U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
The Brussels Hub
MODERATOR: Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I would like to welcome everyone joining us today for today’s virtual press briefing. We’re very honored to be joined by Ambassador Beth Van Schaack, the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice.
Finally, a reminder that today’s briefing is on the record. And with that, let’s get started. Ambassador Van Schaack. thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.
AMBASSADOR VAN SCHAACK: My pleasure. Thank you so much, everyone, and good morning from Washington. It’s really great to be here. Thank you for your interest in this issue.
I am the sixth ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice, and my office and the mission of my office is to advise the U.S. Government, including all of the various agencies, to engage in international diplomacy and to do some programming out in the field to help prevent, mitigate, and redress atrocities through justice and accountability measures. Ukraine, as you can imagine, is a big piece of my portfolio, and I was sworn in on March 17, so really just after Russia re-launched its invasion of the country.
But I’m also trying to stay focused on other parts of the world where justice is desperately needed. So I’ve been to Liberia, to Ethiopia, to the Gambia, and then tracking situations around the world where there are justice processes underway. But obviously, Ukraine is a big piece of our work.
As you know, we’re now nine months into the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and President Putin’s war continues to result in devastating human costs – thousands of civilians killed or wounded, 13 million Ukrainian citizens forced to flee their homes, historic cities literally pounded to rubble. The active aggression against Ukraine is a manifest violation of the UN Charter, and mounting evidence reveals that this aggression has been accompanied by systemic war crimes committed in every region where Russia’s forces are deployed.
This includes what appear to be deliberate, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks against the civilian population and also elements of the civilian infrastructure. This is all as winter is beginning to descend on Ukraine. We’re seeing custodial abuses of civilians and prisoners of war, and efforts to try and cover up those offenses. We’re seeing and hearing credible reports of sexual violence against women and girls, and men and boys. Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General has already identified thousands of incidents that may constitute war crimes. And this is not – this is without yet knowing what is unfolding in areas still under Russia’s occupation or control. And we expect to see evidence of more atrocities continuing to emerge as these areas are liberated.
Russia’s breaches of international law include the construction of a vast transnational infrastructure of filtration operations to which thousands of Ukrainian citizens have now been subjected. Individuals who go through filtration suffer one of three fates. First, they may, quote/unquote, “pass” filtration, in which case they are allowed to continue to reside in Russian-controlled or occupied areas. Number two, they may be deported into Russia. This often involves being forced to accept Russian citizenship. They may be deported quite far from Ukraine. And then the third fate for individuals who do not pass filtration and who are considered a threat to Russian control or hegemony in the region, they may be subjected to detention. And reports from individuals who have survived this ordeal describe terrible conditions of life, torture, mistreatment, and potentially even summary execution of individuals who have been detained.
The images and videos and reports and witness accounts suggest that these atrocities are not the acts of rogue individuals or units, but rather they’re part of a deeply disturbing pattern of reports of abuse across all areas where Russia has been active in Ukraine. And of course they are consistent with what we have seen from Russia’s military engagements preceding the further invasion of Ukraine in Chechnya, in Syria, and in Georgia. And while the epicenter of the suffering is undoubtedly in Ukraine, we know that Russia’s aggressive war has generated vast reverberations across the globe in the form of food insecurity, raised prices, disrupted supply chains, and an emergent energy war.
All of the damage that Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine has wrought has inspired an unprecedented array of justice and accountability initiatives. The United States, with friends and allies, are supporting a number of these efforts to investigate and examine atrocities in Ukraine. This includes an investigation by the International Criminal Court. Ukraine has consented to the ICC operating, going all the way back to the original invasion back in 2014. The United Nations has also convened a Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine. There’s a human rights monitoring mission that continues to act. And a number of European states, through the Eurojust network, have formed a joint investigative team to help coordinate their investigations into potential war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine. This will enable them to share information, strategy, personnel, et cetera, much more fluidly than if they had to go through ordinary mutual legal assistance channels. Eurojust has also recently amended its regulations to allow for it to serve as a repository of evidence. These efforts reveal that the war crimes units in Europe and elsewhere are increasingly interoperable.
