The presidency of Donald Trump has been defined by the perpetuation and perpetration of systemic racism. Most observers focus on evidence of Trump’s racism within the domestic realm – and there is heaps of evidence to draw upon. Trump’s outright refusal to admonish the right-wing, racist activists in Kenosha, Wisconsin, whilst supporting the actions of police who brutalize racialized communities is just the most recent example of his disdain for social justice and its advocates. But more and more evidence makes clear that the racist lens through which the Trump administration views America is also true of how it views the world. Case in point: sanctions levied against African staff at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Those with longer political memories and who successfully resist the temptation to be distracted by Washington’s most recent racially charged comments or policies, will recall that since the earliest days of his administration, President Trump proudly put in place travel restrictions, decried immigrants who came from “shithole countries”, and locked up children in cages along America’s southern border. All of this was evidence enough: if you weren’t American in the way that Trump and his sycophants want Americans to look like, there was an aggressively discriminatory policy tailor-made, just for you.
Much of this has been justified via an alleged need to ‘protect America’. Trump’s United States projects a fragile image. It needs protection, it seems to suggest, from Mexicans, Africans, people from the Middle East, the ‘radical left’; from the Black Lives Matter movement, Indigenous Lives Matter, and so on. A racially harmonious America or more equal and just world, in this context, is itself deemed a threat to the well-being of all Americans.
As part of this incessant need to protect America, the Trump administration has also set its eyes out on implementing coercive measures against international civil servants who dare to dedicate their professional lives to achieving justice for mass atrocities irrespective of who commits them or how much power they have. It is not a stretch of the imagination to suggest that, in the White House’s estimation, the pursuit of justice for alleged torture and related crimes in Afghanistan is a greater nuisance than the real threat caused to the lives of Americans by the COVID-19 pandemic.
To be sure, every single administration since the creation of the Court has expressed varying degrees of hostility and ambivalence towards the ICC. At the same time, the Court itself has been the target of allegations that it is biased against weaker states and, in particular, African states. But in two fundamental ways, the Trump administration’s actions are symptomatic of its commitment to fanning the flames of systemic racism and exporting a foreign policy that is steeped in racial inequality.
First, coercive measures against the ICC are aimed at intimidating staff involved in potential investigations into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and by Israeli and Palestinian factions in Palestine. This perpetuates a worldview that only some people, some of the time, and in some places should be investigated for committing mass atrocities. If you’re American, look like an American, or are a friend of America, international criminal justice must not apply to you. Even the fiercest critics of the ICC – those who insist that the Court is biased against weaker states – should be concerned. Washington’s efforts to intimidate the ICC will make greater equality in the application of international justice only more difficult to achieve.
Second, while the administration authorized sanctions against ICC staff and their families in June, on 2 September, it decided to only designate sanctions against two of the Court’s personnel: current chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and Phakiso Mochochoko, the head of the Court’s Jurisdiction, Complementarity and Cooperation Division. While the ICC has staff in positions of the same or similar seniority from Western states and U.S. allies, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement of sanctions was limited to two Black Africans. Bensouda hails from The Gambia, Mochochoko from Lesotho. These two international civil servants and legal officers are now receiving the same treatment as terrorists, including being placed on the Specially Designated Nationals List. This could have a severe cooling effect on young Africans considering careers in international organizations.
In the weeks leading up to the announcement that Bensouda and Mochochoko would be sanctioned, European Union and NATO states made it clear that they would not accept their citizens being sanctioned by the U.S. Only those states had the clout to protect their own civil servants at the Court. Those hailing from African states were not so fortunate. It would be worse if Washington gave this racialized outcome at least some thought and ignored it. More likely, it never crossed Pompeo’s mind, or it simply seemed obvious to target Black African staff at the ICC. Indeed, doing might be seen as an attempt to cater to Trump’s base just weeks ahead of presidential elections.
To say that the Trump administration is fueled by racist ideology and systemic racism is no longer an allegation. It is a fact. For the umpteenth time this has been exposed by the administration’s policies, this time by Washington’s vociferous attack on the ICC and its staff. Moves to stoke racial injustice may play well with segments of Trump’s base. But those members of the international community that profess a committment to greater racial equality and social justice – and not only international criminal law or multilateralism – must step up and stand up. More than just the ICC is at stake.