U.N. Judge Quits, Claiming Trump Administration Made Threats Over U.S. War Crimes Case

A senior judge for one of the United Nations' international courts has resigned from his post, citing interference from the United States and its NATO ally Turkey.

Christoph Flügge, a German national who served on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia since 2008, told German newspaper Zeit on Thursday that "the diplomatic world apparently has no idea what an independent judiciary is worth," alleging that he and his colleagues had faced political retribution for their work. In one example, he pointed out a September speech by White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, who Flügge said "wished death on the International Criminal Court" in response to the ICC looking into potential U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan.

"If these judges ever interfere in the domestic concerns of the U.S. or investigate an American citizen, he said the American government would do all it could to ensure that these judges would no longer be allowed to travel to the United States—and that they would perhaps even be criminally prosecuted," Flügge told the German outlet, as translated by The Guardian.

"The American security adviser held his speech at a time when The Hague was planning preliminary investigations into American soldiers who had been accused of torturing people in Afghanistan. The American threats against international judges clearly show the new political climate. It is shocking. I had never heard such a threat," he added.

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U.S. soldiers of the 82nd Airborne watch over Afghan prisoners during Operation Dragon Fury in the Showi Kowt mountains of eastern Afghanistan, on June 2, 2003. The U.S. has been accused of committing war crimes throughout its 17-year war in Afghanistan. Darren McCollester/Getty Images

A U.S.-led coalition entered Afghanistan in October 2001 in order to topple the Taliban-led government, an ally of the Al-Qaeda militant group that carried out the deadly 9/11 attacks just weeks earlier. The U.S. and its partners successfully ousted the Taliban from power, but it later faced a stubborn insurgency that has since become the longest war in U.S. history, with the militants steadily regaining control in recent years.

The ICC, also known as The Hague, after the Dutch city in which it is located, announced in November 2017 it would begin looking into "Alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Afghanistan since 1 May 2003," a year of Taliban resurgence, after multiple inquiries into the matter. In a statement, ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said the case was opened due to alleged "war crimes by members of the United States armed forces" and "secret detention facilities in Afghanistan" maintained by the CIA, along with alleged abuses by the Taliban and the Afghan military.

Last September, Bolton reacted to the ongoing probe—as well as a Palestinian attempt to have the ICC investigate alleged crimes by U.S. ally Israel—by calling the court "ineffective, unaccountable, and indeed, outright dangerous." He claimed the supporters of the judiciary were out "to constrain the United States," which he pointed out had "un-signed" the 2002 Rome Statute to establish the court.

"We will not cooperate with the ICC. We will provide no assistance to the ICC. We will not join the ICC. We will let the ICC die on its own. After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us," Bolton argued in a speech to the conservative Federalist Society in Washington, D.C., adding that the "the U.S. will use any means necessary to protect our citizens and those of our allies from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court."

Bolton then threatened action should the ICC pursue against the U.S., Israel or other U.S. allies, warning that Washington would seek to constrain the court's international powers and ban judges from entering the country. The ICC issued a statement shortly after, pledging to "continue to do its work undeterred, in accordance with those principles and the overarching idea of the rule of law.

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White House national security adviser John Bolton speaks at a Federalist Society luncheon September 10, 2018 in Washington. During his remarks, Bolton announced the United States will not cooperate with the International Criminal Court, and that the Trump administration intends to close the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington. WIN MCNAMEE/GETTY IMAGES

In Thursday's interview, Flügge told Zeit that he and his colleagues were "stunned" that "the U.S. would roll out such heavy artillery." Still, he argued that Bolton's rhetoric was "consistent with the new American line: 'We are No 1 and we stand above the law.'"

Flügge also condemned Turkish pressure on the international court, which he said removed Turkish judge Aydin Sefa Akay from the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals due to "baseless" allegations that he was linked to exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen. The U.S.-based religious leader has been accused by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of sponsoring a 2016 coup attempt, after which thousands of public servants were purged over alleged ties.

"Turkey applied its veto against Judge Akay," Flügge said. "We, the other judges, immediately protested. But his tenure was nevertheless not extended by the U.N. secretary general. And with that, he's gone."