This week Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) introduced “The Global Human Rights and Humanitarian Accountability Act,” a bill that policy analysts, pundits, and legislators alike should applaud and support as a broad and bold assertion of congressional commitment to counter the most abhorrent and illegal actions of demagogues and dictators as they inflict various atrocities on their own populations.
This human rights bill is part of a multi-legislative proposal Rep. Omar has dubbed “A Pathway to Peace,” which includes other proposals calling for major budgetary reallocations for peacebuilding, significant changes in current U.S. policies regarding migration, protection of children and youth, and a commitment to U.S. adherence to the work of the International Criminal Court. A distinct part of this package is a rather focused set of criteria for the congressional oversight of the U.S. use of economic sanctions that are often imposed exclusively by the Executive branch — the President and the Treasury Department — under the 1977 International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA).
Rep. Omar’s legislation mandates that within 60 days after a president imposes sanctions under the IEEPA, Congress must approve the renewal of sanctions, or they come to an end. This will significantly improve current U.S. sanctions policy of “maximum pressure” that has become the economic equivalent of saturation bombing. More calibrated and smartly applied targeted U.S. sanctions are the tool most needed to end mass atrocities and improve human rights.
Thus, by also providing rules for imposing sanctions by the president and Congress, “The Global Human Rights and Humanitarian Accountability Act” works well in tandem with the bills in this package for peace. Notably, the human rights bill operationalizes the unique capacity of sanctions to derail massive atrocities at the earliest possible time. It does so by providing clear “red lines” for what constitutes such abuses, for example war crimes and genocide, thus reducing much of the political wrangling that often occurs within the U.S. government about such actions.
In its specification of the various and distinct actions perpetrated against the innocent under the three categories of Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, and War Crimes, Rep. Omar’s bill provides clear definitional parameters regarding which behaviors of national leaders the entire U.S. government should ensure comes to an end as soon as it begins. Particularly helpful to policy makers trying to comprehend differences between generalized repression of a population and direct violations of law are the bill’s careful explanation of eleven distinct categories of violations of international humanitarian law, and its 35 distinct types of war crimes.
Once passed, the Act deepens the ability of Congress to keep its finger on the pulse of gross human rights violations in nations in transition from dictatorship, to investigate and name war crimes during internal and external violence conflict, and to expose the diversity of genocidal actions and perpetrated atrocities used by the world’s dictators to maintain their illegitimate power. A major component of congressional capacity outlined in this bill is the creation of the “United States Commission on Atrocity Accountability and Human Rights.” The Commission will include four members of the House and four Senators appointed in bi-partisan manner, a White House appointee and the U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes. Its functions will include monitoring of atrocity-like violence, making policy recommendations to the president, Congress, and the secretary of state regarding which actors warrant sanctions, and issuing reports of its work.
The activities of the Commission and the actions empowered by this bill complements ongoing congressional work in the human rights and mass atrocities field that has unfolded in the important work done for years under the Lantos Commission. This bill also provides a robust companion to the Magnitsky Act. In fact, Rep. Omar’s bill has the potential to parallel the expansive nature of the Magnitsky Act, which originally focused on sanctioning Russian repressive behavior, but quickly became implemented globally as one of the best expressions of the U.S. human rights policy.
Rep. Omar’s bill authorizes the president to impose economic sanctions on a government that has been found to engage in any of these terrible violent actions specified in the bill. In so doing it demonstrates that the president and Congress can work in a coordinated fashion to take concentrated action for human rights and humanitarian protections as a core and ongoing concern for American national security. Moreover, the bill illustrates a more appropriate and effective use of the sanctions tool by the president in a policy area where sanctions have a good track record, the exceptions being when have been used too little and too late, as in the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur.
Based on the bill’s vision, and particularly the work of the Commission, Congress and president should embrace it fully. To appreciate its goals and potential they need only to think back nine years ago this month when the U.S., other nations, and the U.N. struggled with what actions to take to deal with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who had pledged to “crush the cockroaches” rebelling against him.
On the one hand, the targeted financial sanctions, asset freeze, travel ban, and arms embargo imposed by the United States, the European Union and the U.N. combined to cut off nearly half of Gaddafi’s usable monies — $36 billion in all. These sanctions immediately denied Gaddafi the funds to import heavy weapons, to hire foot soldier mercenaries, or to contract with elite commando units that were all to be aimed at civilian protesters. On the other hand, too narrow a policy vision and too much optimism about the use of NATO’s “preventive military bombing” actually expanded the violence significantly and led to a Libya engulfed by internal war ever since.
Taken in tandem with the other the bills Rep. Omar introduced this week, “The Global Human Rights and Humanitarian Accountability Act” puts a premium on early recognition of atrocities on the horizon and rapid, coordinated response by the president and Congress that imposes targeted sanctions to deprive a government of repressive resources. These measures include automatic withdrawal of U.S. security assistance, arms sales, and security training that often enable governments to commit atrocities. In this way, the Act provides a much needed framework for advancing American values of human rights and stifling violence against innocence in a manner that does not require the use of military force.
George A. Lopez is a Non-Residential Fellow of the Quincy Institute and the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., Professor Emeritus of Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, part of the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. He is a leading expert on economic sanctions, peacebuilding, and various peace-related issues. Lopez has advised the United Nations, various international agencies, and governments on economic sanctions issues, ranging from assessing their humanitarian impact to the design of targeted financial sanctions. He has written more than 40 articles and book chapters and authored or edited six books (often with Kroc Institute faculty member David Cortright) on sanctions. Their research detailing the unlikely presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was published before the 2003 Iraq War as “Disarming Iraq” in Arms Control Today and afterwards as “Containing Iraq: the Sanctions Worked” in Foreign Affairs.Lopez served as interim executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1997 and chaired its Board of Directors (1998-2003). As a Senior Research Associate at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs in New York City, he assisted with the Council’s post-9/11 public programming. He held a Senior Jennings Randolph Fellowship at USIP from 2009-10 and served as a member of the UN Panel of Experts for monitoring and implementing UN Sanctions on North Korea from 2010-11. From 2013-15, he was the Vice President of the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at USIP. In 2018, he was named a Fulbright Senior Specialist.
Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”
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Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.