Some time ago (about half a year in fact), the US withdrew from some treaties related to the ICC. As I understand, the main reason is to protect US military personnel from potential ICC investigations. Human Rights Watch already criticized this decision.

But why is the US doing such uncommon things in this case? Opposing human rights-related organizations is not a common thing for the US to do. I thought that the US is always on the side of such organizations. But what's wrong here?

Main source: https://www.theweek.in/news/world/2018/10/04/bolton-calls-icj--politicised---pulls-us-out-of-international-ac.html

Didn't find source about HRW criticizing this, but surely heard about it.

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    Opposing human rights-related organizations is not a common thing US do. : citation needed !
    – Evargalo
    Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 11:10
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    Because doing so puts US citizens at the mercy of non-us citizens. Why any country would not do this is the real question.
    – jmoreno
    Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 11:24
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    The US position on human rights, as opposed to its own particular interpretation of constitutional rights, has always been quite weak. And the US power structure is very opposed to having any of its freedom to kill or torture non-US nationals outside the US restricted.
    – pjc50
    Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 11:48
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    @jmoreno because the crimes prosecuted at the ICJ often involve governments, and no country would judge itself for war crimes. A fair justice system requires that the judges are independent from the accused.
    – Erwan
    Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 11:54
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    @jmoreno for the common good, exactly like citizens in a society agree to subject themselves to the laws of this society because they believe it will protect the society as a whole, including themselves. Of course this requires trust in the laws and in the other members of this society, that's probably why the US doesn't agree about the ICJ.
    – Erwan
    Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 12:26

2 Answers 2


The United States has never really been supportive of international law treaties. The main reason is many of them violate rights granted to citizens and are fairly major breaches of sovereignty. Most prominently is the refusal to recognize the International Criminal Court.

The International Court of Justice is slightly different, in that it is partially recognized by the United States. The opposition to the ICJ is not new, the U.S. has selectively recognized the court since 1986. The ICJ itself isn't really a human rights organization, it's a body meant to help resolve conflicts between nations. Current criticisms of the U.S. not supporting the ICJ are as much part of Trump derangement syndrome, the current administration is essentially echoing longstanding policy (though generally less eloquently).

The United States is generally opposed to international organizations that grant themselves power over member countries. The most common reason is the lack of checks and balances on the power of these organizations, but many also tend to violate the rights granted to U.S. citizens in trials. Another common reason is that many of these organizations don't support or directly oppose U.S. interests and attempt to get the U.S. to pay for their actions. The withdrawal from the Human Rights Council is an example of this.

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    @pjc50 One example of an international court violating Americans' rights is that in the International Criminal Court cases are decided by a tribunal of judges, the US Constitution grants the right to be judged by a jury of peers. Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 15:04
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    The claim that current US policy concerning the ICJ is longstanding policy would also strongly benefit from a citation. Clearly on paper US policy formally changed changed when it withdrew from the international agreements it was previously party to, so it would be helpful to understand in what sense withdrawing from the agreements didn't affect the policy intentions expressed in public by the US.
    – Will
    Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 15:09
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    @Will In 2002, USA created a law to "protect United States military personnel and other elected and appointed officials of the United States government against criminal prosecution by an international criminal court to which the United States is not party." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… . Also known as the "The Hague Invasion Act" in The Netherlands.
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 15:13
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    @Will you asked for a citation, I gave it. I'll leave it to the OP to judge whether to include it or look for a better one. Second, it shows a long standing attitude of the USA towards those courts. I agree with Ryathal that attempts to criticize it as something new are due to TDS.
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 16:50
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    Also for not recognizing that criticism of lack of US engagement in international law long predates Trump.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 16:58

The general answer is that independent courts which have the power to prosecute and publicize injustice and are potentially equipped to enforce justice; that such courts protect the weaker ones from the stronger ones, on all levels of the justice system.

The stronger ones on all levels have less incentive to support justice since

  1. they can protect themselves;
  2. the privilege of behaving as they see fit, without the fear of being prosecuted, appears advantageous.

If you want a more abstract formulation, you could say that transferring some sovereignty — clearly a disadvantage — to supranational bodies makes only sense (in a purely economical sense, and perhaps on short time scales) if the benefit surpasses the loss. This is the case for small countries whose effective freedom to move internationally is limited to begin with, but who are under constant threats from stronger players.

By contrast, the loss-benefit saldo is probably negative for strong nations who can move at will on the international stage and have next to nothing to fear from other nations (or only from other nations who themselves have limited respect of international institutions).

This rationale applies without reservation to the United States' apprehension towards international institutions, of which the International Criminal Court is just one example.

Your question may relate to the — perhaps Hegelian — idea that the system of law is an expression of a collective consensus on a common subset of ethical principles. The law's institutions therefore would be seen as indirect guardians of ethics, through the enforcement of law. This is actually nicely expressed in the English term "justice" which does not distinguish between ethics and law: Merriam-Webster gives, among others, the definitions of "the quality of being just, impartial, or fair" — an ethical category — as well as "the administration of law", a category in the realm of of government.

Consequently, an entity refusing to subject itself under the law and its agents could be seen as rejecting to subject itself under collectively aggreed upon principles of ethics, in other words: One could legitimately assume that this entity, man or nation, reserves the right to act unethically.

Would such a stance not contradict the United States' spirit and principle of the promotion of human rights? I suppose that this perceived dissonance is underlying your question.

It is easily dissolved by realizing that between the United States' words and the United States' deeds lies and always has lain a chasm which becomes wider and deeper the closer one looks. This is obvious from the perspective of these deeds' victims; victims in other parts of the world and victims within the country, insofar as they are still alive. For the Americans who benefit, or believe to benefit, the chasm is bridged by a mixture of conscious deception and propaganda on one hand — cui bono? — and naive ignorance on the other.

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