The United States, while not always the perfect model of benevolence and diplomacy, has historically led the international humanitarian movement. The U.S. State Department’s War Crimes Office has historically been a huge asset in the fight against genocide and associated mass atrocities — now, however, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wants to shut it down.
The war crimes office was established in 1997 by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in response to both the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides. In the two decades since its conception in 1997, the office has actively worked to prosecute the individuals responsible for the world’s worst mass atrocities, working together with internationally supported criminal courts from countries from Cambodia to the former Yugoslavia. Among other successes, the war crimes office was instrumental in Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s (wanted for genocide by the International Criminal Court) attendance at the last convocation of world leaders at the United Nations New York headquarters.
By shutting down this office, the U.S. is signaling to the rest of the world that we no longer care about war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide. Our ability to engage or ameliorate conditions internationally is significantly decreased, as well is our general influence.
David Scheffer, the first ever U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues and current professor at Northwestern University, believes “this is a very harsh signal to the rest of the world that the United States is essentially downgrading the importance of accountability for the commission of atrocity crimes. This sends a strong signal to perpetrators of mass atrocities that the United States is not watching you anymore.”
The external response to this decision has also been overwhelmingly negative. Richard Dicker, the director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice program, believes the move will be an enormous loss for accountability globally. Because the war crimes ambassador’s organizational independence in turn gave the office much more weight, shuttering the office will essentially eliminate the U.S.’s credibility on the topic.
Essentially what it boils down to is an international loss of faith. Shuttering the State Department’s war crimes office is a blow to those fighting for human rights and accountability for atrocities everywhere, and could have enormous negative consequences. Even if you hold the belief that the war crimes office is ineffective, or outdated, there is no denying that terminating it will lead to a significant change in how the United States is perceived internationally. Where we were once at the forefront of human rights, seen as an ally to those in need, now we will be seen as a country selfishly wasting its influence and potential. And as a result, millions could suffer.
Originally published 7/22/17.