Closing the State Department's war crimes office could send the wrong message

The World
A woman prays near a war crimes memorial.

Bida Smajlovic, prays near the Memorial plaque with names of killed in Srebrenica massacre before watching the trial in Hague Tribunal, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has ambitious plans to streamline and restructure the State Department. And the first thing on the chopping block could be the war crimes office.

Foreign Policy magazine reported that a member of Tillerson’s team informed the Office of Global Criminal Justice Special Coordinator Todd Buchwald that he and his staff were being reassigned.

“I think this is a very unfortunate step because what it says to the world is the US does not make war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, torture a priority anymore,” said Allan Ryan, who was the director of the Office of Special Investigations in the 1980s. It was a similar office — the first of its kind in the US — at the Department of Justice, set up to prosecute former Nazis.

Ryan says the two war crimes offices are complementary and work together. At the Department of Justice, the focus is to investigate, identify perpetrators of war crimes and prosecute them.

The State Department war crimes office, on the other hand, functions mostly in a supportive role. With about a dozen staff members and a modest $3 million budget, it gives advice and provides resources and, sometimes, financial assistance to nongovernmental organizations and other countries trying to combat crimes against humanity.

Shutting it down means that the Department of Justice will be the last part of the US government dedicated to fighting war crimes. They’re doing a good job, Ryan said, but they only work in the sphere of law enforcement. What you lose by closing down the State Department office is “the role of America as a leading voice in the world for human rights.”

One such leading voice was former Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Steven J. Rapp. He led the office during the Obama administration. Before that, Rapp prosecuted war crimes in Sierra Leone and served on an international tribunal examining the atrocities in Rwanda.

Rapp joined human rights advocates criticizing Tillerson’s proposal. “The promise of ‘never again’ has proven hard to keep,” he told The New York Times. “If this Office of Global Criminal Justice closes, it will become even more difficult.”

A State Department spokesperson said that Tillerson has not made final decisions on how to restructure the agency and added that their goal is not to play down war crimes but to make the department’s efforts more effective, including in combating atrocities.