February 3, 2023

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Congress votes to expand US powers to prosecute international war crimes

WASHINGTON — Congress on Thursday finally approved a bill that would expand the US government’s powers to prosecute international war criminals, regardless of the nationality of the victim or perpetrator, or the location where the crime was committed. can be tried in federal court.

Experts say the legislation, pushed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers amid reports of Russian forces committing war crimes in the brutal conflict in Ukraine, will bring the US rule book into line with international law and prevent the United States to be viewed as a potential haven for war criminals.

The bill, called the Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act, now goes to President Biden. It raced through the Senate and then the House of Representatives in the hours surrounding a Wednesday night congressional address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who condemned President Vladimir V Putin’s Russia for targeting civilians and urged the United States to keep financial and military sanctions to render assistance a winter attack.

“By passing this important law, we are sending a clear message to Vladimir Putin: perpetrators of unspeakable war crimes like those unfolding in Ukraine must be held accountable,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Democrat Illinois said in a statement Thursday. Mr. Durbin, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, led the legislation along with Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the committee’s top Republican.

Currently, federal law permits the prosecution of war crimes only if the crime was committed in the United States or if the victim or perpetrator is a US national or military member. Non-Americans who commit war crimes against other non-Americans abroad but then enter the United States were generally beyond the reach of the law.

David J. Scheffer, an associate with the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Justice Department has limited ability to detect a foreigner suspected of a war crime who is residing in the United States. In one case, a Bosnian accused of killing Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995 was charged only with visa fraud when US officials learned in 2004 that he was living in Massachusetts and had to be extradited on further charges.

The US could similarly only bring charges of naturalization fraud against two former Guatemalan soldiers suspected of massacring villagers in Dos Erres during the country’s civil war in 1982 after they were discovered alive in the United States.

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

“Many countries look to the United States to see whether or not we keep our house in order,” he said. “Are we enacting domestic criminal laws empowering us to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes?”