The US Congress is stepping up efforts to close a legal loophole that currently lets perpetrators of crimes against humanity live in the United States and avoid prosecution for acts committed overseas.
A bill just introduced by Senator Dick Durbin would extend jurisdiction beyond genocide, already on the books, and would increase US law enforcement officials’ powers to bring to justice sanctuary seekers trying to avoid arrest or deportation for heinous acts.
In Washington, the director of Human Rights First’s Crimes Against Humanity program, Julia Fromholz, explains why the legislation is needed.
“There are laws on the books that allow US prosecutors to prosecute alleged perpetrators of genocide or torture or recruiting and using child soldiers for example. Even when those acts are committed overseas, but the people who have allegedly perpetrated them are in the United States, the same sort of law does not exist for crimes against humanity,” she points out.
The current loophole prevented authorities from pressing their case against Charles McArthur Emmanuel, also known as Charles “Chuckie” Taylor, Jr. the son of ousted Liberian President Charles Taylor. Taylor, Sr. also faces crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague for acts committed during the civil war in Sierra Leone.
In 2006, Taylor, Jr., who headed his father’s Anti-Terror Unit in Liberia, eventually was prosecuted in the state of Florida under a US torture statute for crimes committed in 2002, in an unprecedented use of the 1994 federal anti-torture law. That act allows prosecution for acts of overseas torture as long as the defendant is a US citizen, a legal resident of the US or living in this country.
In 2007, Illinois Senator Durbin’s 2007 Genocide Accountability Act closed a US loophole that prevented the Justice Department from prosecuting individuals found in the United States who took part in genocide in other countries. The main focus of that legislation was to block a potential US safe haven for Sudanese officials found complicit of carrying out genocide in Darfur. In March of this year, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir became the first head of state ever indicted by the ICC, not for genocide, but for allegedly committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Human Rights First’s Fromholz notes that crimes against humanity is defined as acting in a systematic manner in carrying out the offense. On the other hand, she says the crime of genocide, which was covered in the US Genocide Accountability Act, also includes a requirement of intent in order to prove guilt.
“For crimes against humanity, you don’t have to have that intent. Genocide is often called the worst crime, or the crime that has no name. And so I think that it inflames people more. They know the name. They know what it is, and so I think it was in some ways easier to get that law on the books because people are so outraged by it. Victims of crimes against humanity deserve in my view the same sort of justice, and therefore, it is important to get this crime on the books as well,” she said.
Since the days of the Bush Administration has opposed becoming a member of the International Criminal Court, which was set up by the United Nations in 2002 to prosecute genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
In the case of Darfur, where the US holds views compatible with the ICC in its indictment of Sudanese leaders, Julia Fromholz says there are various ways the Washington can assist in bringing up charges against Sudanese leaders.
“They can be referred by the UN Security Council. That’s how the case against various actors in Darfur was brought. It was the Security Council that asked for it. And the US could in its position as a member of the permanent five on the Security Council push for charges of crimes against humanity. But even if the US signed on to the International Criminal Court, it actually would need to make sure that its domestic law was in line with certain pieces of international laws, that we would have to have crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity, and others on the books,” she suggested.
On the other hand, Fromholz observes, having those laws in place would add new flexibility and enhance the Justice Department’s role in putting shameless asylum seekers involved in such crimes on notice that they are not welcome in the United States.
“That we are not signed on to the International Criminal Court doesn’t mean that we can’t prosecute those crimes here. If we do sign on to the Criminal Court ever, it might mean we might have to add some laws to our domestic code,” she indicates.
Fromholz says human rights groups are also backing Senator Durbin’s legislation because having such statutes in place can increase US standing with America’s allies by showing them that Washington continues to take these crimes seriously.