Attorney General Merrick Garland Speaks At American Bar Association Annual Meeting

By NYSBA Staff

August 8, 2023

Attorney General Merrick Garland Speaks At American Bar Association Annual Meeting


By NYSBA Staff

Attorney General Merrick Garland spoke at the American Bar Association’s Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado on August 7. His remarks are below.

Good morning.

Thank you, Chair Vance, for that generous introduction and for inviting me to speak to the House of Delegates.

Since I became Attorney General in 2021, the Justice Department has had three co-equal priorities: upholding the Rule of Law, keeping our country safe, and protecting civil rights.

Before rejoining the Department, I had served in both career and non-career positions under five previous Attorneys General. And while DOJ has certainly had different priorities under different Attorneys General since my first tour of duty, the Department’s underlying work has always fit well within these three categories.

So I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into.

But one thing I did not anticipate when I took the oath of office in March of 2021 was that – less than a year later – Russia would launch the largest land war in Europe since the end of World War II.

Nor did I anticipate that the Justice Department’s work to uphold the Rule of Law would soon extend to helping our Ukrainian allies protect the Rule of Law in their own country.

It is that work – and a suggestion for some complementary work by the ABA – that I will talk about this morning.

Over the past 17 months, the world has watched as invading Russian forces have committed atrocities on the largest scale in any European armed conflict since the Second World War.

But we have also watched as the Ukrainian people and their leaders have responded with extraordinary resolve, showing the world what courage looks like.

At the same time, the Justice Department’s counterparts in the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office have showed us what putting faith in the Rule of Law looks like.

In the midst of a war, prosecutors in that office have risked their lives to record what is happening to their people.

They have meticulously collected and catalogued evidence from the rubble of blast sites – including hospitals, residential apartment buildings, theaters, and schools.

They have exhumed mass graves and carefully studied the bodies of victims – in order to tell the stories of those who no longer can.

They have documented the Russian regime’s forced deportation of Ukrainian children and its use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

They have worked relentlessly to pursue accountability for these crimes and make clear the costs of perpetrating them.

They have opened investigations, identified and tracked down suspects, initiated prosecutions, and obtained convictions.

In doing so, they have stood courageously in defense of democracy and in defense of the Rule of Law.

The United States Department of Justice is honored to stand with them.

Within a month of Russia’s full-scale invasion, we launched Task Force KleptoCapture, to enforce the sweeping sanctions and export restrictions the United States imposed in response to Russia’s unprovoked aggression.

Since then, our task force has been busy freezing and seizing assets, executing arrests, and bringing prosecutions against those whose criminal acts enable the Russian government to continue its unjust war.

Working with our international partners, DOJ prosecutors have seized or restrained over $500 million in assets – including two super yachts – of Russian oligarchs and others who unlawfully support the Russian regime and evade U.S. economic countermeasures. We have indicted over three dozen individuals accused of sanctions evasion, export control violations, money laundering, and other crimes.

And this spring, pursuant to new congressional legislation, I authorized the United States’ first transfer of forfeited assets to the State Department to support the rebuilding of Ukraine. Although this is our first asset transfer, it will not be the last.

Freezing and seizing the assets of Russia’s enablers is not the only tool the Justice Department has. Four months after the invasion, I traveled to Ukraine to meet with the Ukrainian Prosecutor General and express the United States’ support for the people of Ukraine.

There, I announced the creation of the Justice Department’s War Crimes Accountability Team.

That team is investigating war crimes in Ukraine that may violate U.S. law, as well as assisting our Ukrainian and international partners in their investigations.  It is modeled in part on the Justice Department’s decades-long effort to identify, denaturalize, and deport Nazi war criminals in the United States.

During that effort, the Department’s Office of Special Investigations brought more than 130 cases against perpetrators of Nazi crimes. A prosecutor whom some of you know – Eli Rosenbaum – served as head of that office for many years. Today, Eli is leading our efforts to investigate atrocity crimes in Ukraine.

The Justice Department – and the American people – have a long memory. So do the Ukrainian people.

Today, our war crimes accountability efforts in Ukraine have three main areas of focus.

First, we are investigating and prosecuting war crimes that fall within our own jurisdiction.

Until earlier this year, our authority to prosecute war crimes was limited to cases in which a U.S. national was a victim or perpetrator. Our team is  building those cases, interviewing witnesses, and collecting evidence. We have already identified several suspects.

But Congress has also recently enacted a change in law that allows the Justice Department to prosecute war criminals from any country who are present in the United States. This means that in the years – and decades – ahead, Russian war criminals who set foot in our country should expect to find themselves in U.S. courts of law.

War criminals will find no refuge in America.

As many of you know, the Justice Department does not currently have authority to prosecute crimes against humanity. But the United States has determined that Russia has committed such crimes, and it has supported legislation to grant the Department authority to prosecute them. The ABA has long favored such legislation.

Second, we are working closely with our partners in Ukraine to support their investigations of Russian war crimes.

Together, American and Ukrainian prosecutors have zeroed in on specific crimes committed by Russian forces, including attacks on civilian targets. We are working to identify not only the individuals who carried out these attacks, but those who ordered them.

As part of this effort, the Justice Department’s human rights prosecutors are providing the Prosecutor General’s office with wide-ranging legal, technical and investigative assistance. Our environmental crimes prosecutors are likewise training their Ukrainian counterparts in that subject.

And we are using the lessons learned in our own complex criminal investigations to assist the Prosecutor General’s Office in developing a secure electronic case management and analysis system for the more than 90,000 suspected atrocity crimes it has already registered.

