US Officials Are Fighting Against International Human Rights Law—Again

The House voted to sanction the ICC in response to the court’s prosecutor seeking arrest warrants for Israeli leaders. It continues a long history of the US trying to buck international bodies it helped create.

Mike Johnson in front of a podium that says "Stand with Israel"

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) and House Republican leadership hold a press conference on the Capitol steps.Allison Bailey/AP

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On Tuesday, the US House voted to sanction the International Criminal Court (ICC) in response to the court’s prosecutor seeking an arrest warrant for Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu and another Israeli official. The prosecutor is also calling for arrest warrants for three senior Hamas leaders. But the main concern for politicians was the crackdown on Israel, a close ally. Nearly all of the Republican legislators, and 42 Democrats, supported the ICC sanction measure, which passed by a vote of 247–155.

The bill, which would prohibit any member of the ICC from using US banking networks or entering the country and places restrictions on those who follow the ICC’s ruling, is not likely to make it through the Democart-controlled Senate. But it marks another clash between the United States and international governing bodies since the beginning of Israel’s incursion into Gaza.

The relationship between the ICC and the US has long been complicated. The US was one of seven countries that participated in negotiations leading to the creation of the court. But it also has opted out of the ICC’s judgments. The rulings, which are meant to determine when countries have committed war crimes such as genocide, don’t apply to the US.

This policy, standard for the US over the years—of creating systems to impose laws on others that often do not apply to its own actions—was summed up well in a quote from the recent battle in the House. “The ICC has to be punished,” said House speaker Mike Johnson in a press conference Tuesday morning after the court called for arrest warrants for Israel’s president. “We cannot allow this to stand. If the ICC was allowed to do this and go after the leaders of countries whose actions they disagree with, why would they not come after America?”

It is not just the House. A group of 12 US Senators—including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), who recently introduced similar legislation—sent ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan a letter hectoring the international body.

“Neither Israel nor the United States are members of the ICC and are therefore outside of your organization’s supposed jurisdiction,” the Senators wrote four days after news broke of Khan’s charges. “If you issue a warrant for the arrest of the Israeli leadership, we will interpret this not only as a threat to Israel’s sovereignty but to the sovereignty of the United States.” 

The United States has clashed with the ICC and the International Court of Justice before. In the late 1980s, the ICJ brought a case against the United States for its involvement in providing monetary aid and arms to the Contras in Nicaragua. In response, the United States boycotted the court’s proceedings. 

More recently, in 2018, the United States threatened to sanction the ICC and arrest its judges if they pursued Americans for war crimes in Afghanistan. “If the court comes after us, Israel or other US allies,” John Bolton, then-US National Security Advisor, said at the time, “we will not sit quietly.” 

In June 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced sanctions against two ICC prosecutors under an executive order issued by Donald Trump, marking the first and only time the US has sanctioned individual ICC personnel. President Biden revoked that executive order in 2021.

In recent months, the ICJ has ruled that in Israel’s eight months of military incursion into Gaza they may have “plausibly” committed war crimes that meet the definition of genocide, and the ICC has levied war crimes charges against several specific individual Israeli and Hamas leaders. On May 24, they ordered Israel to “immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah Governorate, which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” In the following days, Israeli forces continued to strike Rafah, using American-made bombs to kill dozens of civilians.

The United Nations estimates that the Israeli army has killed more than 34,900 Palestinians since October 7—the vast majority of whom are civilians. (Doctors in Gaza say this number is likely a dramatic undercount.) According to one UN report released this week, over 1 million people in Gaza—half the population—will experience starvation by mid-July if the violence continues. 

The House’s vote marks both a new step and a continuation of the US policy of pushing back against these international bodies. And it is becoming more dramatic amid Israel’s war.

“Target Israel and we will target you,” US Senators warned the ICC in April, “you have been warned.” 

Correction, June 7: An earlier version of this post misstated the status of potential arrest warrants sought by the court’s prosecutor.

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