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U.S. Attack on Hague Court Is Seen as Bolstering World’s Despots

U.S. Attack on Hague Court Is Seen as Bolstering World’s Despots

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John R. Bolton, the Trump administration’s national security adviser, warned the International Criminal Court against pursuing an investigation of American troops in Afghanistan.CreditCreditAl Drago for The New York Times

THE HAGUE — In a city that symbolizes international peace and justice, the ambassador from Burundi has had a lonely job. As her government faces accusations of murder, rape and torture, she has made the unpopular argument that the International Criminal Court should butt out.

The ambassador, Vestine Nahimana, says the court is a politicized, unchecked intrusion on Burundi’s sovereignty. “It’s difficult,” Ms. Nahimana said in an interview here. “In a way, we’ve been isolated.”

No longer. Her critiques echo those of warlords and despots whose arguments have long been dismissed by the West. But Burundi’s position got a powerful voice of support this week from President Trump, whose national security adviser, John R. Bolton, declared the international court “ineffective, unaccountable, and indeed, outright dangerous,” and threatened sanctions against the court’s prosecutors and judges who pursued cases against Americans.

“We can only rejoice that another country has seen the same wrong,” Ms. Nahimana said. “Perhaps this will be a message that the sovereignty of a country must be respected, in the U.S. and in other countries. That’s also what the White House asks.”

For the Trump administration, Mr. Bolton’s speech was the latest example of disdain for global organizations and — in this case — taking the same side as strongmen and dictators. But for the International Criminal Court, a relatively young institution, the new White House policy of open hostility comes at a perilous time.

The court, which opened in 2002, was envisioned as the world’s permanent judicial body for cases of war crimes, genocide and other crimes against humanity. But a former prosecutor has faced accusations of corruption, and the court’s record has been spotty. Only eight people have been convicted and other cases have collapsed or been withdrawn. The most significant conviction, the war-crimes case against the former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba, was overturned because of legal errors.

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The International Criminal Court, which opened in 2002, was envisioned as the world’s permanent judicial body for cases of war crimes, genocide and other crimes against humanity.CreditMartijn Beekman/European Pressphoto Agency

Nevertheless, many of America’s closest allies regard the court as a symbol of international order and justice and have invested heavily in its success. Mr. Bolton’s comments were seen here as a threat to the institution and an invitation to world leaders to ignore the court’s authority.

“This bombastic threat against an institution’s operation, no matter what the circumstances, only serves to cut our ties further with our allies,” said Patricia M. Wald, a retired American judge who served as a judge on a separate war crimes tribunal here.

The United States has always regarded the court warily, fearing that it would be used against American troops as a way to subvert Washington’s foreign policy decisions. President Bill Clinton signed the 1998 Rome treaty establishing the court, despite noting its “significant flaws.”

Congress never ratified the treaty, but former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama at times gave the court at least tacit support. The Bush administration endorsed its investigation into atrocities in Sudan. The Obama administration provided intelligence and Mr. Obama personally encouraged other countries to cooperate with it.

While two-thirds of the world’s nations are members of the court, that coalition has been tested recently. Burundi withdrew last year — although Burundian officials still face possible prosecution for crimes committed while it was a member. And President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines announced plans this year to quit the court amid an investigation into allegations that officials committed mass murder and crimes against humanity during a narcotics crackdown.

Several African nations have at times threatened to quit. And President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, which was never a member of the court, withdrew his signature from the treaty when the court announced it would investigate Moscow’s military involvement in Ukraine and possible war crimes in Georgia.

“The court is vulnerable,” said Carsten Stahn, an international law professor at Leiden University here. “Bolton is using that vulnerability to attack.”

Mr. Bolton has fiercely opposed the court since its inception and his remarks represented a warning to the court over its apparent intention to investigate war crimes in Afghanistan, including the torture and abuse of prisoners by C.I.A. officers. Though Congress has documented many of those abuses, nobody has been prosecuted.

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Former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba at the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 2016.CreditPool photo by Jerry Lampen

He said the court’s prosecutors were politically motivated and represented a threat to American sovereignty. And he said that, to many in Africa, the court has become a tool of modern day European colonialism. That argument stunned court supporters because it echoes the view of Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is under indictment for genocide and has campaigned for African nations to withdraw from the court.

“These are talking points for the leaders of Myanmar, the leaders of North Korea, the leaders of Russia,” said David J. Scheffer, a former American ambassador who helped negotiate the Rome treaty during the Clinton administration. “I’m sure this speech was very welcome in Saudi Arabia. This was music to the ears of the Middle East.”

Mr. Bolton’s speech, and the new hard line it presages, raises fresh concerns about the endurance of the court without backing from the world’s largest countries. China and India never supported it. Russia abandoned its veneer of an endorsement. The nations of the European Union are members and represent the court’s biggest bloc of support.

Lawyers and human-rights groups were alarmed, in particular, at the threat of prosecuting international lawyers and judges. “Coming from the host country of the United Nations, it is very dangerous to an international legal order,” said William Pace, the head of the Coalition for the International Court, an organization set up to support the court. “It is undermining the fundamental pillars of an international order designed after World War II to prevent World War III.”

Mr. Bolton worked to undermine the court early in the Bush administration, before others in the administration struck a more accommodating tone. But his views align well with those of Mr. Trump, whose “America first” policies have challenged longstanding alliances and international institutions such as NATO and multilateral trade agreements.

While European nations view organizations like the International Criminal Court as an important check on dictators, Mr. Bolton and other American conservatives see it as an affront. The United States, after all, shoulders many of the West’s peacekeeping duties. Why then, Mr. Bolton and his allies argue, would the United States expose its citizens to oversight and second-guessing from nations that have benefited from a robust American military?

American leaders have noted for years that no country has done more to finance peacekeeping missions and international war crimes tribunals. They have argued, however, that stand-alone courts like the ones that prosecuted people for genocide in the former Yugoslavia are more successful and appropriate.

But Christine Van den Wyngaert, who served as a judge on the court as well as the Yugoslavia tribunal, said Mr. Bolton’s speech undermines even those efforts. She said it was troubling to see the United States “withdraw again in its position of isolation and even hostility towards international criminal justice.”

Matt Apuzzo reported from The Hague, and Marlise Simons from Paris.

Follow Matt Apuzzo on Twitter: @mattapuzzo

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: On War Crimes Court, U.S. Sides With Despots, Not Allies. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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