Monday, July 24, 2017

The Office of Global Criminal Justice: Why it matters.

On 17 July 2017 there were strong indications that the US States Department was planning to either close the Office of Global Criminal Justice (GCJ) entirely, or to reassign its staff and responsibilities to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (the Bureau). There is no official statement yet, but the reassignment of Todd Buchwald, acting head, makes its impending close appear very likely. The purpose of this blog post is to explain why the closure of an independent GCJ matters to those interested in the International Criminal Court and the values it upholds. The GCJ has been the office responsible for the official US relations with the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Todd Buchwald, Acting Head of the Office of Global Criminal Justice
US State Department Photo

The principles enunciated by the GCJ has its origins in a fundamental shift in US foreign policy during the Carter Administration. Carter’s election symbolized a move was away from acknowledging human rights, to actively pursuing the cause. In 1977, his inauguration speech explicitly stated “Because we are free, we can never been indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere.” Twenty years later, this commitment led Madeleine Albright to create the Office of War Crimes Issues (now GCJ) within the States Department.

The GCJ has been in operation twenty years, and its achievements have been great in dealing with atrocities around the world.
  •          Continued campaigning to ensure foreign Governments do not extend diplomatic invitations to Sudanese officials that are wanted by the ICC, including incumbent President Al-Bashir;
  •          Negotiations and fund-raising to assist the creation of the AU-Senegalese Court;
  •          Continued technical support to the government and people of Colombia in their transitional justice process;
  •       Obtained and released 30,000 Caesar photos from Syria, exposing the recent atrocities committed under the current Bashar al-Assad regime;
  •           Assisted the State Department in assisting the African Union to set up a hybrid court to prosecute international crimes within Africa;
  •           Provided active support to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia;-          Seconded staff to the European Union’s Special Investigative Task Force;
  •           Drawn attention to the ongoing conflict in Burundi, including assisting the Atrocity Prevent Board’s mission in the region; and
  •           Raising American and global awareness of the Yazidi genocide in Iraq, perpetrated by the international terror group IS.

Beyond its commitment for accountability and against impunity, the GCJ also runs an active War Crimes Rewards Program. This has been in operation since 15 January 2013, and offers up to $5million USD to individuals who provide information regarding designated defendants who have been charged with the commission of international crimes. This program has been effective, in securing fugitives subject to arrest warrants from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Tribunal for Rwanda. More recently, the Program has assisted in detaining Dominic Ongwen, Ladislas Ntaganzwq and Jean Bosco Ntaganda; Ongwen and Ntaganda being ICC defendants. The program is currently seeking information to aid the capture of other perpetrators such as Joseph Kony. 

The importance of the GCJ is evident from these achievements. The GCJ is a continued demonstration to the world that the United States is committed to ending impunity and bringing those responsible for grave atrocities to justice. Although the functions of the GCJ may remain when the Office is subsumed under the Bureau; there is a reasonable concern that its integration may come at the cost of a specific focus on war crimes and international justice. The values of the Bureau are to promote freedom, democracy and protect human rights. Although a focus on international criminal law may be inferred by the nature of the Bureau’s objectives, issues of criminal justice are unlikely to be at the forefront. The consequences may be that the US may appear to have backed away from its commitment to end impunity, and international criminals may conclude that they will not be held accountable for their crimes. 

Written by Ally L. Pettitt

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