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A Journey for Justice


A Journey for Justice

Author Ambassador Morse Tan

My ambassadorship nearly ended before arriving at Main State.

I was fighting through a whiteout blizzard between Illinois and Washington, D.C., where I was moving to the office as the Ambassador at Large for Global Criminal Justice, when I hit a patch of black ice. The car spun out of my control, but I knew One who still had control. “Lord, help me,” I prayed, thinking I could be in the final moments of my life.  If the car spun across the oncoming traffic, I could have hit an oncoming car or hurtled off the mountain. From the left lane, I could have hit a vehicle in the right lane next to me. Instead, the car pirouetted two and a half times across the right lane without hitting another vehicle. It pitched backward up the steep mountain slope, jamming its front end into a ditch.

Dazed but seemingly uninjured except for bruised toes on my left foot, I called 911, and the dispatcher sent a police officer and a truck to pull me out of the ditch. I sent up a prayer of thanksgiving to God, who spared my life, a life that had yet unfulfilled purposes.

The truck used a winch to pull the car out of the ditch while the police officer shook his head and told me that he had called earlier that day for salt to de-ice this part of the highway. It did not get done.

Doing one’s job, whether melting ice on a mountainous highway or pursuing justice for mass atrocity crimes, can save lives. Notwithstanding someone’s failure to do so, my life was spared. This reflection only reinforced my determination to positively impact as many people around the world as I could—saving as many lives as possible through this ambassadorship.

A unique position in world history, the Ambassador at Large for Global Criminal Justice leads U.S. policy regarding mass atrocity crimes (genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity) around the world. The very existence of this position, as I testified during my confirmation hearing, is a testament to the goodness and greatness of this country, a country to which my family gratefully immigrated from South Korea in 1976. 

When people think of ambassadors, they tend to think first of ambassadors to a specific country, whether to Great Britain, Kenya or Cambodia. Country ambassadorships are the most numerous type of ambassadorship by far. U.S. ambassadors to international organizations, such as the United Nations, number in the twenties. In contrast, there are typically only a handful of ambassadors at large, who work on a specific subject matter around the world. My immediate PAS (Presidentially Appointed, Senate Confirmed) predecessor would joke that he was not “at large” (in the sense of being wanted by the law) but that he was going after those who are at large.

On my first day in the office, I heard the first verbal reports from my staff of terrible mass atrocity crimes around the world, and still, even out of office, I have not given up my determination to pursue as much justice as possible for these heinous crimes that reflect the depths of human depravity. Many State Department personnel told me that I had either the best or the 2nd best view in the whole State Department. I was particularly grateful for the straight shot view of the Lincoln Memorial, remembering frequently that great president’s hard-fought quest for justice. My relentless, tenacious determination from the very beginning and throughout my time in the office to the very end was to pursue as much justice as I possibly could. 

Towards Justice for Sri Lanka

So right out of the gates, I examined portions of the terabyte plus of evidence GCJ had accumulated of mass atrocity crimes committed in the 26-year Sri Lankan civil war. This evidence pointed to mass atrocity crimes, such as the attacks upon out-of-bounds civilian targets such as schools and hospitals or the brutal treatment and extrajudicial executions of prisoners of war who had surrendered.

GCJ had tried for around a year to accomplish a public visa sanction against Shavendra Silva, the head of the Sri Lankan army, for his culpability in these war crimes. Elements inside of State had been trying to delay or block such a public sanction, which would prohibit Silva or his family members from being able to step foot inside the United States, a destination to which he had previously enjoyed access. After I successfully made our case to the pertinent Undersecretary, he persuaded the Deputy Secretary and then the Secretary, and the visa sanction publicly slammed Silva within my first two and a half weeks at Main State. 

Ambassador Stephen Rapp called this the biggest step for justice ever accomplished regarding the war crimes in Sri Lanka. The Silva public visa sanction proved to be only the first in a series of steps we in GCJ accomplished for justice in that war-torn country.

Indicting the Former President of Kosovo

Another one of my predecessors, Ambassador Clint Williamson, set up the Kosovo Specialist Chambers as part of the most prosecuted war in world history, the Balkan war that tore apart the former Yugoslavia. On my watch, we oversaw the indictment of Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, who then stepped down immediately from the presidency. Our seconded U.S. prosecutor said that he had more than enough evidence to prove all ten counts against Thaci beyond a reasonable doubt.

President Thaci sought to wriggle out of the possible indictment by writing a letter to the Secretary of State. Secretary Mike Pompeo wrote a firm letter back to Thaci that supported the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, leading to Thaci’s eventual indictment. No office, no matter how exalted, can shield one from mass atrocity prosecution.

The World’s Most Wanted

GCJ runs the War Crimes Reward Program, offering up to $5 million for information leading to the apprehension of those at large for such crimes before international or hybrid (partially domestic/partially international) courts. Yet another of my predecessors, Ambassador Pierre Prosper, who had previously served as the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, set up the War Crimes Reward Program, which can play a role in pursuing justice for these crimes.

