Representative Ted Lieu in Defense of Global Justice

As mentioned last week by Jane Stromseth in her terrific post “Why the U.S. needs the Office of Global Criminal Justice Led by a Senate-Confirmed Ambassador-at-Large,” the intrepid Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA) has been circulating a petition among members of Congress in defense of the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice.  (The fate of the office is also mentioned in this distressing account of the climate and mood in the State Department). Key excerpts:

Collectively, this office houses much of the most technical legal expertise on transitional and international justice mechanisms available to the U.S. Government. … Closing this office would unilaterally degrade the U.S. Government’s knowledge base on criminal accountability at a time when we are witnessing some of the worst war crimes and crimes against humanity in a generation. …

Closing GCJ would also leave the U.S. legally vulnerable.  In its role as the liaison to international tribunals with jurisdiction over war crimes and other serious crimes of concern to the international community, GCJ is also responsible for interfacing with the International Criminal Court [which is considering crimes committed in Afghanistan by U.S. forces and personnel]. … Lacking an ambassadorial-level official and staff with the necessary expertise to represent the United States in talks with the ICC during this legally and politically fraught time would only harm our interests.

Abolishing the Office of Global Criminal Justice would be a self-inflicted wound.  It would diminish the United States’ standing as a nation committed to holding accountable those responsible for genocide and other forms of crimes against the human race.  It could also harm our ability to successfully resolve a matter that will establish a significant precedent concerning international criminal scrutiny of American military and intelligence personnel.

Signed by an honor roll of 30 members of Congress, the full text of the letter can be found here. NGOs are also circulating letters of support and conducting other outreach, and the ABA will consider a draft resolution at its next annual meeting urging the Trump Administration and Congress to preserve the office and the Ambassador-at-Large position.

As Representative Lieu’s letter notes, the timing of this potential restructuring of the State Department could not be worse.  According to one study, the global economy loses $14.3 trillion a year due to violence (13% of global GNP) of which $89.6 billion is due to terrorism (as opposed to other forms of armed conflict and state repression).  Violence is now on the rise worldwide for the first time since the 1990s and over 50 countries, and nearly half of the world’s population have experienced, or are experiencing, political violence. As a result of these levels of violence, upwards of 65 million people are uprooted according to the office of the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees in what has become the worst refugee crisis since World War II.  At the moment, 80% of all humanitarian aid is going to people fleeing violence, conflict, and repression. In the past, these funds went to people suffering as a result of natural disasters.  These data are all set out in harrowing detail in a range of authoritative sources, including the Institute for Economics & Peace’s 2016 Global Terrorism Index; Mercy CorpsOunce of Prevention Report; and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) States of Fragility Report. This violence underpins national security threats, such as terrorism, and requires a holistic response.

An obvious solution to preserving the expertise and stature of GCJ would be to provide the office with statutory authorization.  There are a number of potential vehicles for this effort, including the atrocity prevention and response bills I’ve highlighted on these pages in the past, such as the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, and the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2017.  In addition, there are nascent efforts to launch a PEPFAR for atrocities prevention.  PEPFAR—which stands for President’s Plan for AIDS Relief—is the largest global health program in history.  A signature initiative of President George W. Bush, PEPFAR adopts a whole-of-government approach to fighting the AIDs-HIC pandemic.  The atrocities prevention & response version would authorize a new interagency initiative to orient U.S. foreign policy and assistance towards reducing global levels of violence and addressing the root causes of chronic instability.

Another option is a provision in an appropriations bill; although generally only valid for a year, appropriations language is often renewed. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), ranking member on the Senate Committee on Appropriations, and his brilliant staffer, Tim Rieser, have a long history of obtaining bipartisan support for human rights language in appropriations bills.  (Leahy Vetting is a result of his efforts—see our recent coverage here). Language could be placed in the next Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill to protect key State Department offices, assuming Congress can avoid the dreaded continuing resolution.

GCJ has a number of additional allies on the Hill, and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have championed, and relied upon, the work of the office, particularly in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  But, as efforts are underway to save the office, advocates should also look to the Senate and House Appropriations/Foreign Operations Subcommittees.  In addition, although the fate of GCJ has received a lot of attention, advocates for a diplomacy-centered foreign policy that puts civilian security and human rights at the center should not lose sight of the fact that also in jeopardy are the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) and other elements of the so-called J Bureau dedicated to Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights; the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (GWI), which apparently will be closed; and USAID, which may be merged with the State Department and significantly truncated.

The State Department and USAID are undergoing a “Joint Strategic Plan” exercise for 2018-2022, which will set forth recommendations for restructuring the Department and for undertaking personnel reductions pursuant to the OMB Memo 17-22 of April 12, 2017. The report is set to be released February 2018 per the FY18 Congressional Budget Justification.  This document will contain the final decision-making around any potential reorganization of executive branch agencies, so it is not too late to change course.

To be sure, with the Affordable Care Act repeal efforts coupled with the unfolding Russia scandal, the Hill is busy with other priorities, but the United States should not back off or abandon our long-standing commitment to opposing atrocity crimes. 

About the Author(s)

Beth Van Schaack

Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor of Human Rights, Stanford Law School; Former Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the U.S. State Department. All views are her own. Follow her on Twitter (@BethVanSchaack).