NGOs Blast US for Undermining Criminal Court

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 8 2019 – As it paves a destructive path against international institutions and multilateralism, the Trump administration is slowly but steadily undermining the United Nations and its affiliated agencies.

The US has already withdrawn both from the Human Rights Council in Geneva and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris while, at the same time, it has either cut off, or drastically reduced, funding for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and for UN peacekeeping operations (by a hefty $500 million).

The most recent attack has been directed at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague which was planning to investigate war crimes committed in Afghanistan, focusing both on the Taliban and US soldiers.

The US action to revoke the visa of Fatou Bensouda, Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, has not only triggered protests from academics and from human rights and civil society organizations (CSOs) but also left several lingering questions unanswered.

When the United Nations decided to locate its secretariat in the city of New York, the United States, as host nation, signed a “headquarters agreement” back in 1947 ensuring diplomatic immunity to foreign diplomats and pledging to facilitate the day-to-day activities of the world body– without any hindrance.

So, is the revocation of the visa a violation of the 1947 US- UN headquarters agreement? Or has the US a right to impose proposed sanctions on ICC judges when it is not even a member of the ICC?

And is the revocation of the visa the shape of things to come, with political leaders from countries such as Iran, Venezuela and Cuba– blacklisted by the Trump administration– being refused admission when they are due in New York next September for the annual General Assembly sessions?

The protests against the US decision have come from several CSOs, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) and the World Federalist Movement- Institute for Global Policy (WFM/IGP).

The letter from the three non-governmental organizations (NGOs) states “the purpose of the visa restrictions is to block and deter legitimate criminal investigation into serious crimes under international law”.

“Not only might they have a chilling effect on ICC personnel and others advocating for accountability, but they will set a dangerous precedent with serious implications on the overall fight for impunity, especially the right of victims and their legal representatives to seek justice and reparations without fear of retaliation.”

Dr. Tawanda Hondora, Executive Director of WFM-IGP, told IPS the Trump administration has been consistent in its reckless application of retrogressive policies that undermine a rules-based international order.

He said its policies are seriously damaging the post-WWII system of international law and practice, and have exponentially increased the risk of armed conflict in a world in which many more states now possess weapons of mass destruction.

“The revocation by the US of Fatou Bensouda’s visa violates Article IV of the UN-US headquarters agreement”.

There is no question that the US is applying its immigration laws with the objective of improperly influencing the ICC Prosecutor’s investigations into crimes committed by all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan, he argued.

“It is wholly unacceptable that this administration is using Bensouda’s personal situation to coerce her to breach her mandate under the Rome Statute and to the UN Security Council,” he declared.

Dr Martin S. Edwards, Associate Professor of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in the US, told IPS both civil society and other countries are right to be critical here.

“I would hope that this is solely intended to make life difficult for Bensouda and not part of a more general trend of denying visas for General Assembly visits”.

However, said Dr Edwards, there is little about this administration and its mix of insecurity and unwarranted bluster that should surprise anyone.

“I would think that this could lead to similar attempts to deny visas for General Assembly visits” He pointed out that the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro could be a natural target here as an extension of diplomatic efforts to isolate him.

It would be ironic that a President that frames his accomplishment as a reassertion of American power would be afraid of what he would say from the podium, said Dr Edwards.

But the hallmark of this US Presidency has been a singular focus on controlling perceptions and information, rather than confidently relying on our diplomatic prowess to produce results.

Historically, the US has grumbled about leaders coming to New York (denying Arafat was legally easier than a Head of State), but one can imagine this White House pushing the envelope here, since it’s perfect “red meat” for the President’s base, he added.

The legal basis for doing this is incredibly thin, based on a false reading of Section 6 of the Headquarters Agreement, which grants leaders a right to access to the UN, and the US would surely lose in arbitration, Dr Edwards noted.

Briefing reporters on March 15, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said since 1998, the United States has declined to join the ICC because of its broad, unaccountable prosecutorial powers and the threat it poses to American national sovereignty.

“We are determined to protect the American and allied military and civilian personnel from living in fear of unjust prosecution for actions taken to defend our great nation. We feared that the court could eventually pursue politically motivated prosecutions of Americans, and our fears were warranted,” he declared.

Dr Palitha Kohona, a former Chief of the UN Treaty Section, told IPS the US is not only, not a party to the Statute of the ICC, but it also inserted Article 98 of the Statute during its negotiations excluding US nationals from its jurisdiction.

Subsequently, the US formally advised the UN Secretary-General that it will not ratify the Statute thereby exempting it from any obligations arising from signature.

Thus, the US has emphatically signalled its position with regard to the Statute of the ICC. Therefore, denying a visa to the prosecutor only underlines its consistent opposition to the Statute, said Dr Kohona a former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations.

While one could raise one’s eye brows about the US action, said Dr Kohona, one is reminded again that we still live in a world where the powerful dictate the terms and modify the rules to suit their convenience, despite the dreams of those idealists who had hoped to create a world governed by a transparent and predictable framework of rules equally applicable to all.

“Unfortunately, the rules, especially those relating to human rights and humanitarian affairs, tend to be applied with vigour only to the weak and the meek and not to the powerful. This is the reality of the world that we inhabit,” he noted.

Dr Edwards of Seton Hall University said: “As for the ICC, Bensouda is caught between a need to investigate non-African cases to signal her independence, but picking the biggest fight imaginable in the process”.

This does fit a general US pattern of using ICC as a tool against other countries while exempting itself from investigation in the process, so in one sense it is not surprising.

“The bigger danger for the ICC is that this might set a precedent for other countries to try to tamper with its work in similar ways moving forward,” he declared.

