FBI's human rights investigators critical to prosecuting 'atrocity crimes'

For over seven decades, the United States has stood as the cornerstone of a rules-based global system that arose from the ashes of World War II, organizing and leading a united group of nations as they held major violators to account at international tribunals convened in Nuremberg and Tokyo.

The Nuremberg Principles — which take as their starting point the promise that “any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefor and liable to punishment” — were woven into the fabric of our system of international peace and security. Together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these global pronouncements protect the rights of every human being, demand accountability for grave international crimes, and undergird our entire structure of atrocity accountability.

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On the domestic level, the United States has incorporated a number of international crimes into the federal penal code, ensuring that prosecutors have the legal authority they need to address crimes within the jurisdictional reach of our courts.  

This world order is under threat as strongmen abound and governments step back from the advances made. Here in the United States, we have seen troubling indications of a diminishing commitment to the protection of human rights and support for atrocity accountability. In one recent development, the FBI reportedly intends to disband its International Human Rights Investigation Unit (IHRU).

At present, the IHRU plays an essential law enforcement role in bringing perpetrators of atrocity crimes to justice in the United States by investigating suspected perpetrators of genocide, war crimes, torture, recruitment of child soldiers, and female genital mutilation, among other offenses. This includes crimes committed abroad when the perpetrator is within reach, and crimes committed by or against U.S. citizens.

The IHRU continues the U.S. law enforcement commitment that began with successful efforts to track down Nazi war criminals living in the United States and to remove them to venues where they could face justice. Its stated mission is “to mitigate the most significant threats posed by international human rights violators through effective intelligence collection and targeted enforcement action” through coordination with other domestic agencies, as well as its counterparts in foreign countries and INTERPOL.

The IHRU is an essential partner in a co-located task force with the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit. Together, this team presents cases to Department of Justice attorneys for prosecution. This inter-agency team has been successful in bringing perpetrators of atrocities in Guatemala, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to justice in U.S. courts. Most recently, its work resulted in convictions of two Liberian warlords in federal court in Philadelphia.

Following the entry of a civil judgment in federal court in Washington for $302 million for the assassination of U.S. journalist Marie Colvin by agents of the Syrian regime, the way is open for the unit to build a criminal case to prosecute the individuals responsible for her assassination. They also would investigate members of ISIL who have killed U.S. citizens, such as journalists and aid workers.

Though the decision may not be final, the plan would be for the work to be merged into another office within the FBI that focuses on combating domestic civil rights violations. Effectively addressing these civil rights crimes should remain a high priority, but these offenses are subject to very different statutes and investigative practices as compared to atrocity crimes committed abroad. These offenses rarely involve transnational elements or require international investigations, for example.

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Even if some IHRU personnel continue to work on international crimes, they will have been removed from the DHS fusion cell. There is a danger that without a specialized unit, justice for war crimes will be subsumed and eclipsed by other priorities. In short, disbanding the IHRU will break up a winning team, and make it much harder to pursue complex cases such as Marie Colvin’s murder.

This all comes at a time when serious humanitarian catastrophes continue to unfold around the world —in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar — with belligerents who, at best, are indifferent to the consequences of their actions on civilian populations. We have seen time and time again that perpetrators eventually flee the scenes of their crimes and often end up in the United States, notwithstanding our best efforts to screen them out at the border. We need a dedicated team of investigators to locate these perpetrators, gather unimpeachable evidence against them, and lay the groundwork for successful prosecutions by federal prosecutors.   

The United States is not alone in attempting to hold international criminals accountable. Indeed, just last week, a joint investigative team of German and French officers made historic arrests of Syrian perpetrators for the torture and murder of innocent civilians in the dungeons of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The United States should be contributing to this effort, rather than breaking up its team of experienced war crimes investigators and analysts.

Removing the United States from this work means the world will look elsewhere for leadership in defending and advancing the Nuremberg Principles. To avoid this outcome, we strongly urge the leadership of the FBI to reconsider plans to disband or downgrade the IHRU.

David M. Crane served as the chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He served more than 30 years in the U.S. government, in positions including senior inspector general, Department of Defense, and assistant general counsel of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He is a professor and distinguished scholar in residence at Syracuse University College of Law.

Stephen Rapp served as U.S. ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice from 2009 to 2015. He is a former national and international prosecutor and currently serves as chair of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA).

Clint Williamson served as U.S. ambassadors-at-large for war crimes issues from 2006-2009. He is senior director for rule of law, governance and security at the McCain Institute and distinguished professor of practice at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University.

Beth Van Schaack recently served as deputy to the ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues. She is the Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor in Human Rights at Stanford Law School and a visiting scholar at the Center for International Security & Cooperation at Stanford University.