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US lifts sanctions on Lesotho national at ICC

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Herbert Moyo | ’Marafaele Mohloboli

THE United States (US) government has lifted the “inappropriate and ineffective” economic and travel sanctions which were imposed on Lesotho national, Phakiso Mochochoko, and fellow International Criminal Court (ICC) staffer, Fatou Bensouda, by the previous Donald Trump administration last September.

Mr Mochochoko is the ICC’s director of jurisdiction in its complementary and cooperation division. He was slapped with sanctions alongside the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Ms Bensouda, a Gambian.

The sanctions were imposed after the Hague-based ICC began investigating whether US forces had committed war crimes in Afghanistan. However, the US is not an ICC member and insists that the court cannot investigate its citizens or states that are not members of the ICC.

Announcing the sanctions, then US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, had said the ICC “continues to target Americans” and that Ms Bensouda and Mr Mochochoko were “materially assisting” that alleged effort.

The US Treasury also issued a statement saying Ms Bensouda and Mr Mochochoko had been added to its list of “specially designated nationals”, grouping them alongside terrorists and narcotics traffickers. Individuals on the list have their assets blocked and American citizens are prohibited from having any dealings with them.

The US also said it was opposed to the ICC’s scrutiny of potential Israeli crimes against Palestinians as part of an investigation that also looks at abuses carried out by Palestinian security forces.

The sanctions have now been lifted by the current Joe Biden administration which was sworn in January 2021.

Announcing the lifting of the sanctions this week, US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said, “President Biden revoked Executive Order 13928 on ‘Blocking Property of Certain Persons Associated with the International Criminal Court (ICC)’, ending the threat and imposition of economic sanctions and visa restrictions in connection with the Court”.

“As a result, the sanctions imposed by the previous administration against ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and Phakiso Mochochoko…have been lifted. The Department of State also terminated the separate 2019 policy on visa restrictions on certain ICC personnel. These decisions reflect our assessment that the measures adopted were inappropriate and ineffective,” Mr Blinken said in a statement.

Despite lifting the sanctions, Mr Blinken said the US government remained firmly opposed to the ICC’s attempts to investigate its citizens as well as Israelis in Palestine.

“We continue to disagree strongly with the ICC’s actions relating to the Afghanistan and Palestinian situations.  We maintain our longstanding objection to the Court’s efforts to assert jurisdiction over personnel of non-states parties such as the United States and Israel.  We believe, however, that our concerns about these cases would be better addressed through engagement with all stakeholders in the ICC process rather than through the imposition of sanctions.

“Our support for the rule of law, access to justice, and accountability for mass atrocities are important US national security interests that are protected and advanced by engaging with the rest of the world to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. Since the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals after World War II, US leadership meant that history permanently recorded fair judgments issued by international tribunals against justly convicted defendants from the Balkans to Cambodia, to Rwanda and elsewhere.

“We have carried on that legacy by supporting a range of international, regional and domestic tribunals and international investigative mechanisms for Iraq, Syria and Burma to realise the promise of justice for victims of atrocities. We will continue to do so through cooperative relationships.

“We are encouraged that states parties to the Rome Statute are considering a broad range of reforms to help the Court prioritise its resources and to achieve its core mission of serving as a court of last resort in punishing and deterring atrocity crimes. We think this reform is a worthwhile effort.”

Mr Mochochoko has welcomed the lifting of the sanctions.

“It’s a welcome development and a huge relief to the ICC prosecutor (Bensouda) and I. It’s also a welcome relief to the ICC as a whole.

“The lifting of the sanctions ushers in a new era of a cooperative relationship between the US and the ICC in their joint endeavours to fight impunity,” Mr Mochochoko said in a brief interview with the Lesotho Times from his base in the Netherlands.

His diplomatic response was in sharp contrast to his angry and defiant tone when the sanctions were imposed last September.

At the time, Mr Mochochoko accused the US government of intimidation and described the sanctions as “an affront to international criminal justice and the quest to end impunity”.

He said it was unfortunate that he had been “threatened and punished” in his personal capacity for conducting his duties as “an international civil servant working to advance the mandate of the ICC”.

He said he was unfazed by the intimidation and vowed to continue contributing to “the achievement of the ICC mandate of fighting impunity for the world’s gravest crimes and providing much needed justice to victims of these crimes”.

He said although the US was not a member of the ICC, the court’s founding statue allowed it “to investigate non-state party citizens if they commit crimes on the territory of a state party”.

The ICC had criticised the sanctions as “another attempt to interfere with the Court’s judicial and prosecutorial independence and crucial work to address grave crimes of concern to the international community”.

Even the European Union (EU) had branded the US move as “unacceptable and unprecedented” and urged the US government to reverse the sanctions.

On her part, Lesotho’s Foreign Affairs and International Relations Minister, Matšepo Ramakoae, said the government was pleased with President Biden’s decision to lift the sanctions.

“As government we are very delighted about this development because it never sat well on the sanctioned individuals.

“It was not fair to impose sanctions on them as they were only exercising their duties as the court,” Ms Ramakoae said.

 

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