Earlier this week, Congress passed a bill that will update federal law to enable prosecution of alleged war criminals in the United States – regardless of the nationality of the perpetrator or the victim.
The Senate passed the bill hours before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed a joint session of Congress. Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has resulted in thousands of potential war crimes by Russian troops against Ukrainian civilians, including attacks on schools and hospitals and extrajudicial killings, torture, and gender-based violence. The House passed the bill the following day.
The bipartisan Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act – which Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced in May – would expand the scope of existing laws that Congress passed in the mid-1990s. The legislation’s key provision should bolster efforts to hold alleged war criminals accountable in U.S. courts (see Just Security’s coverage of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Sept. 28 public hearing on the bill here, and previous analysis by former State Department Legal Adviser Michael Matheson here).
The current War Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. § 2441) permits the prosecution of people who commit war crimes in the United States or abroad, but only if the victim or perpetrator is a U.S. national or service member. However, those who commit war crimes against non-U.S. nationals or service members – including Russian troops in Ukraine – evade prosecution, even if they enter the United States. The draft legislation would close this loophole by allowing prosecutors to try alleged war criminals no matter the nationality of the perpetrator or the victim.
The legislation also removes any statute of limitations and includes a requirement that the Attorney General (or a designee) provide a written certification that prosecution by the United States “is in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice.” The Justice Department, State Department, Defense Department, and White House all supported the legislation, which heads to President Biden’s desk for signature.