War Crimes

The Death of a War Criminal

Earlier this month, the world observed the death of Luciano Benjamin Menendez, a former Argentine general who held a position of power in Argentina’s military junta from 1975 to 1979. As the head of the junta’s Third Army Corp, Menendez oversaw “anti-subversive” actions in ten Argentine provinces. During this time, he considered it his duty to combat “Marxist” forces under his purview, and he consequently ordered the murders, tortures and disappearances of thousands of people whom he considered subversive forces within the neighborhoods, schools and workplaces of those provinces.

His military training, which included a year in Fort Lee, VA and the mentorship of French military leaders, taught him to turn his focus toward an enemy that could be found “within society” rather than beyond the borders of his jurisdiction. His lifelong belief that the lives of others were his to control, coupled with his belief in his “mission”, gave rise to a psychological and professional profile that may help us better understand how dictatorships function and how individuals come under the sway of murderous ideologies that pave the way for massive crimes against humanity.


In one example of the many tactics that placed and held him in a position of power, Menendez was believed to “bloody the hands” of all those under his command, forcing them to participate in torture and homicide within an illegal detention center so that none of them could claim ignorance or innocence if and when his activities were investigated. His response to those who opposed him typically consisted of personal rage and violence, which once inspired him to brandish a knife and threaten a group of protesters at an airport, a moment famously captured on camera.

While we mourn the countless lives lost and grieving families left to process his unrepentant death, (which occurred at the age of 90 under house arrest while serving multiple life sentences) we may also closely examine his life and the cultural and political forces in effect during his era.

As we do so, we may add one more shade of understanding to the complex picture of how such events take place and how we may continue working to develop a system of international justice that can hold such individuals accountable for their crimes. Ideally, his story may help us prevent such events from taking place again.

Here’s a quiet, heartfelt essay published in the New York Times by Paula Monaco Felipe, who was born in Cordoba Argentina and lost her parents to Menendez during the junta. May her words and her loss inspire us to further our progress toward a sustainable global system of justice and accountability.

The State Department, War Crimes, and Accountability


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. This is a potentially damaging decision for international human rights efforts, 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.

Word of the Day: Wiesenthalitis

Simon Wiesenthal was an Austrian-born architect who lost most of his family in the holocaust and dedicated his life after the war to hunting down and prosecuting high ranking Nazis. Prior to his death in 2005, Wiesenthal was credited with the capture of, among many others, Adolf Eichmann and Franz Murer (known by some as the “Butcher of Wilno”), and his story, that of a survivor turned tireless hero, has gained a higher profile as the remaining targets of his mission continue to age while evading justice.

In addition to his storied accomplishments, his career has led to the rise of a term with sweeping implications for the nuances involved in enforcing international law. “Weisenthalitis” refers to a sudden and convenient illness, often manifesting as dementia, which can be used as a legal device to protect aging war criminals from extradition, prosecution, or incarceration. Dr. Ephraim Zuroff, head Nazi Hunter of the Simon Weisenthal Center, sometimes lends his name to this disease and its questionable medical foundations, and has spent many years of his career in pursuit of one of the most heinous war criminals on record. An SS lieutenant named Gherard Sommer, now 95, lives peacefully in a nursing home in Germany and tops the Simon Wiesenthal Center's list of most-wanted Nazi criminals. But while he would otherwise face charges for the brutal murders of over 342 men, women and children in Italy—where he’s been found guilty in absentia—the German government has found him unfit to serve trial, and unlikely to face extradition and imprisonment in Italy.


Sommer’s case is not uncommon, and while a surprising number of Nazi war criminals remain alive and actively pursued by those who hope to hold them accountable (over 87 Nazis were tried and convicted between 2001 and 2011, and the annual number has actually increased since then), Weisenthalitis (or Zuroffitis) has reliably helped others evade justice.

The disease is fake, but the implications are real and they may be significant over the long term. Even after the last WWII era war criminal dies—in or out of prison—the precedents set by their trials and prosecutions will live on.  Will the natural process of aging become a rhetorical device used to protect the perpetrators of crimes against humanity? And how will this tool evolve over the years as lifespans increase and violators of international law seek refuge beyond the reach of justice? Time will tell. Reach out to JA to learn more about this tactic and the methods prosecutors use to counter it.


Our Recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council Regarding the Case of Saleh v. Bush

In February of 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit made a decision in the case of Saleh v. Bush, holding that high-ranking leaders from the Bush Administration--including George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others--were protected from allegations that they had committed the crime of aggression and violated international treaties by invading Iraq in 2003. This case holds important implications for Just Atonement and its mission, and it also holds implications for the future of human rights legislation and the strength and legitimacy of international law.

Our short paper, available here, provides a background on the details of the case, followed by a list of official recommendations for the United Nations Human Rights Council. We submitted the paper earlier this year and these recommendations were included as an agenda item at the 36th session of the Human Rights Council, held in late September 2017.


How did the Court Rule in Saleh v. Bush?

Despite evidence that the Bush Administration presented false evidence in order to generate support for the invasion of Iraq, and despite an apparent intent to overthrow the government of Iraq dating back to 1997, the Ninth Circuit found George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Paul Wolfowitz -- the named defendants -- immune from civil liability in the U.S., due to a federal law called Westfall Act.

The Westfall Act protects former government officials from civil lawsuits if their actions can be considered “official”, or taking place within the legitimate scope of their authority. The plaintiff, Sundus Shaker Saleh, an Iraqi single mother who had fled Iraq as a refugee, could not proceed with her claims since she could not identify any personal gain, financial or otherwise, linking the members of the administration to their actions while in office, no matter how heinous those actions may have been.

What are the Human Rights Implications of Saleh v. Bush?

1.       Unfortunately, the ruling shows a U.S. court giving precedence to domestic law over international law, part of an ongoing trend.

2.       The ruling reveals another trend as well: the movement of U.S. courts to limit opportunities for redress available to victims of U.S. foreign policy. Federal courts appear to be closing their doors to victims of international crimes conducted by U.S. officials.

3.       This ruling may weaken the strength of the Nuremberg Judgement and release the United States from international norms and laws regarding acts of aggression.

In light of these implications, we’ve submitted a list of specific recommendations to the Human Rights Council.  Feel free to review the list here.