The chief financier and inciter of the Rwandan genocide, Felicien Kabuga, remained at large when I took the office. An estimated 800,000 to 1.2 million people perished in this terrible genocide. Children were burned to death, and even traditional safe havens like churches were piled with corpses during those days of rage. 

Netflix dedicated a full episode of its documentary, the World’s Most Wanted, to the hunt for Felicien Kabuga. The documentary features a couple of my predecessors, as well as Jacques Pitteloud, who went on to serve as the Swiss Ambassador to the U.S. during my time.  Ambassador Pitteloud directly witnessed the genocide, including the burning of children before his eyes, which gave him nightmares. 

I wanted to understand more about Kabuga’s role in this genocide, so I dug for more information pertaining to what Kabuga had done. The wealthiest man in Rwanda at that time, Kabuga purchased the crude weaponry, such as machetes and sharpened sticks, that the genocidaires used as the instrumentalities of their brutal murders. As the head of Radio/Television Milles Collines, Kabuga’s network broadcast viciously dehumanizing messages calling for the extermination of “Tutsi cockroaches”. These broadcasts even gave the specific locations of Tutsis to enable Hutus to find and exterminate them. This and other research confirmed in my mind that Kabuga would appropriately be the top target for our War Crimes Rewards Program.

After over a quarter of a century of attempting to capture Kabuga, French gendarmeries stormed into an apartment in a suburb outside of Paris, seizing the mastermind and supplier behind the Rwandan genocide. Later at a Council of American Ambassadors meeting, I was pleased to thank the French Ambassador at that time for his country’s role in the capture of Kabuga. He immediately recognized what I was saying, and underscored the importance of seeking justice for such mass atrocity crimes.

Inside the Swiss Embassy to the United States, Ambassador Pitteloud told me the story about how he had Kabuga in his custody in Kenya 26 years earlier and lost him. He said that he could not forgive himself for the escape of this major figure in the Rwandan genocide. He then proceeded to thank me for the capture of Kabuga on my watch, although I can neither confirm nor deny the role of the War Crimes Rewards Program in any specifics, which are classified. After all, we do not want to turn sources and tipsters into targets, which the World’s Most Wanted describes as having happened specifically in Kabuga’s case. That day in the Swiss Embassy though, I can report that it looked like a large weight had lifted off of Ambassador Pitteloud’s shoulders with the apprehension of Kabuga. 

Kabuga’s trial, the final one on the merits before the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Trials (Mechanism), the successor to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), ended when the Appeals Chamber affirmed in August of 2023 that Kabuga was unfit to stand trial due to dementia and that the alternative procedure to find facts by the Trial Chamber does not exist.  Many victims have found this ending to be outrageous and intensely frustrating.

Convicting the Primary Defendant in the Special Tribunal for Lebanon

After terrorists assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon along with 21 other people, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon formed to address this attack. The U.S. government funded this Tribunal to the tune of 10 million dollars a year. After a series of failed prosecutions, we saw the primary defendant Ayyash, a Hezbollah member, convicted during my time as ambassador. The over 2,600 page opinion dropped like legal bombshell shortly after a massive physical explosion rocked Lebanon, bringing some long-awaited justice to this situation.

El Mozote: the Largest Massacre in the Americas

We in GCJ supported the prosecution of those behind the biggest massacre in the Americas in modern times. The Salvadoran Army murdered 811 civilians in 1981 during the Salvadoran civil war. Judge Jorge Guzman re-opened the case after the overturning of a Salvadoran amnesty law, but the prosecution ended in September 2021 after the Salvadoran president removed Judge Guzman.

Prioritizing Nigeria

I raised the situation in Nigeria to a Tier One priority in GCJ. As I sat across from the top military leadership of Nigeria together with its National Security Advisor, Pentagon leadership sat to my right and the remainder of State Department leadership lined up to my left. We sat in the conference area named after the former Secretary of State and General George C. Marshall, whose name lives on in part because of the Marshall Plan that aided our former enemies in Europe after WWII. The Nigerians sought more kinetic military ware from the United States.

After the Pentagon interacted with Nigerian military leadership, I dove into the mass atrocity crimes taking place in Nigeria. I did not hold back, but tried to make the pill easier to swallow with historic analogues. Everyone in the room seemed stunned that I would have the gumption to raise mass atrocity crimes in the course of the meeting. After I spoke, the meeting ended abruptly. However, the head general of the Nigerian air force’s legal team approached me quietly afterwards and admitted that what I had denounced was true.

The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of Congress held a hearing on December 17th, 2020 regarding atrocities in the Middle Belt of Nigeria. In that hearing, I sternly made the case against the crimes against humanity that were being committed, including the Boko Haram’s kidnapping of hundreds of junior high boys. Later that same day, Boko Haram released the hundreds of Nigerian junior high boys it had kidnapped. The United States’ exercising of moral leadership is a force for good and for justice that should not be underestimated.

