The International Criminal Court was created two decades ago as a standing body to investigate war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity under a 1998 treaty known as the Rome Statute. In the past, the United Nations Security Council had established ad hoc tribunals to address atrocities in places like the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
Many democracies joined the International Criminal Court, including close American allies like Britain. But the United States has long kept its distance, concerned that the tribunal could someday try to prosecute Americans.
Both Democratic and Republican administrations have taken the position that the court should not exercise jurisdiction over citizens of countries that are not a party to the treaty.
President Bill Clinton signed the Rome Statute in 2000 but, calling it flawed, did not send it to the Senate for ratification. In 2002, President George W. Bush essentially withdrew that signature. Congress, for its part, enacted laws in 1999 and 2002 that limited what support the government could provide the court.
Still, by the end of the Bush administration, the State Department declared that the United States accepted the “reality” of the court and acknowledged that it “enjoys a large body of international support.” And the Obama administration took a step toward helping the court by offering rewards for the capture of fugitive warlords in Africa whom the court had indicted.
In 2017, however, the top prosecutor for the court tried to investigate the torture of detainees accused of terrorism during the Bush administration as part of a larger inquiry into the war in Afghanistan. In response, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on the court’s personnel, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced it as corrupt.
A thaw in relations returned in 2021, when the Biden administration revoked President Trump’s sanctions, and a newly appointed prosecutor, Karim Khan, dropped the investigation.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine last year, prompting a bipartisan push to hold President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and others in his military chain of command to account for reported atrocities — and setting off debates inside the administration and in Congress about whether and how to help the court.
In late December, Congress included a provision about the International Criminal Court embedded in the large appropriations bill it passed in late December.
It created an exception to the general prohibition on providing certain funding and other aid to the court, enabling the government to assist with “investigations and prosecutions of foreign nationals related to the situation in Ukraine, including to support victims and witnesses.”