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Veteran DOJ Prosecutor Rosenbaum Discusses Accountability Efforts for Russian War Crimes in Ukraine

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Eli M. Rosenbaum, the counselor for War Crimes Accountability at the United States Department of Justice, discussed federal efforts to address war crimes in Russia at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at a Monday lecture.

Rosenbaum, a 38-year veteran of the Justice Department, currently heads the DOJ’s war crimes accountability efforts. At the event, which was hosted by the Belfer Center’s Future of Diplomacy Project and the Harvard International Arbitration Law Students Association, Rosenbaum said Ukrainian authorities have registered “more than 90,000 atrocity crimes” committed by Russia.

“Russia is perpetrating war crimes on the largest scale seen in armed conflict anywhere in the world since World War II,” Rosenbaum said.

“It’s going to take years, probably decades, to finish pursuing all the cases,” he added.

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Rosenbaum, who spent nearly 40 years prosecuting Nazi war criminals at the DOJ, discussed the “enormous challenges” in “a situation in which the crimes are ongoing.”

“The Nazi government of Germany was succeeded by a responsible government that assisted authorities around the world in developing Nazi prosecutions,” he said. “The Russian government is not going to assist us in the search for evidence, even though they possess the largest share of the evidence. ”

“That’s a big challenge,” Rosenbaum added.

At the end of 2022, Congress passed an amendment giving the DOJ expanded power to prosecute any war criminal on American soil, “regardless of the nationality of the victim or the offender.” Prior to the change, only war crimes that were committed in the U.S. or against a U.S. national fell under the DOJ’s jurisdiction.

“In the future, when peace is last attained, and some of the perpetrators begin to travel, if one of them makes the mistake of coming to the United States, and it’ll happen — it happened after World War II, I know it’s going to happen — there’s a good chance that we will know who they are and they can be arrested and prosecuted,” Rosenbaum said.

Rosenbaum said his team will “leave no stone unturned” in their search for Russian perpetrators of international law and warned offenders that the DOJ has a “relentless” commitment to justice.

“You will never have to stop looking over your shoulder and wondering whether someone hasn’t finally found you.” Rosenbaum said. “And if you’re thinking about traveling outside of Russia, you may want to think twice about that.”

After Rosenbaum’s talk concluded, a member of the audience asked him if members of the Bush administration, including former President George W. Bush, should be prosecuted for the invasion of Iraq.

“I will say that no government on earth has ever fully sought justice in the wake of its own involvement in serious human rights and humanitarian rights cases,” Rosenbaum said. “We are no exception. You always strive to do better — I think that's probably the best answer I can give.”

Rosenbaum, who graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s and MBA in finance, said he did not originally seek a career in international humanitarian law. But during his time at Harvard Law School, Rosenbaum said, “a little tiny blurb” from the Justice Department’s special unit dealing with Nazi war criminals altered his course.

“I saw that blurb and thought, ‘That’s the summer job for me, I really want that,’ so I applied, and I got the job,” Rosenbaum said.

“My fondest ambition after graduating law school suddenly was not to go into the business world, but to go back to my office at the Justice Department,” he added.

Reflecting on a summer internship that changed his career plans, Rosenbaum offered advice for college students deciding how to spend their summer.

“The lesson of the story is: Choose your internships wisely, because this could happen to you,” Rosenbaum said. “You could end up being a banker. I leave that to you as to whether that's desirable or not, but be careful.”

—Staff writer Thomas J. Mete can be reached at thomas.mete@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @thomasjmete.

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