ABA Annual Meeting

US will hold Russia accountable for war crimes in Ukraine, AG says in stirring speech

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U.S. Attorney Merrick Garland

U.S Attorney Merrick Garland addresses the ABA House of Delegates on Aug. 7, 2023. Photo by Elevate Photography.

War criminals will find no refuge in America,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland told the ABA House of Delegates on Aug. 7.

Garland spoke in person at the 2023 ABA Annual Meeting, calling upon the association to support victims of the Russian war on Ukraine.

Following Congress’ passage of the Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act, legislation supported by the ABA, the Department of Justice now has the ability to prosecute foreign nationals accused of committing or ordering war crimes if they step foot on U.S. soil. Previously, U.S. authorities could prosecute war crimes only if the alleged perpetrator or victim was a U.S. national. The law closes a loophole and aligns it with international law.

The work is modeled on the Department of Justice’s decadeslong project to prosecute and denaturalize Nazi war criminals in the U.S. “The Justice Department—and the American people—have a long memory,” Garland said. “So do the Ukrainian people.”

The United States joined forces in July with the Ukraine and the European Union to form the International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression against Ukraine. It will operate through Eurojust, the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation; and the International Criminal Court, the world’s largest war crimes court, to investigate Russia’s crimes and help build cases for future trials.

As the United States works to support Ukraine’s efforts to bring aggressors to justice, the Department of Justice has seized $500 million in assets from those who unlawfully support the Russian regime, Garland said. This includes assets belonging to Russian oligarchs who evaded U.S. economic countermeasures.

In the spring, he authorized the first transfer of forfeited assets to the State Department to support the rebuilding of Ukraine.

He asked ABA members to support a new Victim and Witness Coordination Centre addressing the legal needs of displaced Ukrainians, and to create a strong network of pro bono attorneys ready to aid Ukrainian victims as they seek justice for “atrocities on the largest scale in any European armed conflict since the Second World War.”

“This has been the responsibility of every generation of Americans—and in particular, every generation of American lawyers,” he added.

Garland also commended the ABA Rule of Law Initiative and Center for Human Rights for their support of Ukraine.

“I am hopeful that by working together, the American Bar Association and the Department of Justice can help those who have been victimized by Russia’s ongoing criminal invasion of Ukraine,” he said.

Garland became emotional when discussing his own family’s need to seek refuge in the United States before World War I as well as his family members lost in the Holocaust.

“The families of victims of the current atrocities in the Ukraine deserve to know what happened to their loved ones,” he said. “They deserve justice.”

This story was originally published in the October-November 2023 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Bearing Witness: US will hold Russia accountable for war crimes in Ukraine, AG says in stirring speech.”

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