By Lucy Seyfarth
In the spring of 2022, the world watched as Russia relaunched an unjustified and brutal war in Ukraine. Amid the immediate action in response to Russia’s aggression came a global recognition that there must be justice for the victims of Russia’s actions. In April, following horrific reports of mass killings of civilians by Russian forces in Bucha, Ukraine, President Joe Biden stated that President Vladimir Putin “should be held accountable. I think it is a war crime … but we have to gather the information. We have to get all the details so this can be … a war crime trial.”
This work is the purview of the Department of State’s Office of Global Criminal Justice (GCJ)—a dedicated team of subject matter experts that leads the U.S. government’s policy on justice and accountability for atrocity crimes.
“GCJ’s work,” said Ambassador-at-Large Beth Van Schaack, “is to pursue international and multilateral lines of effort to advance the interlocking imperatives of justice and accountability, preserve the sanctity of international norms, hold accountable those responsible for abuses, and respond to victims’ legitimate desires for justice.”
Over the last few years, terrible atrocities have been committed in Afghanistan, Syria, Burma, Ethiopia, and other locations. Appropriately responding to and redressing such crimes is often the difference between lasting peace and a resurgence of conflict and division.
“GCJ’s victim-centered, holistic approach to these issues is a great example of how the Department is putting human rights at the center of our foreign policy,” says GCJ Special Assistant Heath Bailey.
The work will be crucial in Ukraine, where the United States has assessed that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes in every region where they have been deployed. The United States supports all international efforts to investigate reports of atrocities in Ukraine, including the work of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Ukrainian justice authorities.
“This is truly a new ‘Nuremberg moment’,” said Van Schaack. “There is a global consensus that the conduct of the Russian state is intolerable, and those responsible must pay a price for unleashing such violence and for blatantly violating the principles that undergird peace and security.”
At the request of the Ukrainian Prosecutor General, GCJ helped establish the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group with the European Union and the United Kingdom to deploy veteran investigators and prosecutors from the world’s international criminal tribunals to Ukraine to work with their counterparts to prepare war crimes trials.
In the mid-1990s, the United States helped launch the renaissance of international justice for atrocity crimes. In 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright created GCJ—then named the Secretary’s Office on War Crimes Issues—recognizing the need for a high-level, dedicated office to guide U.S. policy on international justice. The first U.S. ambassador for war crimes, David Scheffer, represented the United States at the negotiations in Rome that resulted in the creation of the ICC. Although the United States has not joined the ICC, that initial engagement was a recognition of the important role that the ICC can play in achieving justice where national efforts are blocked or unavailing.
The United States and the ICC share many of the same goals, and to this day, GCJ leads U.S. support to the ICC’s investigations and prosecutions. In the wake of the genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the United States played a leading role in the U.N. Security Council to establish the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In that time period, the United States also helped create other international criminal tribunals to address atrocities in Sierra Leone and Cambodia.
GCJ continues to be the Department’s interlocutor on international criminal tribunals and next generation tribunals and investigative mechanisms. GCJ also shapes the Department’s policy toward a wide range of domestic and hybrid transitional justice mechanisms, including those responding to atrocities in Cambodia, the Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Guatemala, Kosovo, Lebanon, and Sri Lanka.
One part of this support involves managing the War Crimes Rewards Program, which offers up to $5 million for information that leads to the arrest or conviction of designated individuals wanted by international or hybrid tribunals. Current fugitives include Joseph Kony (wanted by the ICC for war crimes), the leader of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army that terrorized communities throughout northern Uganda and central Africa. Over its life, the program has paid more than $8 million and contributed to more than 20 cases.
Criminal trials, however, are just one tool of transitional justice, a broad umbrella of initiatives intended to help societies move beyond legacies of conflict, repression, and human rights abuse toward lasting peace. Transitional justice mechanisms can include truth commissions, reparations programs, memorialization, and reforms aimed at ensuring that violations do not recur.
“The Department’s work on transitional justice sends a strong message that addressing the needs of victims as well as identifying and rectifying the root causes of conflict and abuse are just as critical as holding perpetrators accountable,” said GCJ’s Transitional Justice Team Lead Ari Bassin. “By adopting a holistic approach to transitional justice, the U.S. government not only reinforces the rule of law, it can also help end cycles of violence and facilitate the creation of a durable peace. This not only helps other countries, it is also in our own national interest, because stable, peaceful, and prosperous democracies make better partners for the United States and provide fewer threats to our national security.”
Promoting transitional justice also sends a message that the United States cares about the people affected by violence.
“When the United States issued its determination that ISIS committed genocide against the Yezidi and other communities in Iraq, it was incredibly impactful,” said GCJ’s Near Eastern Affairs Team Lead Susan Notar. “There was a sense that the Yezidi in particular took solace from the formal recognition of what they had endured.”
GCJ plays a central role on U.S. government atrocities determinations, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s March 2022 announcement at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that members of the Burmese military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya.
Having a dedicated office of subject matter experts singularly focused on accountability for atrocity crimes provides the Department with a unique advantage.
“Even among our closest allies, there are no similar offices in foreign ministries,” said Acting Director David Mandel-Anthony. “We provide senior Department leadership with an unmatched institutional memory and expertise on atrocity crimes, sustained by decades-long relationships with victim groups, civil society, international justice institutions, and national authorities. Restoring peace and securing justice to societies affected by mass atrocities can take generations, and GCJ provides that longevity.”
Coordinating the range of judicial and non-judicial responses to atrocities worldwide is a heavy task for an office that currently numbers fewer than 15 people. However, it is not a team to be underestimated.
“As a Foreign Service officer serving a one-year tour in GCJ, I’ve been so impressed by the level of commitment my GCJ colleagues demonstrate for the work they do,” said Bailey. “Justice and accountability isn’t just a slogan or a job description—it is a real passion for this team. GCJ subject matter experts dedicate themselves to developing unparalleled expertise in some of the most thorny, complicated, and long-running conflicts and atrocity situations in the world. They also bring a mastery of the tools available to promote real justice for victims and counter impunity for those responsible for abuses.”
Van Schaack agrees. “The GCJ staffers are fully mission driven, bringing years of experience in international and transitional justice to the U.S. foreign policy infrastructure dedicated to atrocities prevention and response,” she said. “Although our subject matter often mires them in the worst of human nature, the team retains an unshakable faith in humanity and the promise of justice.”
Lucy Seyfarth is a foreign affairs officer and Africa team lead in the Office of Global Criminal Justice.