America’s long-running reluctant relationship with the International Criminal Court has spilled into open hostility amid threats of sanctions if it investigates US troops in Afghanistan.
National security adviser John Bolton denounced the legitimacy of The Hague-based court, which was created in 2002 to prosecute war crimes and crimes of humanity and genocide in areas where perpetrators might not otherwise face justice.
It has 123 state parties that recognise its jurisdiction.
Mr Bolton’s speech, on the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, came as an ICC judge was expected to soon announce a decision on a request from prosecutors to formally open an investigation into allegations of war crimes committed by Afghan national security forces, Taliban and Haqqani network militants, and US forces and intelligence in Afghanistan since May 2003.
The accusations against US personnel include torture and illegal imprisonment.
“The International Criminal Court unacceptably threatens American sovereignty and US national security interests,” Mr Bolton told the Federalist Society, a conservative Washington-based think tank.
He also took aim at Palestinian efforts to press war crime charges against Israel for its policies in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza.
He said the US would use “any means necessary” to protect Americans and citizens of allied countries, like Israel, “from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court”.
The White House said that to the extent permitted by US law, the Trump administration would ban ICC judges and prosecutors from entering the United States, sanction their funds in the US financial system and prosecute them in the US criminal system.
“We will not co-operate with the ICC,” Mr Bolton said, adding that “for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us”.
It was an extraordinary rebuke condemned by human rights groups who complained it was another Trump administration rollback of US leadership in demanding accountability for gross abuses.
“Any US action to scuttle ICC inquiries on Afghanistan and Palestine would demonstrate that the administration was more concerned with coddling serial rights abusers — and deflecting scrutiny of US conduct in Afghanistan — than supporting impartial justice,” said Human Rights Watch.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents several people who claim they were detained and tortured in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2008 and could be victims or witnesses in any ICC prosecution, said Mr Bolton’s threats were “straight out of an authoritarian playbook”.
“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,” the ACLU said.
The ICC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Since its creation, the court has filed charges against dozens of suspects including former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was killed by rebels before he could be arrested, and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is accused of charges including genocide in Darfur.
Al-Bashir remains at large, as does Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, who was among the first rebels charged by the court in 2005. The court has convicted just eight defendants.
The court has been hobbled by the refusal of the US, Russia, China and other major nations to join.