We have also formed in the United States a Conflict Observatory. This is an independent entity based at Yale University that is collecting open-source information and sharing it with these prosecutorial efforts. And my office is also supporting a project through Georgetown University to support the Office of the Prosecutor General as he puts together his war crimes cases. This involves deploying experts who have hailed from the former war crimes tribunals around the world to support their counterparts in Ukraine as they sift through all the evidence and prioritize which cases to bring.
So with that, I’m very happy to take questions and I look forward to our conversation.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, Ambassador.
AMBASSADOR VAN SCHAACK: Yeah.
MODERATOR: We will now turn to the question and answer portion of today’s briefing. Why don’t we go to Alex Raufoglu has his hand raised.
QUESTION: Yes, John, thank you so much for doing this. And Ambassador, thank you for making yourself available for us this morning. A couple of questions here, so please bear with me. First things first: Given your statement from yesterday, is it still the administration’s view that Putin is a war criminal?
Secondly, have your investigations unveiled any involvement of foreign citizens committing war crimes on behalf of Russia? I’m asking this because, well, two reasons actually. First we have seen reports on how Russia has been recruiting foreign mercenaries since the beginning of the war. And secondly, as you know, Putin signed a decree recently allowing foreigners to serve in Russian army. Perhaps this is a good chance for you to appeal to the citizens of neighboring countries, such as Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, or Central Asian countries, to refrain from subscribing to Putin’s war crimes.
And lastly if I may, I want to give you a chance to address the headlines from yesterday’s comments regarding Russian prisoners. I totally get what’s at stake here, including human rights aspects of it. But just curious, is there any consensus amongst the administration and its allies, of course including Ukraine as well, to call Putin’s invaders, quote/unquote, “prisoners of war” when Putin himself refuses to call the war anything other than, quote/unquote, “a special military operation.”
Thank you so much again.
AMBASSADOR VAN SCHAACK: Great. Thank you so much, Alex, for those questions. On the Putin question, of course all leaders – political and military – are governed by the laws of war. And relevant to your second question, it doesn’t matter what anyone calls this. If it’s an armed conflict, then the laws of war apply and that includes protections that should be accorded to prisoners of war. So they’re entitled, if they are in fact prisoners of war, to that title and to all of the protections that come with being a prisoner of war, including humane treatment.
But in terms of Putin, we know that there are doctrines that enable criminal responsibility to go all the way up the chain of command. This is the doctrine of superior responsibility, which states that if a superior has subordinates who are committing abuses and the superior knows that they’re committing abuses, knows that they are intending to or about to or they have committed abuses, that superior is under a legal duty to take the necessary steps to either prevent those abuses from happening or to open an appropriate investigation and prosecution after the fact. And so there are legal doctrines that are available to hold Putin responsible.
I think it’s particularly relevant when we look at the kinds of patterns that we’re seeing of abuses across all areas where Russia’s forces are deployed. These are not the acts of individual units necessarily. And also, if we look at the filtration operations, that’s an enormous transnational network that the Conflict Observatory at Yale University has determined was actually put in place prior to February 24th, so it’s very clearly a premeditated attempt to change the demography of Ukraine and to facilitate the annexation of parts of Ukrainian territory. That kind of a system cannot be put in place without the involvement of very superior individuals all the way up the chain of command. And so it’s hard to argue that any of the events that we’re seeing on the ground in Ukraine are the result of decisions being made at very low levels.
In terms of your question about foreign citizens, indeed we have heard similar stories and we know that the Wagner Group is aligned with Russia, in some cases potentially being deployed by Russia, and is active all over the world. And so there could be very clearly situations in which members of Wagner are also operating here. Again, the laws of war are agnostic as to nationality, and so if an individual is associated with an armed group committing abuses, they’re subject to potential prosecution for war crimes.
Now, with respect to the allegations yesterday, it’s important to emphasize again that the laws of war apply to all parties, including the aggressor state and the defender state, and this applies in equal measure. But when it comes to the war in Ukraine, this is really where the equivalency ends. The sheet scale of criminality exhibited by Russia’s forces is enormous as compared to the allegations that we’ve seen against Ukrainian forces, and likewise when it comes to the reaction of the various – of the two states to such allegations. Russia inevitably responds – and it was sort of implicit in your question – Russia inevitably responds with a litany of denial and propaganda and disinformation, whereas the Ukrainian authorities have acknowledged potential abuses and they have denounced them and they have pledged to properly investigate them.
