Last week, fellow former State Department Deputy Beth van Schaack first reported on the planned closure of the State Department's Office of Global Criminal Justice ("GCJ"). The GCJ, historically led by an Ambassador-at-Large, is tasked with advising the Secretary of State and "and other elements of the United States government" on how to prevent and respond to atrocity crimes.
The potential elimination of the GCJ has been widely criticized by, among others, three of the office's prior leaders. Notably, former Ambassadors-at-Large Scheffer, Williamson, and Rapp--appointed by Presidents Clinton, (G.W.) Bush, and Obama, respectively--issued a joint contribution shortly after the plan was disclosed. The piece describes the seemingly imminent demise of the GCJ as "good news for the leaders of the Islamic State and other perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity."
Since the creation of the GCJ, traditional head of state immunity has given way to instances of criminal liability for state-orchestrated atrocities. This change is thanks in large part to the work of recently formed international institutions, spearheaded by the United States, and specifically supported by the work of the GCJ. Notably, this assistance has not been purely benevolent. As Clint Williamson, one of President Bush's Ambassadors-at-Large for War Crimes Issues explained in 2007, "holding persons accountable for large-scale crimes [has] an important role in stabilizing countries or regions emerging from war. So there is a national security interest in doing this."
If it indeed it is true that Secretary of State Tillerson has not made a final decisions about the future of the GCJ, this is precisely the topic of commentary that he ought to now carefully contemplate. Tillerson's May 2017 speech to State Department employees may have downgraded the role of human rights in U.S foreign policy, but it repeatedly emphasized the importance of US national security.
Retaining the GCJ would also leave Tillerson better positioned to advise an administration that appears to have, at best, limited knowledge about the ever-evolving landscape of international criminal justice and related policymaking. For example, prior to Tillerson's confirmation, it produced a draft order that called for an examination into US funding of the International Criminal Court ("ICC"). Yet, as media outlets were quick to point out--under unforgiving headlines such as "Trump Might Be Trying to Defund Organizations We're Not Even Funding"--U.S financial support for the ICC is not only non-existent but illegal.
Other aspects of the draft order suggest that, without proper guidance, the current administration stands poised to reinstate policies that have already proven profoundly self-defeating, such as slashing development funding to states that "oppose important United States policies." As GCJ staff would have advised, such an endeavor failed conspicuously when attempted by the Bush administration, negatively impacting upon key US interests including security. In fact, the withdrawal of financial support ended up undermining important efforts, such as combatting terrorism and drug trafficking; it also drove some of the funding deprived countries--including those in the US's own backyard--to turn to other powers, such as China, to replace the support no longer coming from the United States.