Fatou Bensouda, a human rights lawyer and chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in The Hague, has spent the past two decades investigating war crimes, genocide, and human rights abuses. Today, thanks to President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, she can no longer access her bank account at the United Nations Federal Credit Union — a victim of US economic sanctions, the kind usually reserved for terrorists, drug dealers, and human rights-abusing dictators.
But this is what you get in the “Alice Through the Looking-Glass” world of US foreign policy in the age of Trump.
Earlier this year the ICC announced an investigation into possible war crimes in Afghanistan, much of which is expected to focus on the conduct of Afghan troops and the Taliban but could include the conduct of US forces and intelligence officials stationed in the country. Afghanistan is a member of the ICC, but the United States is not, and Pompeo has long insisted the investigation is an attack on American sovereignty.
In announcing the sanctions on Bensouda and her colleague Phakiso Mochochoko by name last month, Pompeo called the ICC a “thoroughly broken and corrupted institution.”
But as Bensouda told The New York Times this week, “We are a court of law, we do not do politics. We have no agenda other than to honorably fulfill our mandate.”
Recently that agenda has included investigations into the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar and possible crimes against humanity committed in the Russian-occupied region of Crimea.
Bensouda insisted, “This will not stop us. We will continue to do our work.” But not surprisingly, the US-imposed sanctions on the ICC officials have drawn fire from officials of the European Union and from the German foreign minister.
Economic sanctions such as those imposed on Bensouda, to freeze assets or block trade from individuals or countries, are one of the most powerful weapons in the US arsenal — and yet one the Trump administration has been utterly erratic in its use of. Just a few cases in point:
▪ The European Union announced sanctions last week against six members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, including the head of Russia’s domestic spy agency, in connection with the poisoning of opposition activist Alexei Navalny. Trump has yet to condemn the poisoning or issue sanctions.
▪ Republican Senator James Lankford and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen earlier this month called on Pompeo to issue sanctions against Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “as required by law,” for Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S400 antiaircraft system, which was a clear violation of the US Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. They’re still waiting for an answer.
▪ A congressional report released in March criticized the administration for not issuing sanctions on India, which reportedly put in an order for the same Russian defense system. The report also noted the Trump administration has not made any designations under the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, aimed at sanctioning Russia over its conduct in Ukraine.
▪ And while the administration did sanction 17 Saudis involved in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, no sanctions have ever been issued against the man US intelligence agencies are convinced ordered the hit — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Sanctions, when properly imposed, speak to and reinforce American values. They are an important element of a coherent foreign policy — and perhaps that points to the heart of the problem. The Trump foreign policy is little more than a hodgepodge of accumulated grievances and slights — a policy that sanctions a human rights lawyer but ignores countless abuses by favored autocrats like Putin and Erdogan, rendering it largely meaningless.
Congress has given the president a portfolio of sanctions to punish foreign leaders who abuse their own populations and especially those who would do our nation harm. We should expect a president to know how to use them more wisely.
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