The US State Department’s War Crimes Rewards Program takes on a new life
Ingrid Burke, RAPSI
US President Barrack Obama signed off on a law last January offering millions of dollars in rewards for information leading to the arrest, capture, or transfer of certain fugitives, such as those sought for certain horrendous large-scale crimes by international, mixed, and hybrid tribunals, including “new mixed courts that may be established in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo or for Syria.”
In accordance with the legislative expansion, US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Stephen J. Rapp announced in April the decision by US authorities to place a veritable bounty on the heads of a small handful of accused war criminals long sought by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In fact, it may have seemed downright disconcerting to many when, citing the expansion of the US State Department’s (State) War Crimes Rewards Program, Rapp explained during an April 3 briefing: “We’re announcing today that the Secretary of State will offer up to $5 million for information leading to the arrests, the transfer, or conviction of three top leaders of the LRA, the Lord’s Resistance Army: Joseph Kony, Okot Odhiambo, and Dominic Ongwen, as well as the leader of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, known as the FDLR, Sylvestre Mudacumura.”
The program itself
State’s War Crimes Rewards Program empowers State to offer cash rewards for information leading to the arrest, transfer, or conviction of accused war criminals. The program was initially somewhat limited in scope, extending only to individuals indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), and the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL).
As explained by Rapp, “[s]ince 1998, our ability to pay these rewards has proven to be a valuable tool for the United States Government to promote accountability for the worst crimes known to humankind, by generating valuable tips that enable authorities to track down the world’s most notorious fugitives from justice.”
He added that in the past two years, 14 payments have been made, the largest of these having been approximately $2 million.
Rapp credited the assistance of the program with the fact that all ICTY indictees have been accounted for, and with the fact that only nine of the ICTR’s 92 indictees remain at large. Notably, all nine remain on the list of reward-worthy individuals under the program.
Despite these accomplishments, Rapp pointed to a changing system of international criminal justice in explaining the necessity of reframing the program’s scope. That is, as the ICTY, ICTR, and SCSL continue to wind down their activities, the program will lose its impact unless it advances to accommodate the new face of international criminal law. As explained by Rapp: “ while the program has achieved great success with these three tribunals, it risks becoming obsolete as they gain custody of their last remaining fugitives. To that end, we began to advocate for an expansion of the program to bolster our ongoing efforts to bring other alleged war criminals to justice.”
Early last year, Congressman Edward Royce and now Secretary of State, but then-senator John Kerry introduced legislation aimed at expanding the program.
In a blog article for the Huffington Post written in April 2012, Kerry explained his intentions with specific reference to Joseph Kony: “Next month I’m introducing legislation to expand the War Crimes Rewards Program to target Kony – to take what’s currently a rewards program designed to secure arrests and convictions of terrorists and those trafficking in narcotics but expand it to target the war criminals of today. (Currently, there’s a smaller rewards program related to war crimes, but it is specifically limited to those wanted by special courts for Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Sierra Leone, which are nearing completion).”
Rapp explained during the announcement that both houses of US Congress unanimously approved the bill on January 1 of this year.
On January 15, US President Barrack Obama signed off on the legislation, thus officially increasing the scope of the State Department’s authority to offer cash for justice.
In accordance with the recent expansion, the Secretary of State – after consulting with concerned government agencies and notifying Congress – now has the authority to handpick individuals to offer rewards for information on. As explained by Rapp during the initial announcement: “The designated individuals must be foreign nationals accused by any international tribunal, including mixed or hybrid courts, for crimes against humanity, genocide, or war crimes. This includes the International Criminal Court, but also new mixed courts that may be established in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo or for Syria.”
Mixed, hybrid, and international tribunals
International justice plays out in a wide variety of courtrooms and tribunals, depending on the needs of a specific situation. According to the United Nations Rule of Law Website and Document Repository, “The principal judicial organ of the United Nations is the International Court of Justice... The Organization also supports other judicial mechanisms, such as the ad hoc criminal tribunals and hybrid tribunals, established mainly to address past international crimes in war-torn societies, and fact-finding/investigatorial bodies. Many of these mechanisms are hybrid tribunals or commissions, involving often mixed national and international composition and jurisdiction. They are set up in cooperation with national authorities under UN auspices and with mandates tailored to the specifics of each situation.”
To illustrate the difference, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) was established and operated by the joint efforts of the government of Sierra Leone and the UN. This model contrasts that of the ad-hoc tribunals formed to adjudicate the war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. While the hybrid and ad-hoc models are based on the same legal principles, deriving from Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, the former heavily relies on the contribution of the nation or region directly affected by the atrocities at issue, while the latter is carried out exclusively by the international community.
The ICC was established as the first permanent treaty-based international criminal court. Governed by the Rome Statute, the ICC functions independently of the UN. Thus the court relies heavily on contributions by member governments. According to its website, “Although the Court’s expenses are funded primarily by States Parties, it also receives voluntary contributions from governments, international organisations, individuals, corporations and other entities.”
Touching on the rationale behind its own existence, the ICC’s website explains its advantages over the ad hoc system: “In the 1990s after the end of the Cold War, tribunals like the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda were the result of consensus that impunity is unacceptable. However, because they were established to try crimes committed only within a specific time-frame and during a specific conflict, there was general agreement that an independent, permanent criminal court was needed.”
Implications for the ICC
When RAPSI reached out to the State Department for more information on the implications of the expanded program, a State Department official explained with specific reference to the ICC that in spite of the fact that the US is not a party to the Rome Statute, preventing and deterring atrocities is a priority for the US government. Noting the consistency of this point with US foreign policy, the official noted that President Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy had provided for US support of ICC prosecutions where such advances US interests and values.
Still, the official noted that the program is not linked with any specific tribunal, extending rather to all international, hybrid, and mixed courts.
The legislation itself provides that State must notify Congress at least 15 days prior to publicly announcing a reward offer for a foreign national accused of war crimes. While it is unclear whether Congress would have the authority under the legislation to override the selection of a given individual, a State Department official explained to RAPSI that State is prepared to work with Congress on any specific concerns. Still, having worked closely with Congress on the recent expansion, State expects little in the way of Congressional backlash.
Kony, Odhiambo, Ongwen, and Mudacumura
Of the four individuals named by Rapp in his announcement of the program’s expansion, Kony, Odhiambo, and Ongwen are currently on Interpol’s Red List. All three are sought for their leading roles in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which is accused of having committed atrocities against civilians across Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic, and South Sudan. According to State’s rewards announcements, “the African Union and United Nations Security Council have repeatedly condemned atrocities committed by the LRA.”
Kony, LRA Chairman and Commander-in-Chief, is being sought by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity. According to State’s $5 million reward offer, “Kony is charged with responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity, for, among other acts, forced enlistment of children as soldiers through abduction, sexual enslavement, and intentionally directing attacks against civilian populations.”
Odhiambo, LRA Major General and Senior Commander, has been charged by the ICC with “responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity for, among other acts, forced enlistment through abduction, intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population, and enslavement.”
Ongwen, LRA Major General and Senior Commander, has been charged by the ICC with “responsibility for crimes against humanity and war crimes, for, among other acts, murder, enslavement, cruel treatment of civilians, and intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population.”
Mudacumura, Supreme Commander of the Army of the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), is being sought by the ICC based on having been charged with “responsibility for numerous war crimes for, among other acts, rape, murder, and mutilation.”