The United States will revoke or deny visas to International Criminal Court personnel who try to investigate or prosecute alleged abuses committed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan or elsewhere, and may do the same with those who seeking action against Israel, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday.
The Hague-based court, the first global tribunal for war crimes, said it would continue to operate "undeterred" by the U.S. action.
Pompeo made good on a threat delivered last September by President Donald Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton. The U.S. had already moved against some employees of The Hague-based court, Pompeo said, but he declined to say how many or what cases they may have been investigating.
"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," Pompeo said.
He said any wrongdoing committed by American personnel would be dealt with in U.S. military and criminal courts.
The visa restrictions would apply to any ICC employee who takes or has taken action "to request or further such an investigation," Pompeo said.
"These visa restrictions may also be used to deter ICC efforts to pursue allied personnel, including Israelis, without allies' consent," he said.
The ICC prosecutor has a pending request to look into possible war crimes in Afghanistan that may involve Americans. The Palestinians have also asked the court to bring cases against Israel.
Speaking directly to ICC employees, Pompeo said: "If you are responsible for the proposed ICC investigation of U.S. personnel in connection with the situation in Afghanistan, you should not assume that you still have or will get a visa or will be permitted to enter the United States."
That comment suggested that action may have already been taken against the ICC prosecutor who asked last year to formally open an investigation into allegations of war crimes committed by Afghan national security forces, Taliban and Haqqani network militants, as well as U.S. forces and intelligence officials in Afghanistan since May 2003.
The United States has never been a member of the ICC. The Clinton administration in 2000 signed the Rome Statute that created the ICC but had reservations about the scope of the court's jurisdiction and never submitted it for ratification to the Senate, where there was broad bipartisan opposition to what lawmakers saw as a threat to U.S. sovereignty.
When President George W. Bush took office in 2001, his administration promoted and passed the American Service Members Protection Act, which sought to immunize U.S. troops from potential prosecution by the ICC. In 2002, Bolton, then a State Department official, traveled to New York to ceremonially "unsign" the Rome Statute at the United Nations.
This past September, Bolton said the ICC was a direct threat to U.S. national security interests and he threatened its personnel with both visa revocations and financial sanctions should it try to move against Americans. Pompeo said Friday that more measures may come.
"We are prepared to take additional steps, including economic sanctions, if the ICC does not change its course," he said, adding: "The first and highest obligation of our government is to protect its citizens and this administration will carry out that duty."
The ICC said in a statement it was established by a treaty supported by 123 countries and that it prosecutes cases only when those countries failed to do so or did not do so "genuinely." Afghanistan is a signatory.
"The court is an independent and impartial judicial institution crucial for ensuring accountability for the gravest crimes under international law," the statement said. "The ICC, as a court of law, will continue to do its independent work, undeterred, in accordance with its mandate and the overarching principle of the rule of law."
Supporters of the court slammed Pompeo's announcement.
Human Rights Watch called it "a thuggish attempt to penalize investigators" at the International Criminal Court.
"The Trump administration is trying an end run around accountability," it said. "Taking action against those who work for the ICC sends a clear message to torturers and murderers alike: Their crimes may continue unchecked."
Since its creation, the court has filed charges against dozens of suspects including former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was killed by rebels before he could be arrested, and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is accused of charges including genocide in Darfur. Al-Bashir remains at large, as does Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, who was among the first rebels charged by the court in 2005. The court has convicted just eight defendants.
The court has been hobbled by refusal of the U.S., Russia, China and other major nations to join. Others have quit, including Burundi and the Philippines.
Associated Press writer Mike Corder contributed to this report.