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State Department's Restructuring May Close War Crimes Office


David Scheffer spent a large part of the late 1990s traveling the world in pursuit of war criminals. Scheffer was the ambassador-at-large for war crimes, and he was in charge of the U.S. State Department Office of Global Criminal Justice. One man he pursued was the Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic, who was accused of mass murder and genocide in Bosnia. Eventually, Mladic wound up before an international court, and Scheffer was there.

DAVID SCHEFFER: I was the only person in the gallery that day watching the trial. We just started staring at each other. And I don't know whether he knew exactly who he was looking at (laughter), but I knew who I was looking at.

GREENE: Well, there is news this week that the office Scheffer represented as ambassador might be closing. And Scheffer says he's dismayed.

SCHEFFER: I hope that the issue is still at the rumor stage and that a final decision has not yet been made because I think it's one of those potential decisions that really should be reviewed very carefully. And those who know the work of this office should really be letting the administration know of the value of it.

GREENE: And if you look at the world today and the conflicts and atrocities we are seeing, if this office is gone, where would you see the biggest impact?

SCHEFFER: Oh, the biggest impact is quite similar to what we see in other fronts on the human rights and international law area with respect to the current administration, and that is we are retreating. The more we pull back our diplomats, the more we eliminate these offices, the more the United States becomes irrelevant. And I don't understand why the United States would do that because it's contrary to our interests.

Ultimately, if you have masterminds of atrocity crimes running around countries committing these crimes - genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes - and it's happening, ISIS is the classic example today - you need a cost-effective way of shutting that down. Ultimately capture these individuals, bring them to justice, remove them from that situation. And that opens up the space for more constructive leaders to step in and help resolve those conflicts.

GREENE: You're saying that this office would be playing or is playing a big role in the fight against ISIS and the atrocities that group is committing today.

SCHEFFER: Absolutely - and, of course, the whole situation in Syria. The important issue that this office and the ambassador-at-large has pursued for 20 years is that there is no longer a presumption of impunity. You may get away with it. Assad may get away with it, ultimately. But he doesn't get away with it with any presumption of impunity. He's always at risk. There used to be a presumption of impunity. We must not let that prevail.

GREENE: But let me just ask you - I mean, the United States has never formally ratified the international war crimes tribunal. And I'm also struck that President Obama failed to nominate a new ambassador for war crimes after Stephen Rapp left in 2015. I mean, aren't those things already sending a message to groups like ISIS and other people in the world who commit atrocities that maybe they can do these things with impunity? Maybe the United States is not committed to holding people to account?

SCHEFFER: I think it's a very fair point. I think the Obama administration is subject to some criticism for not having with courage and seriousness pursued a new ambassador-at-large for confirmation before the United States Senate. That, I think, was a mistake. And of course, that did send a signal then to Secretary Tillerson - well, if they didn't take that step, why should I?

GREENE: Well, and you also have President Trump who said during the campaign that he doesn't think the United States can be the policemen of the world, which makes me wonder if he is just acting on what he laid out during the campaign when it comes to foreign policy.

SCHEFFER: Yes. It can be consistent with his rhetoric. But I think if he would look at it a little more closely, this is not literally policing the world as one does with military force, which is very costly both in blood and treasure. What this is, is diplomacy mixed with law. If you look at all of the situations where we built war crimes tribunals in the 1990s and negotiated for them, you'll see that in each one of those societies peace now reigns. Justice worked.

GREENE: Ambassador, thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

SCHEFFER: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

GREENE: That was Ambassador David Scheffer, who led the Office of Global Criminal Justice at the State Department from 1997 to 2001. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.