WU law professor works with ACLU to sue Trump administration over decision to sanction those who work for the International Criminal Court

| Senior News Editor

When Washington University professor of international criminal law Leila Sadat heard the news that former President Donald Trump had signed an executive order designating the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a “national security threat,” June 11, she was shocked.

“This is the kind of thing you do to terrorist regimes, not to global civil servants and human rights lawyers,” Sadat said.

As a “court of last resort,” the ICC generally prosecutes war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and other offenses that individual nations are either unable or unwilling to prosecute. Although the ICC has no jurisdiction over the United States, Sadat said that the Trump administration likely felt threatened by ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s decision to open an investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan, where the United States has been at war for two decades.

The ACLU lawsuit, as well as another suit filed by the Open Society Justice Initiative, claims that the executive order exceeds its legal authority, arguing that it prohibits the first amendment rights of American citizens such as Sadat and her colleagues who perform legal work for the ICC in addition to their academic jobs.

Via The Source

Even before the executive order in June, the administration had already sought retribution against those involved with the work of the ICC.

“The United States government essentially sanctioned [ICC Prosecutor Bensouda] by pulling her visa,” Sadat said. “Then Secretary Pompeo and others were naming names of some high level personnel at the Court and their families and threatening them publicly if they went ahead, and this is even in 2019… before the executive order.”

After Trump signed the order, Sadat and many of her colleagues quickly realized that the sanctions against the ICC prosecutor also applied to the sizable network of U.S. based civil servants who do work for the ICC. As a special advisor to the ICC, Sadat would be subject to massive fines and penalties if she chose to continue her work.

“There’s another part of the law that says anybody who materially assists the prosecutor in conducting her job could be subject to sanctions,” Sadat said. “I wouldn’t be subject to civil death, but there are civil and criminal penalties associated with this law, including $300,000 fines.”

However, for Sadat, the most disheartening aspect of this order was the fact that Washington University students could no longer participate in her Crimes Against Humanity Research Project, since doing so would also subject them to those same penalties.

“My first year, I was able to do the Crimes Against Humanity Research Project, but after my first year it just never was able to get back off the ground because of the executive order,” third year law student Christian Rose said. “It was a big bummer, [since] the International Criminal work that she does was she was one of the big reasons I decided to go to Wash. U.”

Madaline George, a 2014 law school graduate who first worked on the project as a student and now helps direct it as a Harris Institute Fellow, said that students interested in international law were missing out on an incredible opportunity.

“It was an opportunity to actually continue not only getting… research skills in my field of choice, but also because of professor Sadat’s relationship with the court and her position as one of the foremost experts in the world on international criminal law,” George said. “You’re really getting an inside view of how international justice mechanisms work and how politics comes into play.”

As part of the project, students would often sign confidentiality waivers, which allowed them to do research and casework for actual ICC cases as part of the class. At the end of the project, Sadat frequently helped students find jobs at the ICC or other similar international institutions. However, this year Sadat decided that doing so might not be a good idea.

“I didn’t push my students obviously into internships or externships,” Sadat said. “We just couldn’t risk that a student could find themselves on the receiving end of these really punishing sanctions.”

However, although there are fewer internship and externship opportunities as a result of the order, George claimed that the actions of the Trump administration have actually served to encourage more law students to consider careers in international law, rather than scaring them away.

“If anything, it has made students more interested in international affairs, because for those who maybe just toyed with the topic, they realized that there’s a lot going on [in international law],” George said. “I think if you see that Trump is scared of something, they’re probably doing something right, and it engages students more because it’s in the news.”

Sadat and the other plaintiffs in the ACLU’s lawsuit were chosen because they were directly affected by the order, giving them legal standing in the case. They agreed to participate before the 2020 election had taken place, meaning that a second term for Trump was a very real possibility. Now that President Biden has been inaugurated, but has not yet rescinded the order, the future of the lawsuit is less clear.

“As the Biden administration decides to deal with the suit, eventually his name would get substituted for Trump’s, so it would be ‘Sadat v. Biden,’” Sadat said.

Sadat hopes that Biden will move to rescind Trump’s order as soon as possible, in which case his attorney general would ask to dismiss the lawsuit as moot. Although she hopes that the rescindment of this order will return things to normal, some serious damage has been done to the network of American civil servants who support international institutions such as the ICC.

“One of the jobs of a lawyer is to take pro bono cases… on behalf of good causes, that’s a privilege of our license,” Sadat said. “And so for the administration to basically say, ‘If you do that, there are going to be sanctions,’ it’s just terrifying. So what we hope is that the Biden administration will rescind the order, but they haven’t done that yet.”

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.