Accountability for International Crimes

ECCC Courtroom by Khmer Rouge Tribunal

As with its bipartisan dedication to atrocity prevention, the U.S. commitment to accountability for those responsible for atrocity crimes has long been seen as a matter of both promoting U.S. values and advancing national security interests. Indeed, the principle that those responsible for atrocities should be held to account has been repeatedly included in United States' National Security Strategies  and endorsed in congressional resolutions.  The United States has thus been a strong supporter of numerous international justice mechanisms. From Nuremberg and Tokyo, to the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, to a range of hybrid courts and tribunals convened to address other atrocity crimes, to the newest generation of investigative mechanisms,  to non-governmental organizations dedicated to the careful documentation of international crimes,  the United States has been instrumental in creating and providing financial and other forms of in-kind support to these entities. As recently as March 2021, the Secretary of State joined four counterparts to reiterate in the context of Syria that “[i]mpunity is unacceptable and we will firmly continue to press for accountability for the most serious crimes.” 

The U.S. commitment to accountability for international crimes extends beyond its support for the establishment and operation of specific justice mechanisms and is reflected in a range of steps that prioritize justice and accountability for international crimes in its foreign relations. It has also invested significantly in countries wracked by violence in multiple ways, including by conducting empirical fieldwork on genocide in Darfur and against the Rohingya;  deploying special forces to help track the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda and environs funding mobile courts and legal clinics in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to prosecute sexual and gender-based crimes;  and establishing peacekeeping missions with robust civilian protection and justice components.  The first report under the Elie Wiesel Act further notes that:

“The United States Government uses foreign assistance as a critical tool to prevent, mitigate, and respond to atrocities. The Department of State and USAID fund atrocity prevention programs globally. The Department of State’s programming includes…documenting and preserving evidence of human rights violations and abuses to bolster current and future efforts to pursue truth, justice, and accountability. Department of State programming also funds efforts to increase the capacity of criminal-justice institutions and actors to mitigate violence and hold perpetrators accountable…USAID integrates atrocity prevention into programs that advance the rule of law and human rights…” 

Recent legislation underscores the bipartisan commitment to accountability, including the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017, which mandates the full inclusion of women’s experiences in designing and implementing transitional justice and accountability efforts;  the Syrian War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017, which mandates reporting and technical assistance around transitional justice and accountability in Syria;  the Iraq & Syria Genocide Accountability Act of 2018, which mandates a range of assistance to justice efforts, including training in war crimes investigations and the collection of evidence;  and the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, which amplified the Syrian sanctions. 

During the Clinton administration, the United States created an unprecedented post of Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues (later changed to Global Criminal Justice during the Obama administration), and a functional office dedicated to liaising with international justice efforts and promoting transitional justice in states emerging from repression or armed conflict. The United States has invested substantial resources to hold accountable those who commit atrocity crimes. Among other initiatives, the United States created the War Crimes Rewards Program, offering substantial rewards (up to $5 million) for information leading to the arrest, transfer, or conviction of designated individuals accused of crimes against humanity, genocide, or war crimes. Most recently, the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act underscored the importance of accountability by committing not less than $10 million to the Office of Global Criminal Justice for “programs to promote accountability for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes…”  And the United States has implemented numerous other measures to encourage accountability for violations of international crimes, including a suite of international crimes statutes,  the Torture Victims' Protection Act,  exceptions for certain international crimes to state immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act,  and the issuance of sanctions for serious human rights abuses under the Global Magnitsky Act and Executive Order 13818. 

This litany of U.S. initiatives reveals a considerable investment by the United States in international justice efforts. In this regard, the ICC is an institution that is devoted to the same end and whose mission is aligned with U.S. values and interests. The role of the ICC in providing some measure of justice and accountability for communities that have been victimized by the most serious atrocity crimes has been specifically highlighted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which recommended in 2015 that the U.S. Government support the referral of the situations in Iraq and Syria to the ICC,  and in 2020 that the U.S. Government “cooperate with and support efforts to collect, preserve, and analyze evidence of the international crimes committed against the Rohingya” and “support for these legal processes” which include the ICC investigation.  The ICC’s investigations are also frequently focused on countries where justice is a high priority for the United States. As discussed above, the ICC recently concluded its first trial against a commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army and secured custody of the first government-backed militia leader charged with atrocities in Darfur—both situations in which the United States has invested heavily in peace and accountability. Multiple U.S. allies in the Western hemisphere referred the situation in Venezuela to the ICC, calling on it to investigate the Maduro regime for abuses committed against its own population and mirroring U.S. calls for accountability for perpetrators within this illegitimate regime.  And the ICC Prosecutor has announced that she intends to open an investigation into crimes committed in the Ukraine, which will likely include those committed by Russian forces in Crimea and its proxies in eastern Ukraine. Many close U.S. allies see the ICC as an important component of a larger international system to protect civilians, strengthen deterrence, advance accountability, and rehabilitate the survivors of international crimes.