This photo shows the exterior of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands on June 30, 2019.

(Photo: Greger Ravik/flickr/cc)

120+ Groups Warn Biden Against Backing Sanctions for ICC

Doing so would align the U.S. "with authoritarian tactics of threatening judges and independent judicial institutions," the groups cautioned.

As the Biden administration signals its willingness to work with congressional Republicans to potentially sanction International Criminal Court officials over their pursuit of arrest warrants for Israeli leaders, more than 120 rights groups on Wednesday urged U.S. President Joe Biden to "oppose the threats and calls for punitive actions" emanating from Congress.

ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan said earlier this week that he has formally applied for arrest warrants targeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for alleged "crimes of causing extermination, causing starvation as a method of war, including the denial of humanitarian relief supplies, [and] deliberately targeting civilians in conflict," and Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, Ismail Haniyeh, and Mohammed Deif for alleged "extermination, murder, taking of hostages, rape, and sexual assault in detention."

Referring to Senate Republicans' threats to retaliate against ICC officials if they issue arrest warrants for the Israelis—and Secretary of State Antony Blinken's stated willingness to work with GOP lawmakers on sanctions—the rights groups argued in a letter to Biden that acting on such efforts "would do grave harm to the interests of all victims globally and to the U.S. government's ability to champion human rights and the cause of justice."

"While the United States is not an ICC member country, Republican and Democratic administrations have supported the court in specific cases, and the U.S. has assisted arrest operations to bring justice to victims in central Africa," the groups noted. "Your own administration has recognized the court's essential role to address serious crimes in Ukraine and Darfur."

The letter condemns former U.S. President Donald Trump's sanctions targeting then-Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and other ICC officials over the court's effort to investigate U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan as "an affront to justice" that "threatened to undermine the ICC's effective functioning."

"Regrettably, those sanctions aligned the United States with authoritarian tactics of threatening judges and independent judicial institutions," the groups lamented.

The letter asserts:

The ability of the ICC to provide justice for victims requires full respect for its independence. A selective approach to judicial decisions undermines the credibility, and ultimately, the force of the law as a shield against human rights violations and abuses. Your administration appeared to recognize this in repealing the Trump-era sanctions, noting that U.S. concerns "would be better addressed through engagement with all stakeholders in the ICC process." We urge you to ensure that any disagreement about the court's process is pursued through proper judicial channels under the court's treaty.

U.S. and Israeli officials often note that neither country is a party to the Rome Treaty that established the ICC. However, the court has noted its "jurisdiction in relation to crimes committed on the territory of Palestine, including Gaza," as well as "over crimes committed by Palestinian nationals inside or outside Palestinian territory."

The groups' letter comes as the death toll from Israel's relentless 230-day assault on Gaza approaches 36,000, with more than 80,000 others wounded and at least 11,000 people missing and believed dead and buried beneath the rubble of hundreds of thousands of damaged or destroyed homes and other buildings throughout the embattled Palestinian enclave. Around 9 in 10 Gazans have also been forcibly displaced, with hundreds of thousands of refugees sheltering in the southern city of Rafah, where Israeli forces are now invading.

During an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour earlier this week, Khan said the ICC should represent "the triumph of law over brute force, grab what you can, take what you want, do what you will."

"We will not be dissuaded," he vowed.

The United Nations' International Court of Justice—which is weighing a wider genocide case filed by South Africa and supported by over 30 other nations—is expected to rule Friday on a related South African request for the tribunal to order a cease-fire in Gaza.

The U.N. Human Rights Council in March found "reasonable grounds to believe" that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, a conclusion shared by at least hundreds of legal experts around the world.

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