This is the appropriate response to the most recent allegations that have emerged, which will serve to emphasize that Ukraine intends to defend itself using all lawful means under international law. And it’s extremely important for Ukraine, as we know, to maintain the moral high ground here that it has enjoyed since Russia relaunched its invasion back in February.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. We have one questioner who wrote in on the Q&A chat, Konrad Kramar from Kurier in Austria. “How does the U.S. see the role of the International Criminal Court in The Hague in prosecuting possible Russian war crimes? And in which way would U.S. institutions collaborate with the ICC?”
AMBASSADOR VAN SCHAACK: Yes, great. It’s a great question. So, as I mentioned, the U.S. is fully committed to ensuring accountability for atrocities committed in Ukraine, and so we’re supporting a whole range of efforts to do that at the national and international level. This includes the investigation conducted by the International Criminal Court. We have a long history of supporting international courts, and we see the ICC as playing a really important role here. The bulk of the work, of course, is going to be done in domestic Ukrainian courts by the Office of the Prosecutor General, and the project that I’m funding through Georgetown University is geared towards supporting him and his efforts, but at the same time there will be a role for the ICC as well.
Ukraine, for example, has no crimes against humanity statute, and so if those charges are to be brought, they will have to be brought either in the International Criminal Court or in a foreign court that has jurisdiction over particular defendants.
Likewise, this doctrine of superior responsibility that I discussed with Alex is not fully embedded in Ukrainian law, and so it will be much easier for the ICC to work up the chain of command, particularly if it’s lacking direct evidence of involvement by a superior. Because what superior responsibility enables is the prosecution of superiors essentially for an omission, for failing to appropriately supervise their troops. You don’t have to show that they affirmatively committed a war crime themselves. And so it’s a doctrine that can be quite useful in a conflict situation, and the ICC will be well placed to utilize that doctrine up the chain of command.
The prosecutor of the ICC was here in Washington last week, and then Congress sent a bipartisan delegation to The Hague the week before, and my understanding from both of those interactions is that the ICC prosecutor is working very closely with the Ukrainian Prosecutor General to coordinate which cases should be brought before which forum.
In the past, the United States has supported a number of the situations that are under investigation and prosecution before the ICC, and we have been able to do this through helping to bring fugitives to justice by transferring them to The Hague. So Bosco Ntaganda, for example, appeared at the U.S. embassy in Kigali, and we facilitated his transfer to The Hague where he’s now serving a sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including systemic sexual violence. We’re able to do information-sharing with the court. If requests for assistance come in, we can review what information we have in our files and potentially share that with the court. We provide a lot of diplomatic support. So there’s a whole range of things that the United States can do even though we’re not a party to the court, but we still support the work of the court and the mission that it represents.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. Encourage the group that’s dialed in to raise your hand or submit another question. We don’t have any in the queue at this time. We do have one from Alex Yanevskyy from Voice of America that just came in. “Ambassador, yesterday you said that the U.S. cannot prosecute Russian citizens for alleged war crimes conducted against Ukrainian citizens. What was the purpose of AG Garland’s visit to the Ukraine, then, and why did the DOJ team – why is the work that the DOJ team is doing is important in that respect?” Sorry, a little garbled there.
AMBASSADOR VAN SCHAACK: Yeah, that’s right. Hi, Alex. Yeah. To follow up and just for background for the rest of the group, I traveled with Attorney General Garland to the Ukrainian border to meet with the previous prosecutor general, and the Attorney General announced the creation of a war crimes accountability team within his Human Rights and Special Prosecutions unit. This is the unit that specializes in prosecuting international crimes in U.S. courts. We have a number of statutes that might be relevant to the situation in Ukraine. So, for example, we have a statute that criminalizes torture regardless of the nationality of any of the parties. We do have a war crimes statute, but as Alex mentioned, it only applies when a U.S. person is either a perpetrator or a victim. So that statute will have limited utility in Ukraine.
That said, we know that there are some Americans – a number of Americans living in Ukraine. Some have been killed in the current crisis. And so it will be the work of the DOJ to investigate whether any of those deaths constitute a war crime such that there would be jurisdiction here.
