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Distinguished colleagues and guests, it’s an honor to be invited to again address the International Religious Freedom Summit in my capacity as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice.  My office helps formulate U.S. policy on the prevention of, responses to, and accountability for mass atrocities and advises the Secretary of State on issues related to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.  We work closely with our sister offices and bureaus in this regard—including with the Office of International Religious Freedom and Ambassador Rashad Hussain and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor—because so many countries experiencing atrocities, where we work, are also experiencing religious persecution as part of a campaign of violence.

I want to thank the International Religious Freedom Summit for convening today’s important discussion on documenting mass atrocities.  As is well known within this community, religious persecution continues unabated around the world and at unprecedented levels. To mention just a few areas in which my office works.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban continues to persecute members of religious minority groups and mandate inhumane punishments for residents in areas under its control, including public stonings.

In Burma, we have witnessed more than 1.2 million flee horrific violence in the country, the vast majority being members of religious and ethnic minority communities, including Rohingya, who are predominantly Muslim, and who have faced decades of systematic discrimination, statelessness, and targeted violence.

In the Central African Republic, although conflict is primarily driven by competition over political power and control of resources, violence has at times targeted communities based on actual or perceived religious affiliation.  In cycles of violence over the past ten years, Christian- and Muslim-affiliated militias have attacked communities and houses of worship, including in 2014, at one peak of violence, resulting in the destruction of almost all of the country’s mosques and displacement of an estimated 80 percent of the Muslim population.  More than one quarter of the country’s population remains displaced.  The Kremlin-backed Wagner Group also stands accused of specifically targeting Muslim and Fulani (foo-lah-NEE) communities in horrific attacks.

And in China, members of religious communities have long experienced repression, and we have seen a dramatic increase in abuses under Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping’s rule such that at least since 2017 crimes against humanity and genocide have been committed against Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.  Across China more broadly, religious persecution is also directed at Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners, Christians, and so many others seeking only to peacefully practice their beliefs.

Many other communities are experiencing similar persecution around the world. These acts implicate rights that are embedded in core human rights instruments, namely Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These human rights instruments protect freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to manifest one’s religion alone or in community with others.

Religious Persecution and International Criminal Law

But religious persecution can also implicate international criminal law, particularly when religiously-motivated violations and abuses constitute a crime against humanity, genocide, or—during times of armed conflict—a war crime.  And this is where my office—the Office of Global Criminal Justice—steps in.

Throughout the history of the field of international criminal justice, religious-motivated violence against members of religious groups has been a central concern. The field of international criminal justice traces its origins to the post-WWII era.  At the Nuremberg Trials following World War II, perpetrators of the Holocaust were prosecuted for “crimes against humanity,” in part because the term “genocide” had not yet entered the legal lexicon.  The architects of the Nuremberg tribunal developed the concept of crimes against humanity to describe the horrific acts of violence committed by a state against its own citizens, or the citizens of an ally, most of whom were Jews targeted for their religious identity, which would not constitute war crimes under international law at that time.

Soon after Nuremberg, the international community promulgated the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This treaty expanded the international criminal legal framework, but identified national, ethnical, racial, or religious groups as the only protected classes.

After a period of Cold War quiescence, the field of international criminal justice was revived when war broke out again within Europe with the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. Once again, violence along religious lines was prominent.  The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia played a critical role in bringing government, military, and paramilitary leaders to justice for their role in atrocities, including the genocide at Srebrenica in which 8,000 Muslim men and boys were ruthlessly murdered.

In 2017, the Secretary of State affirmed ISIS’s responsibility for genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in areas under its control.  These determinations were based upon extensive factual documentation and legal analysis including during the height of the crisis in 2014.  The United States supported the establishment of the UN Investigative Team Against Da’esh (UNITAD) to investigate these crimes with an eye toward encouraging criminal prosecutions wherever jurisdiction may exist.

We continue to see international crimes being committed en masse against members of different religious groups around the world. Today, several million Muslims are the victims of two contemporary genocides. One such genocide is being committed by authorities of the People’s Republic of China against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, ethnic Kyrgyz, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang. The other is being committed by members of the Burmese military against predominantly Muslim Rohingya. The Secretary of State has made a public genocide determination in both cases.  These assessments enjoy a bipartisan consensus.  The United States continues to document these horrific crimes and support initiatives to help ensure that victims and survivors receive justice and those responsible are held accountable.

Although victim and survivor groups tend to gravitate toward the genocide label, those who would commit other international atrocity crimes can target—or disproportionately affect—individuals based on religious identity.  Many of these situations fall under the rubric of crimes against humanity.  We do a great disservice to victims when crimes against humanity are omitted from our condemnation, because this constellation of international crimes are equally prohibited by international law and can be just as grave.

Crimes against humanity encompass a range of acts made criminal under international law when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population.  Prohibited acts include murder, torture, sexual violence, and persecution.

