By David M. Crane, Stephen Rapp, Clint Williamson, and Beth Van Schaack
(Re-published from The Hill | Feb. 22, 2019) For over seven decades, the United States has stood as the cornerstone of a rules-based global system that arose from the ashes of World War II, organizing and leading a united group of nations as they held major violators to account at international tribunals convened in Nuremberg and Tokyo.
The Nuremberg Principles — which take as their starting point the promise that “any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefore and liable to punishment” — were woven into the fabric of our system of international peace and security. Together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these global pronouncements protect the rights of every human being, demand accountability for grave international crimes, and undergird our entire structure of atrocity accountability.
On the domestic level, the United States has incorporated a number of international crimes into the federal penal code, ensuring that prosecutors have the legal authority they need to address crimes within the jurisdictional reach of our courts.
This world order is under threat as strongmen abound and governments step back from the advances made. Here in the United States, we have seen troubling indications of a diminishing commitment to the protection of human rights and support for atrocity accountability. In one recent development, the FBI reportedly intends to disband its International Human Rights Investigation Unit (IHRU).
At present, the IHRU plays an essential law enforcement role in bringing perpetrators of atrocity crimes to justice in the United States by investigating suspected perpetrators of genocide, war crimes, torture, recruitment of child soldiers, and female genital mutilation, among other offenses. This includes crimes committed abroad when the perpetrator is within reach, and crimes committed by or against U.S. citizens.
The IHRU continues the U.S. law enforcement commitment that began with successful efforts to track down Nazi war criminals living in the United States and to remove them to venues where they could face justice. Its stated mission is “to mitigate the most significant threats posed by international human rights violators through effective intelligence collection and targeted enforcement action” through coordination with other domestic agencies, as well as its counterparts in foreign countries and INTERPOL.
The IHRU is an essential partner in a co-located task force with the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit. Together, this team presents cases to Department of Justice attorneys for prosecution. This inter-agency team has been successful in bringing perpetrators of atrocities in Guatemala, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to justice in U.S. courts. Most recently, its work resulted in convictions of two Liberian warlords in federal court in Philadelphia …
Now retired from teaching at Syracuse University College of Law, David M. Crane is an INSCT Research & Practice Associate.