Editors’ Note: This is the latest in Just Security’s weekly series keeping readers up to date on developments at the United Nations at the intersection of national security, human rights, and the rule of law.
ICC rejects request to open investigation into the situation in Afghanistan
On April 5, the United States revoked the entry visa for Fatou Bensouda, the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) prosecutor. Bensouda had announced at the end of 2017 that her office would file a request with the judges of the ICC to open a formal investigation on allegations of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Afghanistan. Today, the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber rejected Bensouda’s request, holding that “an investigation into the situation in Afghanistan at this stage would not serve the interests of justice.” The Chamber argued that “notwithstanding the fact all the relevant requirements are met as regards both jurisdiction and admissibility, the current circumstances of the situation in Afghanistan are such as to make the prospects for a successful investigation and prosecution extremely limited.”
The brunt of Bensouda’s reports up until this point have focused not on the United States, but on the Taliban. In its 2017 Report on Preliminary Examination Activities, the Prosecutor’s Office argued “there is…reasonable basis to believe” that the Taliban and their affiliates have committed a litany of war crimes, including “intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population” and “conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years or using them to participate actively in hostilities.” The Prosecutor’s Office, however, also discussed allegations of misconduct by the Afghan National Security Forces as well as allegations that US soldiers and CIA personnel had committed torture, “outrages upon personal dignity,” and sexual violence “in secret detention facilities both in Afghanistan and on the territory of other States Parties” between 2003 and 2004.
The United States is not a member state of the ICC and has argued that the ICC does not have jurisdiction over US nationals. In 2002, Congress passed the American Service-Members’ Protection Act, which among other provisions authorizes the President to “use all means necessary and appropriate to bring about the release of any person…who is detained or imprisoned by, on behalf of, or at the request of the International Criminal Court.” The Trump administration has been especially critical of the ICC. In a September 2018 speech, for example, National Security Advisor John Bolton proclaimed that “we will let the ICC die on its own. After all, for all intents and purposes the ICC is already dead to us.” Bolton argued that the court was so “deeply divisive and so deeply flawed” that it had no “legitimate claim to jurisdiction.”
Nor is the United States the only country to have so flagrantly criticized the ICC. In 2017, Burundi withdrew from the Rome Statute in response to an ICC investigation, with a government spokesperson casting the ICC as a “weapon used by the West to enslave” other states. This past March, the Philippines also withdrew from the Court. The Prosecutor’s Office had been conducting a preliminary inquiry into the conduct of Filipino security services during President Duterte’s “war on drugs.”
The Trump Administration’s decision to revoke Bensouda’s visa attracted criticism from a range of commentators and human rights organizations. Amnesty International tweeted that “cooperation with the ICC is in the USA’s interests,” arguing that the administration ought to “share relevant information and show there is nothing to hide.” Judith Kelley, writing for the Washington Post, asked: “If the U.S. doesn’t respect international law, why should other nations?” Today’s decision signals recognition on the part of the Pre-Trial Chamber that the Prosecutor’s Office would face insurmountable hurdles if it were to formally investigate the alleged U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan.
Secretary General appeals for ceasefire in Libya
Last week, General Khalifa Hifter’s Libyan National Army (LNA) launched a multi-pronged assault on Tripoli, home to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The death toll from the fighting has risen to at least 51, inclusive of “both combatants and civilians,” as LNA forces close on the city center. An LNA warplane struck Mitiga airport, Tripoli’s only functioning airport, on Monday. UN officials have noted that the strike on Mitiga could constitute a war crime if the attack was found to be “indiscriminate.” Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has also warned that attacks on civilian infrastructure could constitute war crimes.
General Hifter, who helped bring Muammar Gaddafi to power in 1969, left Libya in 1987 after falling out with the dictator. Hifter spent years in exile in the United States, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen. He returned to Libya shortly before NATO’s 2011 intervention in the hope of leading the revolution against Gaddafi. In recent years, Hifter has decried the UN-backed government’s fight against Islamist insurgents as ineffective, casting himself as “a national protector” and carving out a fiefdom in eastern Libya. He has also argued that Libya is not “ripe for democracy.” In January 2019, LNA forces mounted an offensive in Libya’s southern Fezzan region, seizing local oil facilities. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have all backed the LNA; France has provided “tacit support” for Hifter as well.