Military Malice in Myanmar

By way of some self-deprecating comic relief, let me share a little anecdote pertaining to a meeting with the Gambian Ambassador to the U.S. On a particularly busy day, I dashed from meeting after meeting, scrambling back to the GCJ office where the Gambian Ambassador to the U.S.  was waiting patiently for me. Already embarrassed to keep him waiting, I was a bit mortified to notify him that “nature called”, leaving him to wait even longer. He was quite gracious about the delay. One of my staff members reassured me: “Don’t worry, you’re the Ambassador; the meeting will not move forward without you.” The meeting itself ended up being very brief, as the Gambian Ambassador was quickly satisfied with what I said to him.

In November of 2019, the Gambia sued Myanmar, bringing a charge of genocide before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), also known as the “World Court”. Never before had a state brought a charge under the Genocide Convention before the ICJ for another state’s genocidal acts against its own citizens. Early in my tenure, the ICJ decided to move forward with the genocide charge against Myanmar, even though the country was represented by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. We in GCJ quietly supported this case. On July 22, 2022, the ICJ determined it had jurisdiction to move forward.

Additionally, we supported the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), which has engaged in gathering and organizing evidence that could be used in a future prosecution. In my interactions with the leadership of the IIMM, I reaffirmed our strong support for their efforts.

Our GCJ team wanted a mass atrocity determination for genocide and crimes against humanity against the military of Myanmar. The determination we sought came down on March 21, 2022, a year after the military coup took place in 2021. I could not help but wonder whether an earlier determination before the coup might have helped prevent the coup. Since that is a counterfactual, it amounts to no more than rueful speculation. In any case, the determinations did occur later, but at a time that could not help prevent the military junta.

CCP Mass Atrocity Determinations

Before my appointment as ambassador, GCJ staff said attempts to push mass atrocity determinations regarding situations in Burma and China floundered because of a leak to the Washington Post. The Secretary’s office denied that the leak had any such impact. Such determinations happen infrequently, but when the Secretary makes them, they generally have carried considerable weight. I worked on both of these mass atrocity matters for the majority of my time in the office. Regarding the mass atrocity determinations against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), there is perhaps no matter that I have ever worked on for which I have been hit from more directions.

Most of the information we relied upon derived from open sources. We did not primarily have to rely upon classified information. In the midst of our efforts, Politico leaked information, which precipitated a red phone call to the Secretary’s office that same night. I received reassurance that the leak would not prevent the process from moving ahead.

During my initial meeting with the Secretary about the CCP atrocity determination possibility, he asked a series of germane questions, giving me opportunities to give him the general “lay of the land”. He was persuaded and then said that he would prevail upon the president.

After reading the entirety of our roughly inch thick evidentiary and policy basis as well as the legal analysis from the Legal Advisor’s office, Secretary Pompeo issued determinations of genocide and crimes against humanity by the Chinese Communist Party against Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang Province. The publication First Things called these atrocity determinations the greatest human rights achievement of the entire Trump administration. Never had a government with as much prominence, power and influence as China’s been hit with American mass atrocity determinations. Further, this marked only the seventh time the United States made such a determination.

Secretary Antony Blinken fielded questions about these determinations during his confirmation hearing, during which he agreed to abide by them, and he has. Indeed, these mass atrocity determinations led to the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics by 13 countries, including the United States. The United States also has imposed sanctions on the CCP, including against supply chains, but because of feared retaliation, most other countries have refused to take steps against the CCP. A Uyghur Tribunal, formed on the heels of these determinations, delivered its judgment in December of 2021. 

The humiliated CCP has made a number of changes in Xinjiang, which I would wish to be more substantial than cosmetic. The CCP also announced visa sanctions against about 30 top U.S. officials. The CCP called Secretary Pompeo a “doomsday clown”, an epithet that seems to have lost something in translation.

In Sum

An investigator interviewed me for over seven hours when I was being considered for this position. At the end, he exclaimed, “You’re going to be a great ambassador!”  After I completed my ambassadorship, Secretary Pompeo noted, “Ambassador Tan was one of the few appointees who effectively got a lot done.” These words of verbal affirmation bookended the relentless and pure pursuit of justice to which I dedicated myself.  

This ambassadorship provided an incredible and unique opportunity to pursue justice for mass atrocity crimes around the world. Constantly challenging and full of purpose, I will never be the same for having taken the plunge. While I would wish that no need for a GCJ would exist on this planet, I strove with tenacity to do what I could to make the world more just. I am grateful for the opportunity and have considered it worthwhile for all the people that I strove to help, trying to make the world a better place for generations to come.

Ambassador Morse Tan, currently the Dean of Liberty University’s School of
Law, served as Ambassador at Large for Global Criminal Justice (2019-2021)
and is currently the foremost legal scholar on North Korea.


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