Dr Hondora of WFM-IGP called on the United Kingdom and France – members states to UN Security Council (UNSC) and the Rome Statute – to initiate a debate in the UNSC regarding the lawfulness and propriety of the US decision to revoke Bensouda’s visa in the peculiar circumstances of this case.

He said WFM-IGP calls on the UN General Assembly to object to the revocation of Bensouda’s US visa as it sets a precedence that will see representatives of governments and international bodies that different US administrations object to being personally targeted with punitive personal US sanctions with the intention of prejudicing how they discharge their roles and responsibilities under key treaties.

WFM-IGP also calls on the General Assembly to seek an Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice regarding the lawfulness – under the US-UN Hosting Agreement – of the US decision revoking Bensouda’s visa to the US in retaliation to a decision taken by the Office of the Prosecutor to investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Afghanistan.

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@ips.org

Q&A: 607 Island Atolls Means it’s Hard to Distribute Leprosy Healthcare to All Micronesians

Marcus Samo, Assistant Secretary in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) Department of Health Services, is concerned that the country has been unable to reduce the prevalence of Hansen’s disease. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
POHNPEI , Apr 8 2019 – During his 22-year career in the health sector, Marcus Samo has seen the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) suffer from an increased burden of disease while at the same time the resources to address them have either remained the same or decreased.
Samo is the Assistant Secretary in the country’s Department of Health Services, a post he has held for a decade. He has seen the rapid growth of both noncommunicable diseases (diabetes and heart ailments) and communicable diseases (tuberculosis and leprosy).

Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Kiribati have among the highest rates of leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, in the world. But according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Micronesia has the highest prevalence of Hansen’s disease in the Pacific.

And Samo considers the disease his country’s biggest health concern.
“We don’t seem to be reducing leprosy the way we should, so it is a big concern for us. We appreciate the way we are getting support, such as drugs,” Samo tells IPS.
Novartis, through the WHO, currently provides multidrug therapy or MDT free across the globe.
And this March, Samo met with a team from the Sasakawa Health Foundation/Nippon Foundation, led by the foundation’s CEO Takahiro Nanri. The team was in Pohnpei, the Micronesian capital, to understand the reasons for the high prevalence of Hansen’s disease in the country and to assess the national leprosy programme. The foundation’s team included Dr. Arturo Cunanan, a world expert on leprosy, who currently heads up the Culion Sanitarium and General Hospital in the Philippines.

In addition to philanthropic assistance, Micronesia, like the Marshall Islands, is dependent on financial assistance from the United States. This is provided under the Compact of Free Association Agreement, which, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior means “the U.S. provides financial assistance, defends the FSM’s territorial integrity, and provides uninhibited travel for FSM citizens to the U.S.” For the 2019 financial year, 65 million dollars in Compact Funding was allocated to the atoll nation.

Samo admits that ensuring healthcare to the approximate 105,000 people, who are scattered on 65 of the nation’s 607 islands, is a balancing act. Oftentimes his staff use the tuberculosis (TB) budget to provide care for Hansen’s disease patients. Also, with just one newspaper and one radio station in the country, his department has few tools of mass communication and depends heavily on social media to raise public awareness about leprosy.

The offices of the Department of Health Services in Pohnpei, Micronesia’s capital. Ensuring healthcare to the approximate 105,000 people, who are scattered on 65 of the nation’s 607 islands is an ongoing challenge. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Excerpts of the interview follow:
Inter Press Service (IPS): Other than the supply of drugs, in what other areas does FSM need the support of the international community?

Marcus Samo (MS): Beside drugs, one area where we need support is definitely transportation. To get to the islands, to give drugs to the patients is very difficult for us. So, transportation is one [need] and training is another.

IPS: What kind of training do you need?

MS: Training for physicians and clinicians on how to administer the drugs, how to deal with the complications of leprosy and extreme cases. Recently, one of our staff [received] some training in India and that is very useful.

IPS: Have you ever thought of building a treatment facility for those who might have serious cases of advanced leprosy?

MS: We haven’t really thought of it, but I think that is certainly something we will consider down the line. I am not sure if we have such extreme cases here, but only time will tell if we must do some serious thinking about it.

IPS: Is leprosy is a priority? Do you allocate enough fund for fighting the disease?

MS: As you know, Micronesia gets most of its resources from the US government through the Compact Fund. Most of our budget allocations come from there. But, just recently, our department has also started receiving some additional money which is raised by our own national government locally through revenue collections and some other smaller funds that we get from other governments. We call it the Legal Fund. We are distributing some of this money to our state health departments to provide care for all the diseases which are endemic here such as diabetes, TB and leprosy. That’s why I say leprosy is a priority for us.

IPS: So, for the annual budget of your department, the national government gives you money both from the Compact Fund and from various other funds?

MS: Yes

IPS: But your National Leprosy Programme (NLP) still doesn’t have any fund of its own and depends on TB programme’s budget. Is it correct?

MS: We are aware of it. But TB and Leprosy are now combined as a single, integrated service. Sometimes they do internal adjustments. But, as I said, we are looking forward to more external financial support. If we can get it, we can provide funding separately to the NLP.

IPS: What is the amount you allocate to states? Is this enough?

MS: I can’t give you a number yet, but it is not adequate. But, compared to what we had five years ago, it has increased a little and we just need to maintain it. Of course we are also working with our funders like [United States] on this.

IPS: How important is the role of media in eliminating leprosy and how do you collaborate with the media?

MS: The role of the media is very important especially in removing the stigma that is attached to leprosy. We don’t have a television channel here. We have a radio station and a newspaper who decide on their own content. We may consider [teaming] up with them to produce some content focused on leprosy like a panel discussion or a special interview with a visiting expert. But currently we are using media that we produce such as posters, brochures and leaflets.

IPS: Have you ever met a leprosy patient yourself?

MS: Only when I was a kid. Since then, I have not.