On Monday, the Secretary General issued a condemnation of the “military escalation and ongoing fighting in and around Tripoli,” specifically criticizing the LNA attack on Mitiga airport. Guterres emphasized that “there is no military solution to the Libya conflict” and called on “all parties to engage in immediate dialogue to reach a political solution.” Guterres had met with Libyan leaders last week to discuss a UN-backed Libyan National Conference, an attempt at producing a “Libyan-led and Libyan owned political solution” that was originally scheduled for mid-April. Ghassan Salamé, Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) announced on Tuesday that the Conference would be postponed.
The chances of any real political consensus look slim, as LNA soldiers continue to press the offensive on Tripoli. Youssef Cherif has argued that no matter the outcome of Hifter’s offensive, “Libya will continue to be an epicentre of the crisis in North Africa and a major source of concern beyond its borders.”
Pence calls on UN to revoke credentials of Venezuelan ambassador
On April 10, the Security Council held an emergency session on the devolving situation in Venezuela at the United States’ behest. As in past Security Council sessions, Russia and the United States sparred, with each accusing the other of being on the wrong side of history. Russia, which remains a staunch supporter of President Nicolás Maduro’s regime, accused the United States of “artificially [provoking] a crisis…in order to overthrow a legitimately elected leader and replace him with their own pawn.” Vice President Mike Pence, addressing the Council, said that the United Nations ought to revoke the credentials of Venezuelan Ambassador Samuel Moncada, telling Moncada: “You should return to Venezuela and tell Nicolás Maduro that his time is up.” Pence also stressed that “all options are on the table.”
In the meantime, humanitarian conditions in Venezuela have worsened. UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock, addressing the Council, shared that 25% of Venezuela’s population is in need of humanitarian aid and underscored the need to “separate political and humanitarian objectives.” Maduro’s regime has blocked the inflow of U.S.-supplied humanitarian aid and went so far as to close the border with Brazil in late February.
Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, Human Rights Watch and researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health urged the Secretary General to declare the situation in Venezuela a “complex humanitarian emergency that poses a serious risk to the region.” Last week, these groups released a report entitled “Venezuela’s Humanitarian Emergency” that called on Guterres to “make clear to Venezuela’s leadership that it is responsible for ensuring that the UN can implement a humanitarian response commensurate with the gravity of the crisis.”
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir forced out in coup
On Thursday, Sudanese Defense Minister Awad Mohammed Ibn Ouf announced that President Omar al-Bashir had been detained and that a military council will rule the country for the next two years. Tens of thousands of protestors had marched on Army Headquarters in Khartoum on April 6, commencing a sit-in. The country has been in ferment since December 2018, when protests against al-Bashir broke out after a spike in bread prices.
Splits in the country’s security services–between the Army and paramilitary groups like the feared National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS)–quickly became apparent. In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Sudanese Army soldiers exchanged fire with paramilitary troops loyal to al-Bashir in an attempt to protect protestors. The paramilitary forces had opened fire on protestors gathered outside the Army Headquarters. According to the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors, at least twenty-two people, including five Sudanese Army soldiers, have been killed since Saturday.
Sudanese have protested about poor economic conditions before. In January 2018, for example, demonstrations broke out across the country, with protestors criticizing economic conditions and high commodity prices. But this past week’s protests were different. On Monday, pictures and videos of 22-year-old Alaa Salah swept the Internet. Salah, passionately addressing her fellow demonstrators and clad in a traditional Sudanese toub, has become a defining image for the protest movement.
The UK, US, and Norway issued a joint statement on April 9, stating that the protests had reached a “new level of intensity and popular support” and that “the time has come for the Sudanese authorities to…deliver a credible plan for…political transition.” UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet affirmed the Sudanese government’s responsibility to protect protestors. The Secretary General called on the government to “create a conducive environment for a solution to the current situation and to promote an inclusive dialogue.”
The question is now whether the military will insist on maintaining power, despite demonstrators’ calls for a civilian government. The military has imposed a curfew and suspended the constitution, but thousands of protestors remain out on the streets.