abusers around the world accountable."

"Biden has made an important move towards undoing damages done by his predecessor to their courageous cause," he said, while also urging the president to go even further—specifically, to "reaffirm the U.S. signature of the Rome Statute," the treaty that established the court, and to support the ICC's work.

"The ICC remains a key mechanism to justice for people who have experienced some of the worst crimes in the world, whether in Myanmar or Darfur," Balson said. "The ICC is a court of last resort; it exists to provide justice in situations where states are unwilling or unable to do so. It is a court for the people, and its staff must be allowed to investigate and prosecute injustice without fearing intimidation."

"Today, the Biden administration made a down payment towards that goal," he said. "But it is far from enough."

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