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Germany, France slam US over ICC sanctions

September 4, 2020

Germany calls US sanctions against the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda "a serious mistake" while France describes them as a "grave attack."

Fatou Bensouda speaks to a colleague at the ICC
Image: Getty Images/AFP/ANP/B. Czerwinski

Germany has added its voice to criticism of US sanctions against two top officials at the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Friday described the sanctions, which include freezing the US assets of chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and one of her aides, as "a serious mistake.''

His comments follow calls from France and EU on Thursday for Washington to withdraw the sanctions. 

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement that the US sanctions were "a grave attack against the court and beyond that a questioning of multi-lateralism and the independence of the judiciary. France calls on the United States to withdraw the announced measures.''

Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, said the US sanctions were "unacceptable" and "unprecedented."

"The International Criminal Court plays an essential role in delivering justice to the victims of some of world's most horrific crimes. Its independence and impartiality are crucial characteristics of the court's work, which are fundamental for the legitimacy of its judgment," Borrell said in a statement urging the US to reverse course.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced these latest sanctions again ICC officials on Wednesday

Bensouda and other ICC officials already subject to a US travel ban over the court's probe of alleged torture and other crimes by US troops in Afghanistan

US history of clashing with ICC

The United States has never been a party to the ICC and in the past, Pompeo has referred to the tribunal as a "kangaroo court." 

Read more: Opinion: Donald Trump's perfidious attacks on the International Criminal Court

Speaking on Wednesday, Pompeo said the US would not tolerate what he called the ICC's "illegitimate attempts to subject Americans to its jurisdiction."

In a 2017 interview with DW, Bensouda, who has headed the ICC since 2012, emphasized that her decisions are driven by the law. 

"I am a prosecutor, I gather my evidence and I take it to the judges, independent judges who have also been elected by the Assembly of State Parties of the ICC. If they do not agree with my evidence, they would throw it out," she told DW.

Bensouda also stressed in the 2017 DW interview that the tribunal had "jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide when it happens on the territory of a state party."

Afghanistan became a party to the ICC in 2003.

Who is Fatou Bensouda?

The Banjul-born lawyer served as The Gambia's justice minister from 1998-2000 under president Yahya Jammeh. Before that, she was state counsel and deputy director of public prosecutions to Jammeh's predecessor, Dawda Jawara.

Jammeh dismissed her over her work in prosecuting rights abuses. At the time, human rights groups credited Bensouda for the speedy prosecution of crimes committed against women and children. 

Fatou Bensouda on Conflict Zone

Bensouda went to the ICC in 2004 when she was elected as deputy prosecutor — a position she held until 2012 when she succeeded the Argentine Luis Moreno Ocampo as the ICC's chief prosecutor.

In 2017, Bensouda advised the court to consider seeking charges for human rights abuses committed during the war in Afghanistan, particularly rapes and torture alledgedly committed by US troops and the Central Intelligence Agency.

What is her track record?

As the ICC chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda has brought Congolese warlords such as Bosco Ntaganda, the "Terminator”and Thomas Lubanga to justice for war crimes and crimes humanity.

She also presided over cases against the former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo and those of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto. The Kenyan leader was charged with crimes against humanity over a wave of post-election violence in 2007 and 2008. The charges were later dropped due to a lack of evidence.

Read more: Fatou Bensouda: Critics 'don't understand the ICC'

Bosco Ntaganda Den Haag
Bosco Ntaganda faced 18 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanityImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Kooren

Other prominent cases that Bensouda has successfully prosecuted include the trial of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, accused of destroying mausoleums in Timbuktu, Mali. It was the first cultural destruction trial to open in The Hague.

Read more: Timbuktu war crimes trial begins in The Hague

Resentment among African countries towards the ICC has built up in recent years, chiefly because its work is contentrated largely on the continent. 

Gambians back Bensouda

Despite her past connection with Yahya Jammeh, whose regime was marked by widespread abuses, Gambians expressed their support of Bensouda. 

Malik Jarju, an entrepreneur in the capital Banjul, told DW "the sanctions are an attempt to interfere with the court's independence, freedom and the important work it is doing to tackle crimes against humanity."

Jarju sees the US sanctions against Bensouda as an diversionary tactic and called for the world to support the ICC "to protect the court and its officials."

Modou Joof, a Banjul resident, sees the US sanctions as an attempt to avoid "delivering justice justice to Afghan victims of US atrocities."

"That is why the ICC, as a last resort of hope for justice, must step in to prosecute US soldiers who committed unspeakable atrocities against civilians in Afghanistan," Joof told DW.