ISIS and Syrian Regime War Crimes Could Go Unpunished Under Trump State Department Plan

President Donald Trump has railed against the crimes of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), yet his administration may make it more difficult to bring the leaders of the radical Islamist movement to justice.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is planning to shutter the State Department office that handles gathering evidence and prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity, such as genocide, according to two former U.S. officials.

This, the former officials say, will make it much more difficult to prosecute the members of ISIS, Syrian authoritarian leader Bashar al-Assad, and others.

Word of the decision to shutter the Office of Global Criminal Justice (GCJ) is coming from the Secretary of State’s chief of staff, according to Ambassador Stephen Rapp, who headed the office during Barack Obama’s administration as ambassador-at-large from 2009 to 2015.

“I’ve heard from inside the department about the office having been notified from a high level within the State Department that the person that heads it would be reassigned and the functions and responsibilities be transferred to the human rights bureau,” Rapp tells Newsweek.

The office has been without an ambassador-level official at the helm since Rapp left in 2015. At the time, the Republican Senate made it too difficult to get new appointments through, Rapp said, and the Obama administration’s understanding was that the next president would appoint their own ambassador to head the office.

However, Trump looks set to close it. The closure is part of a massive restructuring plan underway at the State Department as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seeks to cleave $10 billion from the department’s current $47.4 billion budget—a 30 percent cut.

Trump outlined in his budget plan in March that refugee assistance and genocide prevention programs would be among the first areas to go.

Read more: Trump is endangering U.S. national security with vacant positions, cuts at state department: career diplomats, experts

Stanford Professor Beth Van Schaack first reported the closure July 17. Shaack recently stepped down from the office as Deputy to the Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues.

Holding ISIS leaders to account

According to Rapp, the office has been working for the last six months on gathering evidence of ISIS war crimes to help Middle Eastern nations like Iraq or international criminal courts prosecute them.

The office was first established in 1997 by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as a way to pursue war criminals for mass murder in the wake of the Bosnian genocide. The office assisted the International Criminal Tribunal in the former Yugoslavia and helped prosecute war crimes in Kosovo.

A law from the George W. Bush era gives the office authority to gather evidence on genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and to advise the president and Secretary of State on ways to bring the perpetrators to trial. In recent years the office has helped bring war criminals to justice in Darfur, Senegal, Colombia and South Sudan.

RTX326D5 Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during the delegation photo with leaders from Global Coalition working to Defeat ISIS at the State Department in Washington, U.S., March 22. Tillerson's restructuring plan at the State Department has targeted an office that deals with prosecuting war crimes, according to former U.S. officials. Joshua Roberts/Reuters

The U.S. has been quietly supporting a “British initiative to have a fact-finding mechanism for the crimes of ISIS in Iraq, which is the first step toward a court,” Rapp says, helping build evidence for six months. As an ex-ambassador and distinguished fellow for the Holocaust Museum and at the Hague Institute for Global Justice, he has been supporting the State Department’s work.

Yet pushing hard and navigating the political challenges to establish war crimes courts is difficult and requires an ambassador-level official to pull it off, he says. Only they have the authority to negotiate with other governments.

At least 1,269 ISIS detainees are held by the Iraqi interior ministry, according to Human Rights Watch. An unknown number are held by the Kurdish-Arab alliance in northern Syria known as the SDF.

Some of these detainees are “little guys that need at some point to be released and rehabilitated,” Rapp says. “There are others, however, that are killers and sexual slavers and people who have done horrible things and we have to have trials.”

“You can’t put that off and then you end up in a situation where Syrian communities are alienated, they say their innocent sons are being locked up. That can cause more problems,” he says. “You want to develop cases and go after those leaders.”

The office “ is at the center of efforts to gather and preserve evidence of ISIS crimes, to hold those individuals responsible” and to “promote the rehabilitation of ISIS victims,” says Van Schaack, who is now working as a human rights law professor and visiting scholar at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Collecting evidence on Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime

Diffusing the office’s “work will only weaken the United States’ capabilities and degrade U.S. leadership in the multi-faceted fight against ISIS,” she says. However, not only will it be difficult to bring ISIS members to justice, she adds, but also members of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The office was at the center of the smuggling of a cache of over 50,000 photos, known as the “Caesar photos” out of Syria by an Assad regime defector, she says.

The photos depict war crimes on an industrial scale, according to U.S. officials, and the GCJ shared the photos with the Department of Justice then worked with the FBI to authenticate them. The photos have since been shared with other governments in efforts to help them build cases against members of the Assad regime.

“That’s one statutory responsibility that the office has,” Rapp says. “I don’t know who is going to do that in the future and who is going to be really qualified to do that in the future. Human rights monitors are not people who deal with evidence like our office which includes people that have been prosecutors and investigators.”

There’s still a chance the State Department could walk back the decision. “The State Department is currently undergoing an employee-led re-design initiative and there are no predetermined outcomes‎,” a State Department official told Newsweek when asked about the plans early this week.

“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 outcomes,” the official said.

Yet it was also reported this week that the State Department also plans to shut the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, which coordinates on cybersecurity with other countries, according to Bloomberg. So the cuts are moving ahead. Tillerson expects to roll out his restructuring plan in the fall.

“ I’m hoping it won’t be a partisan thing,” says Rapp, “and that we can keep this office going and continue our work toward accountability and trying to bring perpetrators to account.”

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