In the Name of Efficiency, A Loss to Rule of Law and Accountability

The State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice is on the chopping block. Todd Buchwald, the office coordinator, has been informed that the office will be disbanded, with Buchwald joining the rank and file of the Office of Legal Counsel, and other office staff dispersed throughout the Department. In response to questions, a State Department spokesperson indicated that a final decision as to the office’s fate had not yet been made.

To dismiss this office as bureaucratic waste is not only to misunderstand its purpose, but to telegraph to the world that an issue of global importance does not matter to the United States.

The vitally important mission of the OGCJ is to address atrocity crimes around the world. The office does not concern itself with standard criminal fare, but rather the most horrific human rights violations, including genocide; crimes against humanity; ethnic cleansing; and torture. Founded in the wake of worldwide dismay over the atrocities of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the office, led by a Senate-confirmed ambassador until the retirement of Stephen Rapp two years ago, was intended to carry out the promise of “never again.” In fulfillment of that mission, the office has engaged in vital work to investigate and hold accountable perpetrators of atrocities crimes. Examples of the office’s crucial work include strategizing with allies around the world on how best to investigate atrocity crimes and apprehend the perpetrators, as embodied in the War Crimes Rewards Program; serving as the State Department liaison office to federal agencies investigating international human rights violators in the United States, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and working with international criminal tribunals on pending cases of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

The State Department describes the dissolution of the OGCJ merely as part of a purported “employee-led redesign initiative.” That is not the message it sends to victims, perpetrators and allies to the fight against atrocity crimes. Rather, the end of the office of global criminal justice signifies (1) that the United States does not care about justice for international atrocity crimes, corroborating the inference drawn by many of our allies by our country’s refusal to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and our inexplicable lack of federal law addressing crimes against humanity, (2) that the United States does not support allies engaged in the fight for justice, whether they be rich or poor, and (3) that the United States does not care about preventing mass atrocities - in other words, that it dismisses “never again” as an old saw that has lost its currency in the Trump Administration.

To be sure, the streamlining of a federal agency to eliminate waste and inefficiency is worthwhile. But genocide and torture are not special interests on the level of pork bellies, given their own office as a political favor to lobbyists on behalf of a wealthy constituency. On the contrary, America’s commitment to prevent these crimes and hold accountable their perpetrators is a demonstration of our commitment to rule of law and justice for all.

In brief, the Office of Global Criminal Justice represents the best of American justice: a commitment to rule of law and due process in addressing crimes committed, in the words of one of our Courts of Appeals, “with extraordinary cruelty and evil.” To eliminate it in the name of reducing paperwork is not only an insult to its mission, but a profound loss to America and the world.

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