U.S. seeks reform of war crimes law amid 'shocking crimes' by Russia in Ukraine -official

By Doina Chiacu and Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday urged Congress to close legal gaps that make it hard for the United States to prosecute non-U.S. citizens for war crimes, saying such changes could pave the way for the prosecution of Russian human rights crimes in Ukraine.

Eli Rosenbaum, the department’s counselor for war crimes accountability, pitched the legal changes during a hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, telling lawmakers that the four primary federal agencies involved in war crimes policy issues have already agreed on "technical solutions" to close what he described as major gaps in war crimes statutes.

"Given the shocking crimes being perpetrated by Russia during its unprovoked war against Ukraine, this hearing could not possibly be held at a more appropriate, urgent, or, frankly, terrifying time," he said in prepared testimony.

"The Justice Department is committed to holding the perpetrators of such grave crimes fully accountable."

A United Nations-mandated commission found last week that war crimes including rape, torture, executions and confinement of children were committed by Russia in areas it occupied in Ukraine. Russia denied the allegations.

The law allows war crimes prosecution only when a victim or perpetrator is a U.S. citizen or resident, so it does not apply to most of the war criminals who have come to the United States, Rosenbaum said. The U.S. torture statute does not allow criminal prosecution unless the perpetrator is a U.S. citizen or in the country, he said.

The third gap involves lack of a statute criminalizing crimes against humanity including mass murder or a widespread attack on a civilian population, Rosenbaum said. "War crimes and genocide statutes alone simply are not sufficient to address the full and tragic array of large-scale atrocity crimes that continue to beset the world," he said.

The departments of Defense, Homeland Security, State, and Justice, among other agencies, have agreed on proposed changes to the statute to address the gaps and allow the Justice Department to fully prosecute the people behind such crimes, he said.

Congress would need to act on the changes.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland affirmed the U.S. States' commitment to identify, arrest and prosecute those involved in war crimes and atrocities committed during Russia's invasion of Ukraine in a visit to that country in June.

He announced the creation of a team focused on war crimes accountability, led by Rosenbaum, that will help Ukraine with criminal prosecution, evidence collection and forensics of human rights abuse, war crimes and other atrocities.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Nick Zieminski)