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Iran will sue US President Donald Trump at the International Criminal Court in The Hague following the American drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassim Suleimani. Gholam Hossein Esmaeili announced his state’s intentions to file lawsuits at the ICC, in Iran, and in Iraq where the assassination took place.

“There is no doubt that the US military has done a terrorist act assassinating Guards Commander Lt. Gen. Soleimani and Second-in-Command of Iraq Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis … and Trump has confessed doing the crime,” Esmaeili said Jan. 14. 

The attack on Suleimani caused immediate concern over a possible war with Iran, with some observers even questioning whether it would bring about a Third World War. None of that came to pass, however, as Iran chose to fire missiles at a US military base in Iraq instead. US officials initially downplayed damage reports, declaring no US casualties, but The Pentagon later amended its report to include 11 injured US military personnel.

Trump and Iranian officials both declared the end of armed hostilities and pledged to move toward peace with a return of diplomatic negotiations. However, Washington levied more sanctions on Iranian officials and Tehran is intent on holding American responsible for what was most likely a war crime. 

What is the ICC?

The ICC is a tribunal with 123 member states, including the entirety of South America, most of Europe, a large portion of Africa, Canada, Australia, Mexico, and New Zealand. Compared to other institutions, such as the UN, the ICC is relatively new. It was spearheaded in the 1990s and formally created with the singing of the Rome Statute at a UN General Assembly on July 17, 1998. 

It should not be confused with the International Court of Justice, which is designed to hear inter-state complaints. The ICJ is a formal branch of the UN, dating back to the organization’s creation in 1948 and every member state is subject to it, unlike the ICC which requires member states to ratify the Rome Statute to join it. 

Consequently, the ICC holds significantly less power than the ICJ, which is used as an avenue to punish individuals it convicts of international crimes. Genocide, crimes against humanity such as murder, torture, and rape, war crimes, and crimes of aggression, like military invasions and blockades, are common areas states use the ICC for redress.

Does it hold any power over the US?

The US has not signed the Rome Statute into law, therefore an ICC ruling is essentially non-binding. An American citizen convicted in the court could, in theory, find their travel options restricted and overseas assets frozen by signatories to the Rome Statute. An American citizen has never been investigated by the court, and in its existence, it has only carried out 12 investigations in total. 

The worst likely outcome, as pointed out by Business Insider, is a stain on the US faces a public relations “embarrassment.” Iran’s case, according to some analysts such as Agnes Callamard, UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions, is sound. 

“The targeted killings of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al Muhandi most likely violate international law [including] human rights law,” Callamard wrote. “Lawful justifications for such killings are very narrowly defined and it is hard to imagine how any of these can apply to these killings.” 

Since the beginning of the US war in Afghanistan, it has never faced such an official, black stain on its international reputation. By assassinating Suleimani, Trump placed America in an unprecedented position. Even that war in Iraq, which resulted in the capture and trial by Iraqis of Saddam Hussein, did not prompt an ICC investigation, despite Washington producing no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. 

Other dictators which have allegedly committed crimes worth of international trial, such as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have not been investigated, nor have such actions been seriously put forward.

Further complicating Washington’s case, the Trump administration has produced no evidence to justify the attack. Although it claimed “imminent threats” as the reason, briefings before the US Congress yielded no specifics. As such, if Iran follows through with opening an investigation and subsequent trial at the ICC, the odds are stacked against the US.