In 2003, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) established investigative and legal teams to focus more closely on cases involving human rights violators.
Five years later, the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center was created to further a whole-of-government approach to identify, investigate, prosecute and remove war criminals and human rights abusers living in the U.S.
For the past 15 years, the center and its partners have worked collaboratively to support ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations’ (HSI) efforts to bring numerous individuals to justice for human rights-related violations, such as genocide, torture, ethnic cleansing and various other forms of persecution. Through its work over the years, the center and its dedicated personnel have ensured that the United States does not become a safe haven for human rights abusers. It has consistently supported this administration’s National Security strategy which mandates that the U.S. “will not remain silent in the face of evil” and will “hold perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities accountable.”
“The past 15 years has seen robust growth in the U.S. government’s efforts to investigate human rights violators. With the support of ICE leadership, our team has grown from six people to over 50 people dedicated to this mission,” said Mark Shaffer, Unit Chief, Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center. “In addition, we have trained personnel in each of our legal advisors’ offices and in our 26 SAC offices. We have benefitted from the enactment of various legislation which has assisted us immensely. Although global conflicts continue to provide us with additional cases, we are determined to seek justice.”
Currently, the 50-member team leverages the knowledge and expertise of a select group of agents, lawyers, intelligence specialists, criminal research specialists and historians who direct the agency’s broader enforcement efforts against these offenders.
The Center’s partners, which include U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s International Human Rights Unit, as well as the Departments of Justice, State and Defense, work collectively to advance the mission of the DHS in securing the nation.
The Center has combatted threats to our national security through various initiatives. The No Safe Haven Initiative prevents the United States from becoming a safe haven for individuals who commit war crimes, genocide, torture and other forms of serious human rights abuses. The Human Rights Target Tracking Team utilizes intelligence and research personnel to identify serious human rights abusers residing abroad and to prevent them from entering the United States. Through Operation No Safe Haven, the Center supported the arrests of 125 absconders sought for their roles in known or suspected human rights violations.
“The extraordinary work performed by the Center would not have been possible without the dedication and commitment of every team member who has supported our mission over the past 15 years,” said Lisa Koven, Chief, Human Rights Law Section. “We are grateful to the numerous individuals within the U.S. government as well as those outside of it, who have supported our mission of ensuring that the U.S. does not become a safe haven for human rights violators.”
Since 2003, the Center has issued more than 75,000 subject records for individuals from more than 110 countries and stopped more than 260 suspected human rights violators and war criminals from entering the U.S. It has supported ICE’s removal of 908 known or suspected human rights violators from the United States and has facilitated the departure of an additional 122 such individuals. The Center’s support of the field has led to the arrest of more than 410 individuals for human rights-related violations of the law under various criminal and/or immigration statutes. It is currently supporting more than 135 criminal investigations into suspected human rights violators and is pursuing more than 1,750 leads and removals cases involving suspected human rights violators from 95 different countries.
Some of the Center’s biggest successes include its work on the case of Charles Taylor, Jr. sentenced to 97 years in prison following his conviction on six counts of committing acts of torture and conspiracy to commit torture in Liberia – the first use of the federal criminal torture statute (18 USC 2340a) since it was enacted into law in 1994 and the cases of Carlos Vides-Casanova, former Minister of Defense and Director of the National Guard and José Garcia, former Minister of Defense, removed from the U.S. for their roles in extrajudicial killings and torture of civilians, including four American churchwomen during the civil war in El Salvador.
Fifteen years later, the work of the Center continues to ensure that gross human rights abuses do not evade justice and accountability for their crimes by hiding in the United States. The successes have resulted in the Center being honored by The Anti-Defamation League with its SHIELD award in 2015, and 2016 and an honorable mention in 2018.