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Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the U.S. has changed its laws on prosecuting war crimes


The most high-profile aspects of U.S. policy in Ukraine have involved military support against Russia's invasion. A quieter part of the strategy aims to seek justice for war crimes. NPR's Deborah Amos reports on changes to U.S. law that could help in cases that have been tough to prosecute in the past.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: When Illinois Senator Dick Durbin spoke at Georgetown Law School recently, he made a link between a historic speech to Congress by the president of Ukraine and a new U.S. law that can target war criminals.


DICK DURBIN: President Zelenskyy's message to Congress came at the exact moment we needed to hear it. Just hours after he spoke, the Senate voted to pass the Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act. Now, no war criminal will ever be able to use America as a safe haven.

AMOS: The new law fixes a glaring legal loophole that only allowed prosecution of war criminals in a U.S. court if the victim or the perpetrator is a U.S. citizen, explains Anna Cave. She's head of the Center on National Security at Georgetown Law. The only remedy, she said, was deportation.

ANNA CAVE: It's pretty outrageous that a war criminal - under the previous legislation, we would potentially have to prosecute them for visa fraud. We couldn't prosecute him for war crimes. It's crazy to me.

AMOS: Crazy because this has happened - a refugee victim in the U.S. spots his torturer, also a new immigrant, in a local grocery store. Now, the U.S. has jurisdiction over anyone who commits a war crime and is present in the U.S., not just American citizens. It's also a warning.

DAVID SCHEFFER: Forget about the trips to Disney World. Forget about your real estate in Florida or New Mexico. You're not wanted, and we'll track you down if you come in. We can actually prosecute you now.

AMOS: That's David Scheffer, a former ambassador for war crimes issues under President Clinton. He notes that another recent piece of legislation is even more closely tied to Ukraine. It allows the U.S. to cooperate with the International Criminal Court in The Hague on matters of Ukraine.

SCHEFFER: Yeah, it's kind of a unique moment.

AMOS: Scheffer also headed the U.S. delegation that negotiated the establishment of the International Criminal Court two decades ago. But the U.S. never formally joined the court amid worries that members of the U.S. military or other American citizens would be hauled before the court. Opposition has been such a constant over the years that Scheffer marvels at the change - unthinkable before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

SCHEFFER: I would have said, what; where is this coming from? But Ukraine did it.

AMOS: It means the closest U.S. cooperation since the court was established 20 years ago, he says, allowing ICC investigators to work in the U.S.

SCHEFFER: Which could mean, you know, possibly consultations with the intelligence community looking at Russians who might have come into the United States having already committed crimes in Ukraine.

AMOS: The ICC could be the forum for going after top leaders because they have immunity in national courts. Cooperation with the ICC is a shift for the U.S. But how much of a shift? - ask human rights activists. Many are critical of this narrow focus only on Ukraine. What about Iraq, they say? The U.S. has rejected any investigation into that invasion and has consistently opposed examination of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

LOTTE LEICHT: The U.S. still has a very a la carte approach to international justice, and that's a pity.

AMOS: Lotte Leicht is a Danish jurist, a specialist in humanitarian law. She says U.S. support for international justice comes only when it suits U.S. interests. Washington chooses who must be held accountable, and others are ignored.

LEICHT: There will be many who will call out double standards. And they're right. I'm - for one, I'm saying, I'm all with you, you know? But if we let the failures of the past dictate continued failures today and for the future, we are not moving the bar.

AMOS: After so many years of impunity for war crimes, a strong show of accountability somewhere, she says, could lead to accountability everywhere.

Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.