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National Security Adviser Bolton Declares U.S. Relationship With ICC Effectively Over


The United States has had a strained relationship with the International Criminal Court for a long time. And yesterday, President Trump's national security adviser John Bolton declared the relationship effectively over.


JOHN BOLTON: We will let the ICC die on its own. After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.

SHAPIRO: He said the U.S. will use any means necessary to protect American citizens from unjust prosecution, including sanctions and banning judges from entering the U.S. if necessary. Adam Smith is an international lawyer who worked on ICC issues during the Obama administration. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ADAM SMITH: Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: Why has the U.S. always tried to keep the ICC at arm's length?

SMITH: Well, I think it goes back to the start of the ICC at the end of the 1990s, beginning of the 2000s. There was a real concern about sovereignty. And that's sort of Ambassador Bolton's real concern. In some cases, it may be overstated. But what's interesting is that this has been a bipartisan concern ever since the beginning.

SHAPIRO: And why has it suddenly become so much more intense? What's behind this latest attack by John Bolton on the International Criminal Court?

SMITH: I think it's John Bolton himself. John Bolton, ever since the beginning of the Bush administration, has been waging war against many multilateral institutions but the ICC key among them. And so in some respects, this is just a continuation or a "Back To The Future" situation for Mr. Bolton going back to what he was - started to do during the George W. Bush administration. Now that he is in a position of authority, he can move it even further.

SHAPIRO: Although there is a recent new specter of Americans being possibly prosecuted before the ICC for crimes committed in Afghanistan.

SMITH: That's right. And so there's a bit more there in this case. I mean, at the beginning, in the early 2000s when Ambassador Bolton was first against the court, I think many people thought this was very much pie-in-the-sky concerns. U.S. persons would never get arrested or indicted or even investigated. But now I think you're right. There is a real concern there that obviously is the instigation for Ambassador Bolton's speech yesterday.

SHAPIRO: And do you think that impartial observers would say that this threat is real, or is it just a convenient excuse for people who already oppose the court to be more vocal about their opposition?

SMITH: I think it's a bit of both. I think it's fair to say that there is a threat that the prosecutor and then the court would approve this open investigation for war crimes committed by U.S. forces and the CIA actually in Afghanistan and related sites in the days after 9/11.

SHAPIRO: Do you think the ICC has generally been effective at its mission?

SMITH: It's hard to say. I mean, it's always hard to say, A, what its mission is. Is it deterrence? Is it justice? I think it'd be hard to argue that the deterrent model has actually seen much success with the ICC, at least if you ask the average Rohingya or the average Syrian or the average Sudanese Darfuri. Of course it's always hard to play the counter-historical, what would happen if not? But I think if this was supposed to be the solution for genocides and mass crimes, obviously it has not worked.

SHAPIRO: The court is slow. It takes years to bring people to justice. It costs a whole lot of money. What value does it really have?

SMITH: Well, this is the fundamental question I think most people who support it would argue that it is an important cementing of norms. That's what the court actually is. It cements the norms that really developed after World War II at Nuremberg with respect to war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide as being not just bad acts but acts that you can actually be held accountable for. And there was a bit of a lull obviously during the Cold War but then resurrected at the Yugoslavia tribunals, the Rwanda tribunal, Sierra Leone tribunal under the U.N. And then the ICC is a permanent understanding of that.

SHAPIRO: The court says it is undeterred by John Bolton's latest statements. But if the U.S. follows through on these threats of sanctions, prosecution, could that have an impact on the court's work?

SMITH: I think it would have to. I think it's certainly the case, first of all, that the president has the authority to impose sanctions on individuals if he so chooses for any sort of reason, to be honest, certainly a national security-related reasons such as this. And even if the ability of freezing assets in the United States or stopping someone coming to the United States may seem somewhat obscure or perhaps even far removed from what the - a judge in The Hague would sort of want to do with his or her life, the reality is that the U.S. has - plays such a central role with respect to global finance, with respect to people wanting to come here to teach, to lecture, what have you, that I think any judge that would theoretically end up on the U.S. blacklist would probably want to think twice before engaging in activities the U.S. would like them not to.

SHAPIRO: Adam Smith is an international lawyer and author of the book "After Genocide: Bringing The Devil To Justice." Thanks for joining us today.

SMITH: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.