The team is also working hard to coordinate information-sharing with their counterparts in Ukraine. So that’s another purpose being served. And then if Congress follows through on a number of proposals that they’re looking at, we could amend the War Crimes Act and that would expand jurisdiction to cover any individual who stands accused of committing war crimes so long as they are present or found in the United States. This is how our torture statute works. So, so long as the perpetrator is present here, we can assert jurisdiction and prosecute that individual. There’s an extremely important case going forward in Colorado right now against a member of a torture squad from The Gambia, and he overstayed his visa and was ultimately discovered living quietly in Colorado and is now being prosecuted for acts of torture that were committed during a previous regime within The Gambia.
So, as I mentioned in my opener, we have – we do have allegations of individuals in Russian custody who have been subjected to torture. We know that there are a number of bodies that have been found that show signs of torture, and so torture is clearly being committed on the ground in Ukraine, and so our torture statute might be quite useful in this regard. And again, that statute can be used regardless of the nationality of any of the protagonists involved, whether it’s the perpetrator or the victim.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. Next question is from Judit from klubradio in Hungary. She states that, “The EU will be voting on a resolution that will brand Russia as a state that supports terrorism this week. Will the United States be joining this in some way?”
AMBASSADOR VAN SCHAACK: Yes, thanks, Judit. We do have the ability to designate states as state sponsors of terrorism as well. So, for example, Syria has been designated for quite some time. Our law is defined somewhat differently than I think the Europeans are using, and to be honest, Russia just doesn’t fit well within the way in which our state sponsor of terrorism designation works. So we are exploring other potential designations that would achieve the same ends as this European initiative.
It’s important to emphasize, though, that we are utilizing our sanctions to an incredible degree, and so it’s not necessary to designate Russia in any particular way. We’re already deploying a whole range of sanctions against individuals and entities that are associated with the Kremlin. And so we don’t need this additional designation. Of course it carries great weight and we’re very interested in what the Europeans are doing, but the designation of a state sponsor of terror in terms of the way U.S. law defines it is not a good match for Russia here, and so that’s why we’re exploring other potential designations.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. Next question is from Michele Kelemen from NPR. She states, “I know this is about Ukraine, but wondering if you can say a few words on how the U.S. is trying to promote accountability in Iran. What are your expectations of the Human Rights Council meeting next week on Iran’s crackdown on the protestors?”
AMBASSADOR VAN SCHAACK: I think this is going to be an extremely important meeting next week, and thank you, Michele, for calling attention to this issue. We’re really seeing a brutal crackdown on individuals who are simply exercising their freedoms of expression, of association, and of assembly. And you know that young people are really in the lead here and that young people have borne the brunt of this crackdown.
The Human Rights Council has not in the past really focused its attention in a laser way on Iran, and the recent events have finally sort of woken that institution up. And so we’re very pleased to see this initiative moving forward and the possibility of forming some sort of a dedicated commission of inquiry or fact-finding body that can really work on gathering information with the hopes of laying the groundwork for future accountability.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. I think we have time for one more question, if anyone would like to submit another question or raise their hand. If not, then I will thank everyone for their time today, for your questions, and Ambassador Van Schaack, thank you very much for joining us. Before we close the call, I’d like to see if you have any final remarks for the group.
AMBASSADOR VAN SCHAACK: Yeah. I mean, just quickly, thank you all for really terrific and engaging questions. I appreciate you covering these issues and avoiding what could easily set in as a sort of a Ukraine fatigue. We cannot lose sight of the fact that this is a major breach of a rules-based international order by a permanent member of the Security Council who has pledged to support peace and security around the world by virtue of that privilege of being a Permanent Five member.
This is truly another Nuremberg moment. Just as the Allies at the end of World War II advanced the imperative of justice and really ushered in a new era of accountability for the worst international crimes, it now falls to all of us as lawyers, as diplomats, as journalists, as activists, as ordinary people, to ensure that those responsible for the war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine are held to account. And as I mentioned earlier, the world has never been more united, more interoperable, more connected to be able to do this. And so I’m confident that those who are most responsible will ultimately be brought to justice.
MODERATOR: Thanks very much, Ambassador, and thanks again for your time. Shortly we will send an audio recording of the briefing to all the participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it is available. We’d also love to hear your feedback. You can contact us at any time at TheBrusselsHub@state.gov. Thanks again for your participation and we hope you can join us for another press briefing in the future. This ends today’s briefing.