Tillerson Considers Closure Of State Department War Crimes Office


By Will Racke

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is reportedly considering closing the Department of State office dedicated to monitoring war crimes and genocide, in part of a larger campaign to reorganize and streamline Foggy Bottom’s organizational structure.

Tillerson’s office has informed Todd Buchwald, the special coordinator of the Office of Global Criminal Justice (GCJ), that he will be reassigned to a post in the department’s office of legal affairs, Foreign Policy reported Monday, citing former U.S. officials.

The remaining staff in the office will likely be reassigned to State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, a separate functional bureau that monitors freedom and human rights developments around the world.

The potential decision to close the war crimes office comes as Tillerson seeks to restructure the State Department and eliminate what the administration sees as redundancy and bureaucratic bloat at headquarters. The former ExxonMobil CEO is reportedly focusing on changes that would emphasize the projection American military and economic power, while shifting resources away from programs that promote human rights and poverty reduction. (RELATED: Tillerson Plans Major Staff Cuts In State Department Restructuring)

Supporters of GCJ fear that getting rid of a high-level, politically appointed post will send a signal that State no longer cares about holding war criminals accountable.

Beth Van Schaack, a former lawyer in the war crimes office, wrote Monday in a blog post that Tillerson’s plan to reassign GCJ personnel is “rash and ill-informed decision-making” that will not severe U.S. interests. She also told Foreign Policy that having a free-standing, ambassador-led office is “critical for maintaining our bipartisan tradition of leadership on both justice and accountability and to make sure we have a strong voice for these issues in the government.”

Created in 1997 under former President Bill Clinton’s top diplomat Madeleine Albright, the GCJ office is the main adviser to the secretary of state on the prevention of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. It also serves as the primary U.S. government liaison to international organizations with jurisdiction over those issues, including the International Criminal Court.

A State Department spokesperson declined to confirm or deny if GCJ will be shuttered, telling Foreign Policy only that the department “is currently undergoing an employee-led redesign initiative, and there are no predetermined outcomes.” Another department official said rumors of the office’s closure is “pure speculation on someone’s part” and that policy makers might be floating the idea “just to see what comes back,” Foreign Policy reported.

If Tillerson does elect to close GCJ and fold its responsibilities under another bureau, it would not be the first time an administration has reduced the office’s profile. Before Trump took office, the Obama administration considered placing the GCJ under the purview of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

After Stephen Rapp, the last ambassador-at-large for war crimes, left in 2015, Obama never nominated a successor to lead the office and left a deputy in charge until December 2015. That month, Buchwald was chosen out of the State Department bureaucracy to lead GCJ, but his nomination was never sent to the Senate for confirmation. As a result, GCJ has now operated for two and a half years without an ambassador-at-large at the helm.

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