The Senate passed legislation Saturday night that would create a new section within the Justice Department Criminal Division to handle human rights crimes.
The Human Rights Enforcement Act of 2009, which was approved by unanimous consent, would lay the groundwork to merge the Office of Special Investigations and the Domestic Security Section into the new section. The Office of Special Investigations — which was created to probe Nazi criminals living in the United States — handles U.S. citizens who committed human rights crimes. The Domestic Security Section focuses on non-U.S. citizens who violated human rights laws and who are now in the United States.
The new section would prosecute torture, genocide, child soldiers and war crimes that are committed by any person who is in the United States. Criminal Division chief Lanny Breuer said last month that he supports the establishment of a human rights section. Read our previous report here.
The bill is sponsored by Democrat Richard Durbin of Illinois and Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who are the chairman and ranking minority member, respectively, of the Senate Judiciary panel’s Human Rights and the Law Subcommittee. There is no companion House bill.
This post has been corrected from an earlier version.
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The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed legislation Thursday that would create a new section within the Justice Department Criminal Division to handle human rights crimes.
The Human Rights Enforcement Act of 2009, which was approved by voice vote, would lay the groundwork to fold the Office of Special Investigations and Domestic Security Section into the new section. The Office of Special Investigations — which was created to probe Nazi criminals living in the United States — focuses on U.S. citizens who committed human rights crimes. The Domestic Security Section prosecutes non-U.S. citizens who violated human rights laws and are in the United States.
The new section would prosecute torture, genocide, child soldiers and war crimes that are committed by any person who is in the United States. The bill is sponsored by Senate Judiciary human rights and the law chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and co-sponsored by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.)
Criminal Division chief Lanny Breuer said last month that he supports the establishment of a human rights section. Here are his remarks from a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on human rights enforcement:
“While no structural reform can take place without the approval of the Office of Management and Budget and notification to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, based on my review, I have recommended to the Attorney General that our already outstanding efforts in this area would be enhanced by a merger of the Domestic Security Section and the Office of Special Investigation into a new section with responsibility for human rights enforcement, MEJA/SMTJ cases, and alien-smuggling and related matters. That new section would be called the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section. The Attorney General has indicated his support for this change and the Department’s strong commitment to enforcing human rights, and we expect to move forward with this.”
This post has been updated and corrected from an earlier version.
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Assistant Majority Leader Sen. Dick Durbin has been one of the Senate’s most passionate voices against Bush-era detention policies. But don’t expet the Illinois Democrat to use his chairmanship of a newly revived Senate Judiciary human rights subcommittee as a partisan bully pulpit.
Instead, Durbin said he will work with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to find common ground on an agenda. He’s taking the gavel of the subcommittee for a second time, after giving up chairmanship of the plum Judiciary crime subcommittee to party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.)
The human rights panel plans to address child soldiers, genocide, sexual violence and human trafficking — all concerns Coburn shares as well. In particular, conservatives and liberals have come together to fight international human trafficking, including the forced prostitution of women.
“While we had some legislative success, far more needs to be done,” Durbin said in a statement last month after he received the subcommittee gavel again. “We will continue to work on these and other issues as we try to ensure that America remains committed to human rights both at home and abroad.”
Coburn said he is please the subcommittee has been revived.
“We have a lot of issues we need to look at it,” Coburn said in an interview.
Tom Malinowski, Washington director for the Human Rights Watch which worked with the panel in the past, said he hopes the reestablished subcommittee will continue the work it did in the last Congress that led to the enactment of the Genocide Accountability Act and the Child Soldiers Accountability Act, which targeted world leaders who engaged in severe human rights abuses.
He said that while the subcommittee tackled many weighty issues, it avoided some topics that could have caused severe divisions between subcommittee Democrats and Republicans, such as the Bush administration’s policies on indefinite prisoner detentions, which Durbin openly criticized.
“Durbin made a point of choosing issues that Sen. Coburn was interested in working on,” Malinowski said.
Helping the senators to develop an agenda will be majority chief counsel Joseph Zogby and minority chief counsel Brooke Bacak. Zogby was previously the chief counsel for the human rights and the law subcommittee and then served the brief stint as Durbin’s chief counsel on crime and drugs subcommittee. Mary Harned previously held the minority post.
The Justice Department will also continue to work with the subcommittee. During the 110th Congress, members of the Civil and Criminal divisions often testified before the subcommittee.
“We look forward to working with the subcommittee on human rights and the law on the important issues it may address,” DOJ spokesperson Alejandro Miyar wrote in an e-mail.
Although there will be some familiar faces working with the subcommittee, not all the subcommittee members from the 110th Congress have rejoined the panel.
There were six Democrats and five Republicans on the subcommittee in the 110th Congress. Now, joining Durbin and Coburn will be four Democrats and two Republicans – Sens. Specter (D-Pa.), Russ Feingold (D- Wisc.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) Graham and Sen. John McCain sponsored legislation in 2005 that would have banned the harsh interrogation methods used against suspected terrorists.
Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) are missing from the subcommittee because they no longer sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Also, Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) will not return to the panel.
The decision of Specter to leave the Republican Party led to the reestablishment of the subcommittee in May, after Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) disbanded the two-year-old panel in February.
“With the change of administrations, and the transition to this new Congress, we are not continuing the subcommittee,” Leahy said in testimony before the Judiciary Committee in February. “No one should confuse that with a lack of commitment to the human rights agenda.”
The subcommittee was the loser in a game of musical chairs.
Biden was the chair of the crime and drugs subcommittee in the 110th Congress. He relinquished his gavel to Durbin after becoming vice president. The Illinois senator then had to give up his human rights and the law subcommittee chairmanship because Democratic rules didn’t allow him to hold more than one Judiciary subcommittee gavel.
Durbin, in turn, relinquished his crime and drugs subcommittee to Specter in May. He’d held hearings on sentencing dispairities between federal crack and powder cocaine offenses and Mexican drug cartels before handing the gavel to Specter. Durbin said his said the move was not meant to appease the long-serving Pennsylvanian, who’d been stripped of his seniority by the Democratic caucus after switching parties.
“I raised this issue long before feathers were ruffled,” Durbin said at a pen-and-pad session with reporters in May.
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