January 30, 2023

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Congress Votes to Expand U.S. Power to Prosecute International War Crimes

3 min read

Dec. 23: This article was updated with a statement from the attorney general.

WASHINGTON — Congress gave final approval on Thursday to a bill to expand the U.S. government’s power to prosecute international war crimes suspects who are in the United States, allowing them to be tried in a federal court regardless of the nationality of the victim or the perpetrator, or where the crime was committed.

Experts say the legislation, shepherded by a bipartisan group of lawmakers amid reports of Russian forces committing war crimes in the brutal conflict in Ukraine, brings the U.S. legal code in line with international law and prevents the United States from being seen as a potential haven for war criminals.

The bill, called the Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act, now goes to President Biden. It sped through the Senate and then the House in the hours surrounding a congressional address on Wednesday night by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who condemned President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia for targeting civilians and urged the United States to continue sending financial and military aid amid a winter assault.

“By passing this vital legislation, we are sending a clear message to Vladimir Putin: Perpetrators committing unspeakable war crimes, such as those unfolding before our very eyes in Ukraine, must be held to account,” Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said in a statement on Thursday. Mr. Durbin, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, helped spearhead the legislation along with Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the panel’s top Republican.

Currently, federal law allows prosecutions for war crimes only if the offense was committed in the United States, or if the victim or perpetrator is a U.S. national or service member. Non-Americans who commit war crimes against other non-Americans overseas but then enter the United States have generally been outside the law’s reach.

In a statement Thursday on the passage of the bill, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland highlighted Mr. Zelensky’s visit to the White House, where he had described atrocities committed by Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.

“The Justice Department and our partners stand with the people of Ukraine and will pursue every avenue of accountability to bring to justice those responsible, wherever they are located,” Mr. Garland said. He added: “In the United States of America, there must be no hiding place for war criminals and no safe haven for those who commit such atrocities. This bill will help the Justice Department fulfill that important mandate.”

David J. Scheffer, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Justice Department has faced limited options upon discovering a foreign national suspected of a war crime living in the United States. In one case, a Bosnian man accused of killing Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 was charged only with visa fraud when U.S. officials learned he was living in Massachusetts in 2004 and had to be extradited to face further charges.

The U.S. was similarly able to bring only charges of naturalization fraud against two former Guatemalan soldiers suspected of massacring villagers at Dos Erres in 1982, during the country’s civil war, after they were discovered living in the United States.

The new legislation means that the United States will no longer be a sanctuary for war criminals, Mr. Scheffer said, adding that it is also a timely deterrent to any Russians, from top generals to foot soldiers, who might commit war crimes in Ukraine and then try to enter the United States, even years in the future.

“A lot of countries look to the United States to see whether or not we are keeping our house in order,” he said. “Are we enacting domestic criminal law that empowers us to prosecute genocide, to prosecute crimes against humanity, to prosecute war crimes?”

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.