The State Department, War Crimes, and Accountability

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This report by Foreign Policy.com, published in July of 2017, describes the decision made by now-former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to close down the State Department of War Crimes Office. Among the many questionable decisions made by Tillerson during a short tenure that some experts consider disastrous, this one ranks as one of the most damaging, especially to those who hope to build an sustainable infrastructure of international justice that can effectively prosecute and convict perpetrators of genocide, torture, and human trafficking.

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright created the department in 1997, in the wake of mass genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. The office was intended to provide the State Department with a foreign policy foothold that would help the United States respond to incidents of state-sanctioned mass murder and help bring accountability to those who committed or were complicit in such atrocities.

Since its formation, the office has been instrumental in generating support for the development of the ICC, and it has also provided tools that facilitate cooperation between various nations in their efforts to impose justice across national borders. Now that Rex Tillerson has been removed from his position, what will become of this decision and the efforts to close this office and discontinue its vital work?

In an August letter to Senator Bob Corker, the Chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Tillerson announced that the office of the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice -- along with the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism and the office of the United States Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons -- "will be retained and continue to be organized under the office of Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights."

To date, Todd Buchwald still serves as the Special Coordinator for the Office of Global Criminal Justice, an appointed position that he has held since 2015. Buchwald is a respected attorney and career diplomat who may or may not remain with the Office of Global Justice following the removal of Tillerson and the ongoing development of the ex-secretary’s 2017 plans. (Here’s a brief overview of Buchwald’s office and how it currently fits within the structure of the State Department.)

Please join us as we monitor these changes and their potential impact on global human rights and accountability for war crimes.