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Downplaying Atrocities? Trump Plan to Close 'War Crimes Office' Sparks Concern

The US 'is essentially downgrading the importance of accountability for the commission of atrocity crimes'

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses State employees

Rex Tillerson addressed State Department employees after he was sworn in as Secretary of State in February. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to shut down the U.S.'s office dedicated to advising his department on issues related to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, according to a new report by Foreign Policy.

"This sends a strong signal to perpetrators of mass atrocities that the United States is not watching you anymore."
—David Scheffer, former diplomat
A former U.S. official told Foreign Policy that Todd Buchwald, who currently heads the Office of Global Criminal Justice, was recently informed he would be reassigned to the department’s office of legal affairs office, and other office staffers could be sent to the department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The office closure was first reported on Monday by Just Security, a blog dedicated to examining U.S. national security law and policy.

Northwestern University professor David Scheffer, who was the first U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, characterized the potential move as deeply troubling. "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," Scheffer said. "This sends a strong signal to perpetrators of mass atrocities that the United States is not watching you anymore."

The office was established two decades ago, in the aftermath of genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, and according to its State Department's webpage, "helps formulate U.S. policy on the prevention of, responses to, and accountability for mass atrocities," by advising U.S. officials and foreign allies "on the appropriate use of a wide range of transitional justice mechanisms, including truth and reconciliation commissions, lustrations, and reparations, in addition to judicial processes."

The supposed shuttering of this office could offer insight into the Trump administration's priorities for foreign policy, and follows reports of possible U.S.-backed war crimes committed against civilians in Iraq, during the  U.S.-led coalition's victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) in Mosul, as Common Dreams reported last week.

Regardless of this office's fate, it is just one piece Tillerson's plans for department-wide reorganization. As Colum Lynch writes in 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.


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A State Department spokesperson acknowledged the department's ongoing "redesign initiative" but would not confirm or deny any details, including whether the war crimes office will close.

This restructuring update also follows reports of a letter, sent to Tillerson Sunday, signed by more than 50 former diplomats and foreign policy experts who criticized a White House proposal recommending that the U.S.'s refugee office—the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration—relocate to the Department of Homeland Security. The letter outlined potential repercussions for the U.S.'s diplomatic influence, as well as concerns that DHS has neither the resources nor the capacity to address the global refugee crisis.

Late Monday, the New York Times reported that U.S. embassies received a cable disclosing that Tillerson had hired two consulting firms—Deloitte and Insigniam—to assist with the State Department's restructuring. The Times said Tillerson is "expected to come up with a reorganization plan by the end of the year and begin putting it to work next year," noting that the "unusually long process" reflects the degree to which the department could be overhauled.

Tillerson has been critical of the department's current structure, and commissioned a survey of State employees, compiled by Insigniam for $1.1 million. As the Wall Street Journal, which reviewed the findings earlier this month, reported: "Many of the more than 35,000 State Department and USAID employees responding to the survey indicated longtime frustration with the way the agencies function, including poor technology and duplicative and redundant processes that make frequent workarounds necessary."

However, the survey "comes as the Trump administration has yet to fill scores of senior State Department positions, which current and former officials say has hampered decision making," the Journal reported.

State Department employees expressed concerns about both Trump and Tillerson's leadership, with the report noting that "People do not speak optimistically about the future.... The absence of a clear vision of the future allows room for speculation and rumor about what the future could bring, such as further USAID integration into [the Department of State] or the militarization of foreign policy."

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