Tillerson to Shutter State Department War Crimes Office
Critics charge top U.S. diplomat with giving the green light to perpetrators of mass atrocities.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is downgrading the U.S. campaign against mass atrocities, shuttering the Foggy Bottom office that worked for two decades to hold war criminals accountable, according to several former U.S. officials.
Tillerson’s office recently informed Todd Buchwald, the special coordinator of the Office of Global Criminal Justice, that he is being reassigned to a position in the State Department’s office of legal affairs, according to a former U.S. official familiar with the move. Buchwald, a career State Department lawyer, has served in the position since December 2015.
The remaining staff in the office, Buchwald was told, may be reassigned to the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, the former official told Foreign Policy.
The decision to close the office comes at a time when America’s top diplomat has been seeking to reorganize the State Department to concentrate on what he sees as key priorities: pursuing economic opportunities for American businesses and strengthening U.S. military prowess. Those changes are coming at the expense of programs that promote human rights and fight world poverty, which have been targeted for steep budget cuts.
“There’s no mistaking it — this move will be a huge loss for accountability,” said Richard Dicker, the director of Human Rights Watch’s international justice program. The war crimes ambassador’s “organizational independence gave the office much more weight,” he added.
Buchwald did not respond to a request for comment. A State Department spokesperson did not confirm or deny the office was being shuttered. “The State Department is currently undergoing an employee-led redesign initiative, and there are no predetermined outcomes,” the spokesperson said. “We are not going to get ahead of any outcomes.”
One senior State Department official, speaking on background, said it was “pure speculation on someone’s part” that the war crimes office was closing. But the official said there’s a massive drive to reorganize and consolidate the State Department, including folding special envoy offices back into bureaus to streamline the policymaking process and cut out redundancies from the unwieldy bureaucracy. The official also cautioned that policymakers often float the idea of closing certain offices and bureaus “just to see what comes back.”
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright established the office in 1997, creating the post of ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues to elevate the importance of confronting mass murder in U.S. foreign policy. The decision was part of a growing movement in the 1990s, fueled in large part by genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, to prosecute individuals responsible for the world’s worst atrocities.
Advocates have long believed appointing a prominent, high-level political appointee, preferably with influence in the highest levels of government, was the only way to prod the American foreign-policy bureaucracy into confronting reports of mass atrocities.
For two decades, the office has spearheaded cooperation with a range of internationally supported criminal courts from Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to Cambodia and the Central African Republic and pushed for greater U.S. support for the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“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,” said David Scheffer, a professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, who served as the first U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues. “This sends a strong signal to perpetrators of mass atrocities that the United States is not watching you anymore.”
The closure is only the latest, and most serious, setback for the office, which has found sometimes grudging support from Democratic and Republican administrations and survived “even the darkest days of John Bolton’s rule in the international organization department at State,” Dicker said.
Even before the Donald Trump administration took power, the future of the war crimes office was in question. The State Department during the Barack Obama administration also considered downgrading the office and folding it into the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Following the August 2015 departure of Stephen Rapp, the last full-fledged ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, the Obama administration never nominated a successor for the top post, leaving his deputy, Jane Stromseth, in charge until December 2015.
Buchwald, then a career State Department lawyer, was plucked out of the bureaucracy to head the office. He was given the title of special coordinator and granted temporary ambassadorial ranking, which has since expired. His appointment was never sent to the Senate for confirmation, meaning the office has not had a full-fledged ambassador-at-large for more than two and a half years.
Since its first days, the office has sought to elevate the importance of supporting the prosecution of a rogues’ gallery of alleged mass murderers, from Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and to push back on institutional fears within the U.S. government that the pursuit of justice may complicate competing U.S. interests to persuade countries to pursue peace or to aid the United States in the fight against terrorists.
For instance, the war crimes office helped run a special rewards fund for information leading to the apprehension of war criminals and was instrumental in pressuring Sudan’s Bashir, the world’s only sitting head of state wanted for genocide by the ICC, to drop plans to attend a convocation of world leaders at the U.N. headquarters in New York.
Beth Van Schaack, a former lawyer in the war crimes office who first reported Monday morning on the decision to shutter the office, wrote that “Buchwald has apparently been told that his detail will terminate shortly.”
Van Schaack wrote that the move against the war crimes office is part of a broader reorganization of the undersecretariat for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, which oversees a series of bureaus that deal with refugees, migration, human trafficking, and the effort to counter violent extremism.
“Having a free-standing office,” headed by a U.S. ambassador, is “so critical for maintaining our bipartisan tradition of leadership on both justice and accountability and to make sure we have a strong voice for these issues in the government,” Stromseth, the former deputy of the war crimes office, told FP.
Michael Posner, who served as assistant secretary of state for the human rights bureau during the Obama administration, suggested that shuttering the war crimes office did not foreclose the prospect that another State Department agency might carry the torch.
“The key is the appointment of strong people and the provision of adequate resources and political support to enable them to do their jobs effectively,” he said. “Treating human rights and global justice issues as foreign-policy priorities advances U.S. interests and values. They are inseparable.”
FP‘s State Department reporter Robbie Gramer contributed to this report from Washington.
Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images