Trump Administration Closing War Crimes Office

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Doha, Qatar, July 11. He is closing the Office of Global Criminal Justice, which advises the secretary of state on issues surrounding war crimes and genocide, and helps form policy to address such atrocities. Naseem Zeitoon/Reuters

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is closing a decades-old office in the State Department that has helped seek justice for victims of war crimes.

The Office of Global Criminal Justice advises the secretary of state on issues surrounding war crimes and genocide, and helps form policy to address such atrocities. It was established by President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, in 1997. Since then, the office has supported the work of criminal courts in countries including Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia and the Central African Republic, and has pushed for greater U.S. support of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. The office has also offered rewards that have resulted in information disclosures about and apprehension of war criminals, and has inveighed against brutal dictators, including Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (It has not, however, criticized Saudi Arabia or other American allies with dismal human rights records.)

Foreign Policy magazine first reported that a Tillerson representative recently informed the office’s special coordinator Todd Buchwald that he and his staff were being reassigned. Buchwald is a career foreign service officer and has served in the position since December 2015.

The closing drew howls of outrage from human rights experts.

“It just makes official what has been U.S. 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.

A State Department spokesman would not confirm or deny the report, but emailed Newsweek the following statement: “The State Department is currently undergoing an employee-led re-design 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.”

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 U.S. was in open breach of the conventions. 

The War Crimes Act is applicable to both foreign and U.S. individuals, including U.S. military and intelligence officials, but civil claims brought by victims against U.S. officials over the last 10 years “for what are undisputed war crimes,” according to former U.S. 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 did not confirm the reports, but if true, downgrading such an office is just one example of a wide-ranging overhaul, including dispensing with special envoys. For example, the State Department recently closed the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Tillerson has also ordered layoffs and left hundreds of diplomatic posts unfilled. In one anecdotal case shared with Newsweek recently, a high level German official trying to reach his U.S. counterpart to discuss issues related to a major German company in the United States was literally unable to talk to anyone, as his counterpart has not been appointed.

Reports from State Department insiders during the last few months describe “empty, adrift and listless” offices and fewer meetings than in past administrations.

One former diplomat, Chas Freeman, who was ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a foreign service officer in China and Africa, told Newsweek that, despite the pushback, the Trump administration has some good reasons to close the office because it is among many “special interests” that have clogged up the business of the nation’s foreign service agency in recent years.

“One of the reasons that the Department of State has become unmanageable is that it has been festooned with special coordinators and ambassadors-at-large appointed to represent special interests, in this case the humanitarian-industrial complex,” Freeman said. “These offices are intended to serve as the voice of those special interests in the policy process and to push policies in the direction favored by the lobbies that promoted their establishment. The intent is the symbolic elevation of a cause. The result is to gum up the policy process with ideological agendas. In practice, the effect within the bureaucracy, more often than not, is to turn what might have been a policy objective integrated into the normal structure into a bureaucratic turf battle and a subject of resentment by those trying to pursue policies based on the national rather than particular interest.”

The Obama administration also reportedly considered downgrading the office and combining it with another office within the agency.  The closure of the office, while significant in a symbolic sense, might not affect the ongoing work of the lawyers who are being reassigned to other offices.