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Biden responds to the ICC seeking arrest warrants for leaders of Israel and Hamas

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden called it outrageous that the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court is seeking arrest warrants for Israel's prime minister and defense minister, as well as for three leaders of Hamas. Some members of Congress want the Biden administration to go further and impose sanctions on the ICC as the Trump administration did. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A day after the ICC's prosecutor announced that he's seeking to charge Hamas with war crimes and Israeli officials with using starvation as a weapon of war, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was on Capitol Hill, raising concerns that this could complicate his diplomatic efforts in Gaza.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: The shameful equivalence implied between Hamas and the leadership of Israel - I think that only complicates the prospects for getting such an agreement. We'll continue to forge ahead to do that. But that decision, as you said, on so many levels, is totally wrong-headed.

KELEMEN: The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jim Risch, also called it shameful and said he's working on legislation to respond to this.

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JIM RISCH: The ICC is sticking its nose in the business of countries that have an independent, legitimate, democratic judicial system.

KELEMEN: Like, he said, Israel. Israel is not a party to the court, nor is the U.S. Risch and others are suggesting sanctions on the ICC, though Secretary Blinken was noncommittal about that. Some human rights experts are worried.

DIANE ORENTLICHER: We've seen that movie before, and it didn't work out very well.

KELEMEN: That's Diane Orentlicher, a professor at American University's law school who believes the U.S. sanctions on the ICC during the Trump administration backfired.

ORENTLICHER: The United States paid a very heavy price for its frontal attack on the ICC and on specific court officials. We really alienated crucial allies in Europe, and it was a counterproductive policy.

KELEMEN: Orentlicher says it would be more productive to argue against specific cases rather than the institution as a whole. She points out that Israel can challenge the court's jurisdiction, and she dismisses the argument that the ICC prosecutor, by seeking charges against Hamas leaders and Israeli officials, is asserting any moral equivalency.

ORENTLICHER: He's not saying that all sides are committing the same atrocities or the same level of atrocities. He's saying that this law - body of international law applies to all parties to a conflict.

KELEMEN: Another human rights lawyer, Gissou Nia, puts it this way.

GISSOU NIA: This is not about equivalency of perpetrators, but it's really just about seeing victims as equal. Every victim has a right to justice.

KELEMEN: Nia, who directs the strategic litigation project at the Atlantic Council, says U.S. relations with the ICC ebbs and flows, and this case poses a particular challenge for the U.S.

NIA: This is the first application for an arrest warrant that we know of against a head of state that has strong support from Western nations.

KELEMEN: She points out that the U.S. supported ICC investigations into Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Sudan's former dictator Omar al-Bashir. Both men face ICC arrest warrants, which makes their travel to countries that are part of the court more complicated. The same could be true for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant if ICC judges agree to issue those warrants in the coming months. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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