The International Criminal Court has cleared the way for its prosecutor to investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan, including those allegedly committed by U.S. forces and the CIA.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blasted the decision, calling it a "breathtaking action by an unaccountable political institution, masquerading as a legal body."
"We're going to take all the appropriate actions to ensure that American citizens are not hauled before this political body to settle political vendettas," Pompeo said. The U.S. is not a party to the court in The Hague, Netherlands, and has long criticized it.
A panel of judges from the court's Appeals Chamber decided unanimously on Thursday to allow the ICC prosecutor to investigate possible crimes on Afghan territory since May 2003 and other alleged crimes linked to the situation there since July 2002. It comes just days after the U.S. and the Taliban signed a historic deal, raising hopes for peace in the country after nearly 20 years of war.
Indiana University associate professor David Bosco, who has written a book about the ICC, tells NPR's Michele Kelemen that the Trump administration has take a much more confrontational approach to the court than the Obama administration did.
"This does represent a kind of crossing of the Rubicon for the court in its relationship with the United States," he says. "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."
This judgment represents a course reversal for the court. Last April, an ICC panel of judges blocked a probe into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan. The judges said that even though the crimes were serious enough for the case to move forward, "the current circumstances of the situation in Afghanistan are such as to make the prospects for a successful investigation and prosecution extremely limited."
The court also said last April that it needed to prioritize investigations that had better chances of success, adding that the parties involved weren't willing to cooperate with the probe.
ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda appealed that decision. She said the pretrial panel's assessment that an investigation would not be in the interests of justice overstepped its discretion, and on Thursday, the appeals chamber judges agreed.
Bensouda has said that she wants to investigate alleged crimes by the Taliban and other armed groups, Afghan forces, U.S. forces and the CIA.
According to court documents, she plans to investigate alleged Taliban attacks against civilians, including murders and abductions.
Bensouda also wants to look into methods that the U.S. military and CIA used to interrogate detainees. The prosecution has said, "There is reasonable basis to believe that, since May 2003, members of the US armed forces and the CIA have committed the war crimes of torture and cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, and rape and other forms of sexual violence pursuant to a policy approved by US authorities."
Human rights groups are applauding the ICC's decision. Amnesty International's head of international justice, Solomon Sacco, said the court "reversed a terrible mistake."
"The ICC represents the first true hope of justice for the victims of conflict, who have been shamefully ignored for years, including in the recent peace agreement that has nothing to say about the crimes committed against them," he said in a statement.
The ICC was established when the Rome Statute took effect in 2002. It prosecutes crimes of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression.