The State Department’s retreat in the fight against genocide
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The word is out that the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice will be eliminated. No longer will there be an ambassador-at-large dedicated to furthering America’s global engagement in the fight against impunity for mass atrocities. This can only be good news for the leaders of the Islamic State and other perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity who should be brought to justice.

During the early 1990s, following the collapse of Communism in Europe, the world looked hopefully toward a future of expanded freedom, greater global stability, and a renewed respect for human rights. While many found increased freedom, particularly in the former Soviet-bloc, the world was also confronted with harsh new realities. 

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In the Balkans, a new term – “ethnic cleansing” – was coined to describe the brutal and forced displacement of whole populations, accompanied by the murders of tens of thousands of their fellow citizens. In Rwanda, we saw more horrific brutality, as 800,000 people were killed, solely for being the wrong ethnicity, in a three-month long genocide. 

As the world struggled to confront these evils, the United States took a leading role, seeking to prevent future atrocities, and to ensure that those who orchestrated such crimes would be held accountable – an interest that has remained an inviolable part of U.S. foreign policy for twenty years.

The centerpiece of this approach was the creation in 1997 of the Office of War Crimes Issues (now the Office of Global Criminal Justice) in the Department of State. This office has been headed by an Ambassador-at-Large, who held the rank of an assistant secretary of State, and who reported directly to the secretary of State and served as his or her special envoy on these issues.

The rank of the ambassador and the reporting chain were no accident; it was an intentional decision to elevate the message and the messenger as this ambassador engaged governments around the world, signaling the United States’ strong interest in countering genocide and other atrocity crimes and in fighting against impunity for those who perpetrated such hideous acts against humankind.

This year, as the office and ambassadorship mark their twentieth anniversary, it is worth noting the motivations behind their creation and what the ambassador-at-large and the office have sought to do for two decades. Sadly, though, this appears to be the last anniversary the office and unique ambassadorship will mark, as the Trump administration has signaled its intention to eliminate this ambassador-at-large post and to downgrade the independent office into one of many sections in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. 

At a time when atrocity crimes still run rampant – in places like Syria and South Sudan – it is mind boggling that the administration would wish to convey a decreased emphasis on this issue. Internally, within the Department of State, this decision removes the foremost voice advocating for atrocity prevention and accountability. Admittedly, the ambassador-at-large doesn’t always prevail in such arguments, but it is a point of view that needs to be heard and that needs to be factored in whenever policy decisions are taken. While the administration may claim that these issues will continue to get attention, and that these arguments will still be heard, it is an undeniable fact that rank matters in the State Department. Without an official at this level, there simply will not be anyone at the table advocating these views when decisions are taken. 

On the global stage, the Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues position has been unique among governments around the world, but it reflects the powerful role that the U.S. has been able to play in this area. The United States, alone among nations, has had the political heft and the global reach to push recalcitrant governments to cooperate with international tribunals, secure arrests of indicted war criminals, and ensure political support for accountability processes.  

Perhaps most importantly, having someone at an ambassadorial level dedicated to these issues has positioned the United States to drive a coordinated approach among like-minded allies, creating a unified position with the European Union and others that significantly enhances our joint position.

While the United States and its allies have not always been successful in preventing mass atrocities, as the situation in Syria clearly shows, incredible progress has been made in this field over the last twenty years. Until the mid-1990s, no means existed for holding accountable those who orchestrated the most heinous atrocity crimes, and the idea that a head of state would be brought to justice for unleashing a genocide was regarded as a far-fetched fantasy. 

Yet we have seen Slobodan Milosevic, Charles Taylor, Saddam Hussein, and Hissene Habre brought to trial, and others such as Omar al-Bashir indicted. While it is still not routine that heads of state are prosecuted for their crimes, it is no longer inconceivable and there is now even an expectation that it will happen. The presumption of impunity is dead. This change is largely due to America’s strong leadership and, specifically, to the role of the Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in driving these policies.

While far from perfect, the United States has traditionally embraced a values-based foreign policy.  This has manifested itself in many ways, but few are clearer than our commitment to fight genocide and crimes against humanity and to seek accountability for war criminals. 

In effectively closing this office and eliminating the ambassadorial position, this administration removes the most potent diplomatic weapon in its arsenal and sends an unequivocal signal these are no longer priorities for the United States. The masterminds of atrocity crimes will take the cue. It would be a shameful legacy emanating from Secretary Tillerson’s tenure and we strongly urge him to reconsider this action.  

David Scheffer, Clint Williamson, and Stephen Rapp served as U.S. Ambassadors-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in both Democratic and Republican administrations.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.