WASHINGTON, D.C. — According to reports, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is set to shut down a State Department office that is charged with investigating war crimes. A U.S. official familiar with recent changes at the State Department told Foreign Policy that Todd Buchwald, the special coordinator of the Office of Global Criminal Justice, was recently informed by Tillerson’s office that he would be reassigned to the department’s office of legal affairs, while remaining staff would be reassigned to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
The State Department has not confirmed or denied the move, instead stating that the department is “currently undergoing an employee-led redesign initiative, and there are no predetermined outcomes,” while another State Department official claimed the discussion regarding the office’s fate was “pure speculation.”
While the closure of the Office of Global Criminal Justice has yet to be confirmed, news outlets from across the political spectrum have criticized the move as potentially reducing accountability for those who commit atrocities against civilians.
However, the U.S.’ politicization of war crime investigations and its refusal to take responsibility for its own war crimes begs the question: could the closure of the office actually be a good thing?
The Office of Global Criminal Justice has been largely ineffective since its creation, perhaps by design. It was, after all, opened under former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1997, who – just a year earlier – had publicly stated that U.S. sanctions against Iraq were well worth the resulting deaths of an estimated one million Iraqis, including half a million children.
Since its founding, the Office of Global Criminal Justice has been very selective in who it accuses of war crimes, focusing largely on crimes committed in Rwanda, Cambodia and what was once Yugoslavia during the 1990s.
According to the State Department website, the office is tasked with helping to “formulate U.S. policy on the prevention of, responses to, and accountability for mass atrocities.” But some of the worst war crimes in recent history were committed after the office’s founding, showing that its existence has done next to nothing to prevent mass atrocities or hold the responsible accountable.
Many of the said war crimes were committed directly by the U.S. itself. In the years since the Office of Global Justice was founded, the U.S. has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, where civilians were tortured and killed – often deliberately targeted by U.S. forces. Chemical weapons were also used against civilians in these places.
In addition, many U.S. allies have committed war crimes, but the Office of Global Justice has raised no objections to these actions. For instance, the Saudis have committed numerous war crimes in Yemen since 2015 by weaponizing humanitarian aid and deliberately targeting civilian gatherings and infrastructure.
Israel is also a repeat offender for intentionally targeting civilians, hospitals, and schools during armed conflicts with Gaza and by settling occupied Palestinian land, among other offenses. Neither country has been charged with war crimes by the office.
In recent years, the Office of Global Justice has only taken action against the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, for its alleged war crimes while ignoring the documented war crimes of armed opposition groups and violent extremists that are also taking place in Syria. As MintPress has reported on numerous occasions, the U.S. has often accused the Assad government of war crimes with evidence that was either nonexistent or fabricated, particularly regarding the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons in 2013 and this past April. Both narratives have been thoroughly debunked. Thus, the Office of Global Justice has proven itself a tool of U.S. regime change efforts by only concerning itself with war crimes when it suits broader U.S. political objectives.
The Office of Global Criminal Justice is crucial, according to supporters, as it serves as a liaison to the International Criminal Court. However, the U.S. isn’t even a member of the ICC, currently acting as an “observer,” and has long been hostile towards it, as well as been instrumental in undermining the court’s effectiveness. During the George W. Bush administration, the U.S.’ status as an ICC member was revoked in 2002 – a year prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq – and the administration strongly opposed future U.S. ratification. The Bush administration also sought to undermine the court by seeking guarantees that U.S. citizens would be immune to the court’s decisions, even threatening to cut off aid to member nations who refused to agree.
Thus, if Tillerson really does decide to close the Office of Global Criminal Justice, it is highly unlikely that the U.S.’ policies regarding war crimes will change in any meaningful way. If anything, the office’s closure would merely minimize the U.S. government’s hypocrisy when it comes to the prosecution of war crimes.
This certainly doesn’t mean that the Trump administration is considering shutting down the office for that reason. The Trump administration, still in its infancy, is already guilty of its own war crimes – such as the use of chemical weapons on civilian-populated areas of Iraq. It has also worked to shield certain foreign governments from scrutiny, such as its removal of Burma and Iraq from the U.S. government’s list of countries that use child soldiers, despite clear evidence that child soldiers are still being used by those governments.
The more likely reason for the office’s closure is the Trump administration’s desire to redirect funds from the Office of Global Criminal Justice to those intended to strengthen U.S. military prowess and increase economic opportunities for American businesses – a more honest, albeit no better, use of taxpayer funds.
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