The Justice Department has also just sent to Kyiv a resident legal advisor, Jared Kimball, to work with the Prosecutor General’s Office and our State Department colleagues on a range of Rule of Law issues – including fighting kleptocracy, corruption, and money laundering.

This is important because, as Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin has repeatedly told me, Ukraine must do three things simultaneously: it must fight a war; it must investigate war crimes; and it must ensure that a just society comes out on the other side of the war.

Finally, the Justice Department is working with our international partners to pursue accountability for Russian war crimes.

Earlier this year, I traveled to Ukraine for the second time to sign an historic agreement with Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, and Romania. That agreement expands information sharing and strengthens our collective efforts to hold Russian war criminals accountable.

Our work to advance accountability with our international partners also includes cooperation with the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Two months ago, I visited the ICC at The Hague – the first time a U.S. cabinet officer has done so – and met with its Chief Prosecutor, Karim Khan. The goal was to build on the ongoing cooperation between the Court and the U.S. government on a range of matters, including Ukraine.

In the FY 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act, Congress gave the Executive Branch new flexibility “to assist [the ICC] with investigations and prosecutions of foreign nationals related to the Situation in Ukraine, including to support victims and witnesses.”

As Secretary of State Blinken recently confirmed, the United States will be cooperating with the ICC’s investigations of foreign nationals arising out of the horrific situation in Ukraine.  The Justice Department will be an integral part of that cooperation.

During my trip to The Hague, I also announced the appointment of Jessica Kim, to serve as the U.S. Special Prosecutor for the Crime of Aggression. She will be working with the International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression Against Ukraine, which was established at Eurojust with the support of the European Commission. Jessica will be the first U.S. prosecutor since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials to be engaged in efforts to build cases on the crime of aggression.

Tomorrow marks 78 years since the signing of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal in London. The Charter set forth the crimes for which the Allies would prosecute the major surviving Nazi perpetrators at Nuremburg, as well as the rules of procedure that would be employed there.

The Charter laid the groundwork for one of the most important international criminal trials in history, introducing the then-new offenses of “crimes against peace” – now the crime of aggression – and crimes against humanity.

In his opening statement at that trial, one my predecessors as Attorney General, Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson, posed the question: “Civilization asks whether law is so laggard as to be utterly helpless to deal with crimes of this magnitude by criminals of this order of importance.”

Nuremberg answered that question for his time.

The International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression Against Ukraine is a concerted international effort to begin to provide an answer for ours.

We are not waiting for the hostilities to end before pursuing justice and accountability. We are working closely with our international partners to gather evidence and build cases so that we are ready when the time comes to hold the perpetrators accountable.

Before I close, I want to commend the work that the ABA’s Rule of Law Initiative has long undertaken in Ukraine.

I also know that the ABA’s Center for Human Rights has documented the widespread disappearances of human rights defenders and other civilians in Russian-occupied Ukraine.

There is yet one more initiative I would like to encourage the ABA to pursue.

Following our discussions at the Justice Department in Washington, Prosecutor General Kostin recently established his Office’s first Victim-Witness Coordination Centre. DOJ is supporting that Centre with training and other assistance.

Addressing the needs of millions of Ukrainians displaced or otherwise harmed by Russia’s invasion will require years and herculean effort. The new center would benefit greatly from help from non-governmental organizations, particularly in the painstaking work of documenting harms suffered, assessing damages, and securing reparations. Lawyers will be critical to this work.

Such support efforts may entail building pro bono networks to provide legal assistance to victims seeking reparations – by filing claims with a recently created damages registry that will support future efforts to disperse funds, including the proceeds of assets seized by the United States and our partners. Victims’ rights advocates can also represent those seeking remedies through the European Court of Human Rights or through UN mechanisms.

That is why, in addition to thanking you for the work you are already doing, I want to encourage the ABA to develop a network of attorneys who are willing to provide pro bono services to Ukrainian victims. The Justice Department and our colleagues across government stand ready to provide advice on contacts and opportunities to engage in this work.

I am hopeful that by working together, the American Bar Association and the Department of Justice can help those who have been victimized by Russia’s ongoing criminal invasion of Ukraine.

As Americans, we have a personal stake in this work, and in the success of democracy and the Rule of Law both at home and abroad. I certainly do.

Before World War I, America gave my family a refuge from religious persecution that allowed them to survive the Holocaust when World War II arrived.

My grandmother was one of five children born in what is now Belarus. Three made it to the United States, including my grandmother.

Two did not make it. They were killed in the Holocaust.

If not for America, there is little doubt the same would have happened to my grandmother.

But this country took her in. And under the protection of its laws, she was able to live without fear of persecution.

I am also married to the daughter of a refugee who found protection here in the United States.

Shortly after Hitler’s army entered Austria in 1938, my wife’s mother escaped to America. Under the protection of our laws, she too, was able to live without fear of persecution.

That our families found refuge in the United States is only part of their story. They also lost loved ones they were forced to leave behind.

Our families do not know exactly when, or exactly where, our loved ones were killed. And we do not know if anyone involved in their deaths was ever held accountable.

The families of the victims of the current atrocities in Ukraine deserve to know what happened to their loved ones. They deserve justice.

That is why we do this work.

Because adhering to, and putting our trust in, the Rule of Law is how we seek justice for those who have been victimized.

It is how we pursue accountability for the perpetrators.

It is how we deter future aggression.

And it is how we protect one another.

This has been the responsibility of every generation of Americans – and in particular, every generation of American lawyers.

That responsibility is now ours.

Thank you again for inviting me to join you today.

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