War & Peace

Have We Found a Cure for the Atrocities of War?

Human rights advocates were shocked when Foreign Policy reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson might close the department’s war crimes office.

Have We Found a Cure for the Atrocities of War?

Barbed wire. (Photo by Matthew Peoples/ flickr CC 2.0)

The United States has a long history of noncooperation with international legal entities. For example, America is not a member of the International Criminal Court. Add to that the fact that President Trump has not been shy about his “America First” style of foreign relations. But this week, human rights advocates and State Department watchers were shocked when Foreign Policy broke the story that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was poised to shut the Department’s war crimes office.

It’s another example of the “streamlining” of government agencies advocated by the Trump administration — in part necessitated by budget cuts. The Office of Global Criminal Justice, as it is formally known, has a small staff of about a dozen employees and an annual budget of only $3 million. But the State Department has been asked to cut its budget by 31 percent.

The office may have been especially vulnerable because it is one of those run by an envoy who is appointed by the president, not career staff. Stephen J. Rapp, who headed the office under President Obama, has already been reassigned to other duties. Rapp was well experienced in international criminal justice systems — he served on tribunals for Rwanda and Sierra Leone. During his tenure he arranged for an important Syrian defector to provide photographic evidence of FBI detainees in al-Assad’s prisons. According to The New York Times, Rapp also pushed Kosovo leadership to accept its human rights tribunal and for Senegal’s prosecution of Hissène Habré, the former dictator of Chad.

But human rights advocates aren’t buying the budgetary excuse. Nina Burleigh at Newsweek has more on the story:

“It just makes official what has been US policy since 9/11, which is that there will be no notice taken of war crimes because so many of them were being committed by our own allies, our military and intelligence officers and our elected officials,” Maj. Todd E. Pierce, a former judge advocate general defense attorney at Guantanamo, told Newsweek. “The war crime of conspiring and waging aggressive war still exists, as torture, denial of fair trial rights, and indefinite detention are war crimes. But how embarrassing and revealing of hypocrisy would it be to charge a foreign official with war crimes such as these? That’s not to defend the closing of this office but to lament that is has been rendered irrelevant.”

Amherst College law professor Lawrence Douglas, a war crimes expert, said the plan “should be a source of deep regret domestically and cause for grave concern abroad. The closing makes a powerful statement — that the Trump administration cares little about the protection of human rights and nothing about the vital work of international criminal courts. Perpetrators of atrocities the world over will, however, be pleased.”

Efraim Zuroff of Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, which tracks Nazi war criminals, told Newsweek the State Department’s decision sends the wrong message to victims and perpetrators around the world. “War crimes are now happening all over the world, as you know. Prosecuting them is not the job only of the United States, but to close this office will not help to bring justice,” he said. …

The office was formed following the 1996 passage of the War Crimes Act, which defined a war crime as a “grave breach” of the Geneva Conventions. When the CIA began using torture early in the Iraq War and, later, jailing people indefinitely and without trial in Guantanamo, the US was in open breach of the conventions.

The War Crimes Act is applicable to both foreign and US individuals, including US military and intelligence officials, but civil claims brought by victims against US officials over the last 10 years “for what are undisputed war crimes,” according to former US Army Judge Advocate General Maj. Todd Pierce, have routinely been tossed out on the grounds that the accused were “acting within the scope of their employment.” Pierce compared that defense to “the latest version of the Nuremberg defense of ‘I was just following orders.’ Closing this office dispenses with any lingering hypocrisy that we care to hold war criminals accountable for their acts.”

The State Department would neither confirm or deny the shuttering of the office but emailed this statement Newsweek: “The State Department is currently undergoing an employee-led redesign initiative, and there are no predetermined outcomes. During this process, we are committed to ensuring the Department is addressing such issues in the most effective and efficient way possible. We are not going to get ahead of any potential outcomes.”

In the meantime, policy wonks and rights advocates fear that the mere discussion of closing the office sends the wrong message about US justice to the world.

Read more installments in our series “While He Was Tweeting” — keeping an eye on Trump’s wrecking ball.

Kristin Miller

Kristin Miller is a senior producer for Billmoyers.com. She has worked on Now with Bill Moyers, Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason, Moyers on America and Bill Moyers Journal. She’s also been a producer for TED, Sesame Street and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.