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Rep. Ilhan Omar at a press conference.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) says she will introduce legislation setting the United States on a path to join the International Criminal Court. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Omar: US 'Hypocrisy' on ICC Hamstrings Justice for Putin's War Crimes

"If we oppose investigations into countries, like our own, that haven't joined the ICC, how can we support an investigation into Russia, another country that hasn't joined the court?"

Brett Wilkins

As the Biden administration and U.S. lawmakers from both sides of the aisle voice support for the International Criminal Court's probe of likely Russian war crimes in Ukraine, one progressive congressional Democrat is leading calls for the United States to break with the hypocrisy that critics say has long defined its policies and actions by joining the global tribunal in The Hague.

"Unfortunately, a glaring asterisk hangs over any calls for justice made by the United States."

In a Wednesday Washington Post opinion piece, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)—who said she would introduce legislation to set the U.S. on a path to joining the ICC—wrote that Russian atrocities in Ukraine including "massacres of civilians, mass graves, and rapes" evoked her own "traumatic past."

"As an 8-year-old girl in Somalia, I remember watching armed militias go by my family's window, hearing bombs go off outside our doors, and wondering if our house was next," she recounted. "No child in Ukraine or anywhere in the world should have to witness what I witnessed as a little girl."

"Accountability is the key to prevention. If there are no consequences for committing these atrocities, we will find ourselves in the same place in the future," Omar continued, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin "must be charged and held fully accountable for his crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court."

While Omar praised the "bipartisan calls for accountability" in the U.S., as well as President Joe Biden's labeling of Putin as a "war criminal," she noted that "unfortunately, a glaring asterisk hangs over any calls for justice made by the United States."

"That's because, more than two decades after its creation, we have yet to ratify the Rome Statute—the treaty establishing the ICC," she explained. "We are in the company of countries such as Iran, Sudan, China, and, yes, Russia as one of several nations that have refused to sign onto this bedrock of international law."

"If we truly believe in prioritizing human rights and enforcing international law, how can we not be part of the court that upholds that law?"

Furthermore, the United States passed two laws during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations prohibiting U.S. funding of the ICC and barring the country from assisting the court—and even authorizing military action to secure the release of any American personnel detained by or on behalf of the tribunal.

In 2020, the Donald Trump administration was so infuriated by the prospect of the ICC investigating alleged U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan that it sanctioned then-Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and other court officials.

"Biden thankfully lifted these sanctions," noted Omar. "But Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated our country's 'long-standing objection to the court's efforts to assert jurisdiction over personnel of nonstate parties' last year. In other words: We're not joining, and don't investigate us or anyone that is not a member."

The congresswoman asserted that this stance "is now hamstringing the United States as we seek accountability for Putin."

"If we oppose investigations into countries, like our own, that haven't joined the ICC," she asked, "how can we support an investigation into Russia, another country that hasn't joined the court?"

Further complicating matters is the fact that Ukraine is also not a signatory to the Rome Statute.

Omar offered a "simple solution" to the conundrum: "The United States must join the International Criminal Court."

"If we truly believe in prioritizing human rights and enforcing international law," she asked, "how can we not be part of the court that upholds that law?"

"Our absence also allows regimes to commit human rights abuses with impunity," Omar continued. "If the most powerful country won't hold itself accountable to the rule of law, other countries feel emboldened to violate it. And indeed, we have turned a blind eye to wanton human rights violations by regimes in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, El Salvador, and even India, in the name of political convenience."

The U.S. also bristles at any attempt by the ICC or any other global body to hold Israel—which is also not a member of the court—accountable for policies and actions in Palestine that international officials and human rights organizations have called apartheid.

Amid a debate last year over redress mechanisms for victims of war crimes committed outside the ICC's jurisdiction, Omar was attacked not only by congressional Republicans but also by leading Democrats including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for demanding "the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity" in the face of "unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban."

Omar concluded:

In this moment of horrifying violence... it's time to hold the perpetrators of crimes against humanity accountable for their actions and send a message to the whole world that true justice is blind, that no targeting of civilians, no use of chemical weapons, and no wars of aggression will ever be tolerated again.

It's time for the United States to join the International Criminal Court. If we believe Putin should be held accountable for violating international law, then we have to support international law. This week, I will be introducing a resolution to join the court, and I hope other members of Congress will join me in supporting it.

In a Wednesday interview with HuffPost, Omar took aim at the Bush-era law requiring the U.S. to "use all means necessary" to stop the ICC from investigating American war crimes.

"We've engaged in a process for a long time of delegitimizing these international institutions that essentially call for accountability," the lawmaker said, "and I think it is really disturbing that we now think they are powerful enough… to hold Russia accountable."

"It's easy for people to see the hypocrisy," she argued, "when we've said previously that we don't believe in the ability of the court to [be] unbiased." 

"Think about just how much more powerful of a statement it would be," Omar added, "if we didn't just call for accountability for war crimes in Ukraine in holding Russians accountable for the possible war crimes they have committed but if we actually had skin in the game."

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