President Donald Trump on Thursday issued an executive order authorizing US sanctions against International Criminal Court employees involved in an investigation into whether American forces committed war crimes in Afghanistan.
In announcing the action, Trump administration officials said the Hague-based tribunal threatens to infringe on US national sovereignty and accused Russia of manipulating it to serve Moscow's ends.
"We cannot, we will not stand by as our people are threatened by a kangaroo court," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in announcing the move and warned other nations.
"I have a message to many close allies in the world. Your people could be next, especially those from NATO countries who fight terrorism in Afghanistan right alongside us," he said.
Neither Pompeo nor any of the top officials who were present at the announcement - Defense Secretary Mark Esper, national security adviser Robert O'Brien and Attorney General William Barr - took questions from the press.
ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda wants to investigate possible crimes committed between 2003 and 2014, including alleged mass killings of civilians by the Taliban, as well as the alleged torture of prisoners by Afghan authorities and, to a lesser extent, by US forces and the CIA. The ICC investigation was given the go-ahead in March.
Rights activists assailed Trump's move. Andrea Prasow, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, said the action "demonstrates contempt for the global rule of law" and represents a "blatant attempt at obstruction."
The Republican president's order authorizes Pompeo, in consultation with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, to block assets in the United States of ICC employees involved in the probe, according to a letter sent by Trump to US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi accompanying the order.
It also authorizes Pompeo to block entry into the United States of these individuals as well as their family members.
The ICC was established in 2002 by the international community to prosecute war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. It has jurisdiction only if a member state is unable or unwilling to prosecute atrocities itself. The United States has never been a member of the court.
The US action is the latest under Trump taking aim at an international body. Trump, who has promoted an "America First" policy during his presidency, last month said he would end the US relationship with the World Health Organization.
Afghanistan is a member of the ICC, though Kabul has argued that any war crimes should be prosecuted locally.
"The Department of Justice has received substantial credible information that raises serious concerns about a long history of financial corruption and malfeasance at the highest levels in the office of the prosecutor," said Attorney General William Barr, who did not offer evidence.
He also said the court was being manipulated by Russia, but did not elaborate on how. He hinted there could be more actions against the ICC. "The measures announced today are an important first step in holding the ICC accountable for exceeding its mandate and violating the sovereignty of the United States."
John Bellinger, the State Department's former top lawyer under Republican former President George W. Bush, said the two sides could have avoided the conflict but chose not to.
"It's unfortunate that the long-running US dispute with the ICC has reached this new low point. ... It's not surprising that the Trump administration has reacted forcefully with threatened sanctions, especially in an election year," he said.
The Trump administration imposed travel restrictions and other sanctions against ICC employees a year ago.
The ICC decided to investigate after a preliminary examination by prosecutors in 2017 found reasonable grounds to believe war crimes were committed in Afghanistan and that the court has jurisdiction.
A senior Trump administration official, describing the order to reporters on a conference call, said the directive authorizes sanctions against any individual directly engaged in any effort by the ICC to investigate American personnel without US consent.