The speech given on Monday by John Bolton, US National Security Adviser, threatening action by the US against the International Criminal Court (ICC) in response to potential ICC investigation of US personnel with regard to the situation in Afghanistan has generated a lot of interest (see here, here, here and here). There are a plethora of policy and political issues raised by the looming clash between the ICC and the US which have been set out on other blogs in recent days (here and here). In terms of the legal issues, we are back to the old debate about whether the ICC is entitled to exercise jurisdiction over nationals of non-party states, in the absence of a referral by the UN Security Council (on which see this 2003 article of mine and this recent post in response). This post addresses whether the actions that Bolton says the US will take against Judges and ICC officials would be lawful under international law. Bolton says that the US:
“… will respond against the ICC and its personnel to the extent permitted by U.S. law. We 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.”
In particular, I wish to focus on whether the US would violate international law by banning ICC judges and officials from entering the US. Even if the US were to seek to prosecute ICC personnel, it is unlikely that it would obtain custody over them (unless other states cooperate with the US). The primary effect of such attempted prosecutions would be to prevent those people from entering the US, in fear of being arrested.
Barring ICC personnel from entry into the US is a significant issue because (i) the meetings of the ICC Assembly of States Parties are held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York every other year; (ii) the ICC Prosecutor goes to the Security Council, at its request, to report to the Council on the situations referred to the Court by the Council; and (iii) the President of the ICC presents a report, on the work of the Court, to the UN General Assembly annually. All of these activities and visits will have to stop if the threat by John Bolton (either to prosecute or to ban ICC judges and officials) were to be carried out.
Does the US have International Legal Obligations Preventing it from taking Retaliatory Action Against ICC Personnel?
To the extent that US retaliatory actions against ICC personnel take place within the US, the starting position would be the US can control entry into the US, prosecute people who in its view threaten US security (probably based on the protective principle of jurisdiction) and sanction funds in the US unless such acts are inconsistent with contrary obligations under international law.