Bolton warns of sanctions against ICC members, and challenges Palestinian Authority referral of Israel. Russia and Syria attack Idlib. Far-right gains in Sweden. By Hamish McDonald.

Bolton wages war on international court

The United States national security adviser, John Bolton.
The United States national security adviser, John Bolton.
Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images

He’s been lying low for six months, but the man with the soup-strainer moustache came out swinging on behalf of the Trump administration this week, cautioning international prosecutors about investigations into the United States and its allies for war crimes.

John Bolton, the national security adviser, chose the friendly setting of the conservative Federalist Society to announce that the US would sanction and try to prosecute any members of the International Criminal Court who looked into possible violations by US forces in Afghanistan.

“The United States will use any means necessary to protect our citizens and those of our allies from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court,” Bolton said. “We will not cooperate with the ICC. We will provide no assistance to the ICC. And we certainly will not join the ICC. We will let the ICC die on its own. After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”

If the court, based in The Hague, persisted, the US would target its judges. “We will ban its judges and prosecutors from entering the United States,” Bolton said. “We will sanction their funds in the US financial system, and we will prosecute them in the US criminal system. We will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans.”

The stance puts Australia, among many other American allies, in an ever deeper predicament, insisting it is standing with the US in supporting a rules-based international order while Donald Trump proceeds to tear down that structure. Australia is one of 123 countries that have signed and ratified the treaty that set up the court − tasked with prosecuting genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity − and contributed lawyers and police to its cases. The US signed but did not ratify the treaty, and under George Bush and Trump has been hostile to the court.

In November last year, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said she had formed a “reasonable basis to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in connection with the armed conflict in Afghanistan” since the US-led invasion of 2001, and had concluded “all legal criteria” were met to start an investigation. She asked the court to open an investigation into alleged crimes by Afghan forces, the Taliban and Haqqani insurgents, and US forces including the Central Intelligence Agency. US personnel would be particularly investigated for illegal imprisonment and torture.

The court only takes up cases where countries do not carry out credible investigations and prosecutions under their domestic judicial systems. Australia is currently looking into alleged abuses by special forces soldiers in Afghanistan. US human rights groups said Washington would be better off taking this course. Bolton’s threats were “straight out of an authoritarian playbook”, the American Civil Liberties Union said. “This misguided and harmful policy will only further isolate the United States from its closest allies and give solace to war criminals and authoritarian regimes seeking to evade international accountability.”

US challenges PA referral

John Bolton was also extending his legal shield to Israel, which is facing calls by the Palestinian Authority and others for referral to the ICC over settlements in the West Bank and the shooting by Israeli army snipers of young Palestinians demonstrating at the border fences with Gaza.

The national security adviser singled out Israel as one of the allies to be protected from investigations. “While the court welcomes the membership of the so-called ‘State of Palestine’, it has threatened Israel – a liberal, democratic nation – with investigation into its actions to defend citizens from terrorist attacks in the West Bank and Gaza,” Bolton said.

“There has also been a suggestion that the ICC will investigate Israeli construction of housing projects on the West Bank,” he said, adding that the US would always “stand with our friend and ally Israel” and would not allow “the ICC, or any other organisation, to constrain Israel’s right to self-defence.”

At the same forum, Bolton also announced the administration was closing the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s quasi-embassy in Washington. The US State Department said “the PLO has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel” and had condemned an American peace plan they had not seen, an apparent reference to the plan that Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner has been charged with preparing.

This follows the transfer of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem ahead of the plan or any peace agreement with the Palestinians, who also want part of Jerusalem as capital of their future state. In late August, the US announced it was cutting off its yearly $US200 million aid contribution to the UN Relief and Works Agency, which provides health care and education to five million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Idlib under fire

Russian and Syrian government forces intensified their bombing attack on the last major city held by the various Sunni opposition groups, Idlib, with some of its three million civilians fleeing to the Turkish border.

Trump seemed to be green-lighting this operation, as long as Bashar al-Assad’s forces did not use chlorine gas or other chemical weapons, and got US forces in northern Syria to concentrate on a Daesh stronghold.

However, after failing to get a ceasefire at an uneasy conference with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said his country could not take any more refugees, and sent tanks and soldiers to reinforce Turkish army posts around Idlib to forestall the Russian–Syrian attack. His officials said they would fire back if attacked.

Sweden runs right

Sweden, the one-time model of social democracy and tolerance for Australia’s Labor Party and trade unions, was the latest European country to see a surge by a far-right, anti-immigration party in its elections last Sunday.

The Sweden Democrats has come a long way from its antecedents in Swedish fascism, a favourite theme of the Scandi-noir genre. They’ve cleaned up their act, expelling overtly racist figures and dropping their call for reintroduction of the death penalty (the axe or guillotine were used up to 1910) and limits on non-Nordic adoption. However, they went all out to whip up fears about the 200,000 Middle Eastern refugees accepted in 2015–2016, claiming a crime wave had resulted.

Even so, the jump in its vote, from 12.9 per cent in 2014 to 17.6 per cent this time, was less than the predicted sweep. As neither of the two mainstream parties will have any truck with them, they remain in opposition, and the question for them is how to enlarge their base. Their counterparts in Germany, Alternative für Deutschland, who got 12.6 per cent in 2017, face the same dilemma.

As happened in Germany, the process of forming a government could take months. The Social Democrats, which has ruled Sweden for most of the past century, got 28.4 per cent of the vote, and the centre-right Moderates 19.8 per cent, both down a few percentage points. They will each be courting minor left, green and conservative groups for support.

No doubt our politicos will be casting an eye over the Swedish example for any pointers. A sharp fall in the krona, a housing price slump and the bursting of a sharemarket bubble in IT “unicorns” contribute to a familiar-looking national malaise.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 15, 2018 as "Bolton wages war on international court ".

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