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International Criminal Court Approves Afghanistan War Crimes Investigation


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is sounding furious today with the International Criminal Court. It's the world's only standing war crimes tribunal, and judges there have paved the way for an investigation into Afghanistan. The move comes as the U.S. is trying to end the war having just signed a deal with the Taliban. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The International Criminal Court is now in session.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In a courtroom in The Hague, judges decided unanimously to let the ICC's prosecutor move ahead with investigations into alleged abuses by the Taliban as well as U.S. and Afghan forces. Secretary Pompeo calls it reckless.


MIKE POMPEO: This is a truly breathtaking action by an unaccountable political institution masquerading as a legal body.

KELEMEN: The U.S. is not a member of the International Criminal Court and had already revoked the visa of the lead prosecutor. Pompeo is signaling further punitive steps.


POMPEO: We're going to take all the appropriate actions to ensure that American citizens are not hauled before this political body to settle a political vendetta.

KELEMEN: ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, though, is promising a diligent and thorough investigation. In a recorded message, she calls this an important day for international criminal justice.


FATOU BENSOUDA: The many victims of atrocious crimes committed in the context of the conflict in Afghanistan deserve to finally have justice.

KELEMEN: The American Civil Liberties Union is urging countries to cooperate with their investigation and not bow to what it calls the Trump administration's bullying tactics. Daphne Eviatar of Amnesty International USA says she's dismayed that the U.S. is trying to undermine the court.

DAPHNE EVIATAR: It undermines the rule of law internationally, and it raises the question of, what is the U.S. trying to hide?

KELEMEN: Speaking via Skype, she says this is not just about the U.S.

EVIATAR: If the U.S. thinks that it did legitimate investigations on its own, then let the ICC review that. But by blocking the ICC, it blocks the possibility of justice for any victims of war crimes in Afghanistan.

KELEMEN: This is a long-running story, says Indiana University professor David Bosco, who's written a book on the International Criminal Court. He says the Obama administration quietly tried to prevent an investigation into Afghanistan, and the Trump administration has taken a more confrontational approach.

DAVID BOSCO: This does represent a kind of crossing of the Rubicon for the court in its relationship with the United States because we now are going to have an active investigation by the court that could ultimately lead to indictments of U.S. personnel, even, potentially, U.S. senior officials.

KELEMEN: And that would be a first. The ICC's decision comes just days after the U.S. signed a deal with the Taliban that could lead to the start of Afghan peace talks. Bosco says an ICC investigation could complicate that, though there is a possible solution - getting the U.N. Security Council to delay the investigation.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHIL FRANCE'S "THE SWIMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.