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OPINION: Trump vs. ICC, Canada

Conduct of CIA officials and U.S. soldiers in alleged torture and death of suspected Taliban detainees



In the next few months — or even weeks — the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) is going to announce a formal investigation into the role of the U.S. government during the debilitating Afghan War. For the years 2003-2004, ICC prosecutors and investigators will be examining the conduct of CIA officials and U.S. soldiers in the alleged torture and death of suspected Taliban detainees at Bagram Air base in Parwan Province.

As you can well imagine, U.S. President Donald Trump is not likely to take this in stride. Brace yourself, then, for those itchy Twitter fingers and that inevitable tweet storm against the ICC.

Remember, the 123-member ICC is the world’s only permanent court for trying the worst-of-the-worst — namely, those accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It has sought to create, after 20 years of existence, an international criminal justice norm and to hold national governments and state leaders accountable.

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The central idea is to prevent the Rwandas and Darfurs of the world from happening again and to deter top political actors from even contemplating such unspeakable genocides. Put another way, it is intended to make presidents and prime ministers afraid of being hauled before a court in The Hague to answer for their egregious atrocities.

It is also worth recalling that Canada was a leading force behind the creation of the court. In fact, it was a Canadian lawyer, Philippe Kirsch, who was named the first president of the ICC in 2002.

As for the court’s U.S. target today, the ICC was inundated — over the course of a three-month period ending in early 2018 — with an eye-popping 1.7 million allegations of war crimes committed in Afghanistan. According to a preliminary ICC prosecution document, there is “a reasonable basis to believe that members of United States of America armed forces and members of the Central Intelligence Agency committed acts of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, rape and sexual violence against conflict-related detainees in Afghanistan . . .”

Not surprisingly, the Trump White House sent out its main attack dog to excoriate the court — U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton. He has been an outspoken critic of the ICC since its early beginnings and was instrumental in pushing U.S. President George W. Bush to unceremoniously “unsign” the founding Rome Statute in 2002 (though Afghanistan is a signatory). The irascible Bolton has always believed, wrongly, that the very basis of the ICC was to go after the United States.

So, in a searing attack of the court in September, Bolton labelled the international human rights tribunal “unacceptable,” “outright dangerous” and a threat to “U.S. sovereignty.”

“If the court comes after us, Israel or other allies, we will not sit quietly.” Bolton actually threatened to arrest ICC judges and officials if they move to indict any Americans for war crimes and also said that the U.S. is prepared to impose financial sanctions on them.

As an early signatory of the Rome Statute and a founding member of the ICC, Canada is thus obligated to enforce the court’s arrest warrants. What will Canada do if those named in the ICC indictment — like former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — visit this country? What if indicted CIA officials try to enter Canada?

That will surely be the day when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s constant rhetoric (or see the frequent comments by Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland) about defending human rights internationally will be seriously tested. Will he back up his words with meaningful actions by detaining the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld? Or, is all this rights talk just meaningless words for domestic political consumption?

If, in fact, Canada does nothing — or does not even back the ICC’s actions at all — it would surely undermine our credibility and voice within the court and even globally. And, more importantly, it would clearly expose the hypocrisy of the Trudeau government’s human rights advocacy.

Both of these unwelcome developments would hinder any efforts by Canada to secure that coveted UN Security Council seat in 2021-2022. But that’s the price you pay sometimes when your words just don’t match your deeds in the human rights arena.

- Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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