The United States has determined that a number of crimes against humanity are occurring in Xinjiang.  For example, imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of the fundamental rules of international law; enforced sterilization; torture of those detained; and persecution, including through the use of forced labor and the imposition of draconian restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement.

This is a crime that can be prosecuted before many national and international tribunals, including the International Criminal Court. The international community is in the process of drafting a crimes against humanity statute—an effort in which my office is actively involved. Unfortunately, however, the United States does not have a crimes against humanity statute, so this is not a crime that we can prosecute domestically. Senator Durbin has worked for years on getting such a statute enacted and we are hopeful that he can build the congressional consensus he needs around this effort this congressional term.

Our office is committed to contributing to accountability efforts aimed at those responsible for committing, but also aiding, these atrocious and horrific crimes.  We work alongside other branches of the U.S. government and other offices within the State Department to use the litany of tools at our disposal to address these issues.

To address the genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya and other atrocities across Burma, for example, we are assisting the UN’s Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM); The Gambia’s case against Burma under the Genocide Convention at the International Court of Justice; and cases being pursued using universal jurisdiction in countries like Argentina and Germany.  Alongside allies and partners, we’re imposing targeted sanctions on top military commanders and other senior officials, and leading efforts at the United Nations calling for an end to the provision of all arms to the Burmese military.  We’re continuing to support the documentation of the atrocities against Rohingya and other atrocities in Burma through victim and survivor-centered approaches.  And the United States continues to provide significant resources to help meet the immediate humanitarian needs of Rohingya and other displaced Burmese. In a few weeks, I personally intend to travel to Cox’s Bazar to meet with members of the displaced Rohingya community, and benefit from hearing their thoughts, ideas, and hopes for justice as we continue to consider ways in which to strengthen our support of accountability efforts.

Similarly, we are committed to promoting justice and accountability for the China’s genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang. Important tools, such as the Global Magnitsky sanctions program, allow the United States to take strong action against individuals and entities implicated in the China’s atrocities. Congress has created additional legal authorities, such as the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, to help prevent the importation of products made with forced labor in Xinjiang into the United States.  The imposition of visa restrictions, export controls, financial sanctions, and import restrictions are examples of how the United States is leading the way in imposing reputational and tangible costs on individuals and entities on those engaged, or complicit, in forced labor in Xinjiang.  On this, we are disappointed by the Human Rights Council’s failure to hold a discussion on the human rights situation in Xinjiang.  No country should be immune from a discussion at the Council, and we will continue to work closely with our partners to seek justice and accountability for victims of human rights abuses and violations, including Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

We have likewise continued to underwrite the work of UNITAD to document the atrocities against Yezidis, Christians, and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups in Iraq, including by providing over $13 million dollars to support its effort since its inception.

As we continue to iterate on these ideas and evolve our thinking on accountability for these and other atrocity crimes, fora like the IRF Summit are extremely important because our policies should be crafted in close consultation with affected communities, including all of you.

The Role of Documentation

Turning to the topic of today’s panel, we are also keenly aware of the crucial role that individuals like our panelists today play in ensuring information that may be relevant to accountability is properly collected, analyzed, and preserved.  This is particularly the case where the options for accountability are slim now but could emerge later.

In Cambodia, where I started my career in this field, it was because of civil society organizations like the Documentation Center of Cambodia that so much of the evidence concerning the mass atrocities committed during the Khmer Rouge period was available when senior figures were finally brought to trial before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, including for their commission of genocide against the Cham Muslims.

In Syria there are no options internally for accountability, and the Assad regime is unlikely to put its own agents on trial for the many abuses and violations for which they are responsible.  Instead, justice is being pursued in foreign states, mostly in Europe, when perpetrators, witnesses, and survivors travel.  Much of this work has been facilitated by nongovernmental and civil society organizations working together with European prosecutorial authorities to collect evidence and prepare it for trials.  These new public/private partnerships enable the sharing of information and techniques, but also ensuring that survivors are meaningfully integrated into justice processes.  Domestic courts are now increasingly adept at prosecuting the commission of international crimes, even when the events happened abroad and neither the victims nor defendants are nationals of the country.

On atrocities in Xinjiang, civil society actors have done a tremendous job of documenting the China’s atrocities.  I would like to highlight the documentation that has been done using open-source satellite imagery to show the widespread and systematic destruction of mosques and Muslim cemeteries in the region.

The rise of social media and the increased reliance on digital media to share and distribute information and communication has also given civil society organizations unprecedented ability to collect information about mass atrocities as they are occurring to shed light on these abuses in real time.

We commend these efforts, and with our colleagues at DRL, IRF, and USAID, are proud to support civil society organizations that are committed to collecting information consistent with relevant standards, preserving it, authenticating it, creating dossiers, doing refined analysis on that information, and then sharing that with prosecutorial authorities around the world to jumpstart their criminal proceedings.  This work is vital to international justice efforts, and I am honored to continue hearing from our experts today, including on how my office and the U.S. government can help.

Thank you for your dedication to international justice. And thank you all for this opportunity to address you.

U.S. Department of State

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