In his speech at the beginning of this week, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton combined two favorite subjects: his aversion to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and his support of Israel. The court, Bolton said in his first address since he assumed the office last spring, is a nightmare; “An elegant office building in a faraway country that determines the guilt or innocence of American citizens.” Israel is also being unjustly investigated, according to Bolton.
For decades, Bolton has had a reputation as a militant conservative who makes no bones about reckless, interventionist statements. He expressed himself in similarly undiplomatic fashion this week, for example, by characterizing an ally like the Netherlands as some random “faraway country.” Worse still is his suggestion that the proceedings at the court are the work of shadowy figures who try people without any legitimate basis.
The basis for that does indeed exist. The court is the result of an international agreement to prosecute those suspected of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. In total, 123 countries are state parties to the court. The United States and Israel are among the countries that have never ratified the treaty establishing the court. In his speech, Bolton threatened to criminalize the court’s judges and prosecutors. That is unprecedented.
It must be said that the ICC has not had a spotless reputation since its inception in 2002. In particular, there has been vocal criticism of its ineffectiveness: in 16 years, only three Africans have been convicted, and no heavy-hitters. Understandably, Africa has complained that the court has exclusively targeted that continent.
We already knew that the Americans didn’t care much for the court. In the same year the ICC was established, Congress passed a law – nicknamed “The Hague Invasion Act” – which authorizes the use of military force to liberate soldiers from jails in The Hague. The obstruction, however, is new. It is also unwise: if the ICC does not work well, it is necessary to make it better. Investigations into the actions of Americans in Afghanistan and of Israelis in the occupied Palestinian territories, in particular, would help bolster the scope and credibility of the court.
In light of Donald Trump’s “America First” credo, the rest of the world is already preparing for an era in which multilateralism is no longer a matter of course. Nonetheless, the flagrant attacks by American officials on international institutions remain shocking. NATO was previously shaken to its core when the president of the most powerful country in the world vociferously lashed out at the organization. United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, has subsequently experienced Trump’s wrath.
America’s persistent denigration of the Palestinians is regrettable in any case. Whereas the U.S. presented itself for decades as a neutral mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, Trump is opting for another strategy: to throw America’s full weight behind Israel in the hope that the Palestinians will give up. That is counterproductive. The more desperate the situation becomes for the Palestinians, the greater the chance that they will resist by any means at their disposal.
Trump is aggravating the conflict, and that is bad for both Palestinians and Israelis. The fact that the United States is also turning its back so emphatically on the international legal order is ultimately harmful to everyone.