By Nathaniel Hurd,
Senior Policy Advisor
The Commission for International Justice and Accountability is a non-governmental organization that investigates atrocity crimes and terrorism committed during conflicts and prepares evidence for prosecutions in criminal trials. Chris Engels is a lawyer with more than 15 years of international experience. In 2016, he testified before the Helsinki Commission on bringing perpetrators of genocide and related crimes to justice. This interview covers the work of CIJA and Engels, U.S. national security interests, legacy, and current efforts on accountability for international crimes and terrorism, the support of Congress, and how being an American from Mississippi shaped Engels’ life and career.
What is the Commission for International Justice and Accountability?
CIJA’s core work is to collect evidence of international crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and terrorism committed during conflicts. Our current investigations include Iraq, Syria, Burma, and the Central African Republic. We have seen in our careers that evidence against dictators, military leaders, terrorist groups and others who committed terrible crimes, often against their own citizens, is destroyed, stolen, or hidden away by those responsible for these crimes. Because it is close to impossible for government law enforcement or international organizations to work in these places, given the security issues related to operating in an active conflict zone, we have taken on this task. We are able to collect, preserve and analyze all types of evidence, including paper documents, hard drives, laptops, and smart phones as well as open source and social media materials. We also speak to witnesses, whether they be victims, bystanders or those who had some role in the organizations that we are looking into. An important part of this work is to bring together evidence that demonstrates the responsibility of leaders who hide behind layers of command, who don’t get their hands dirty but are most responsible for the terrible crimes they plan and order others to commit.
We also work with governments that are trying to deal with insurgent groups in their own countries. It’s completely reasonable that governments have little experience dealing with collection and analysis of evidence of these types of crimes, until they are attacked by an armed group. We’ve been dealing with these crimes for a long time and can advise and assist them as they fight to stop an insurgency and build cases against those who are responsible for the crimes. We help ensure that the right people are prosecuted for the full range of their crimes.
The job is challenging, but we have a great group of people working with us who are highly motivated to make sure these criminals don’t get away with their crimes. Our team is made up of investigators, analysts, lawyers, and security professionals from a number of countries, with experience in all of the recent conflicts around the globe. We are also a local organization in a way, because we have team members from the countries we work in who are incredibly committed to bringing to justice those who are tearing their countries apart. Together, we are a unique and dedicated group. That’s the key to our success.
Religious and ethnic minorities, like Christians and Yazidis, were targeted by ISIS for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. What work has CIJA done on atrocity crimes against these groups?
CIJA is designed to tackle these challenging issues. We have done a great deal of work to identify those ISIS members responsible for crimes against minorities such as Yazidis and Christians, and we hope to do more. I believe that our work not only promotes justice for minority victims, but also helps to cut through political rhetoric and get to the facts. On the one hand, criminal investigations will lead to the individuals responsible being brought to justice. This is key for any community.
We need to make sure that those who target minority groups are not allowed to go free, particularly in the same areas, living amongst the same groups that they killed, tortured and abused. At the same time, some people see these terrible crimes committed against minorities as a political issue, and then might refuse to label crimes a genocide or crimes against humanity for political reasons. Providing high quality evidence of the crimes committed, can minimize the politics involved and redirect people to the important issues, the safety of minority communities, justice for past crimes, and the right to return to and remain in their homes and their communities as quickly as possible.
What is human rights documentation? How is it different from the work of CIJA?
CIJA is the first, and still only, nonprofit set up to collect and analyze evidence of international crimes during conflict for prosecution. Other groups conduct what you’ve called human rights documentation. This is different in form and substance. Human rights documenters focus on collecting information and statistics on crimes committed. They then publish reports in order to raise awareness of crimes and lobby for other governments to get involved. This is noble work, unfortunately today, we see in Syria a situation where it is possibly the most heavily documented conflict in history from a human rights advocacy perspective, but this great work has not slowed the abuses committed in the country.
Another difference is that CIJA investigates up to a criminal law standard, documenting the chains of custody of materials for example so that the evidence can be used successfully at trial. This level of evidence collecting is not needed for human rights documentation. Also, we are committed to working with law enforcement. Human rights documenters do not always want to work with law enforcement, because they want to remain independent in their reporting or because they do not have consent of their sources to share information with law enforcement. This all makes sense for their work. We simply have a different focus
Who funds CIJA?
We have had a number of donors over the years. Our current donors include the United Kingdom, Canada, the European Union, Germany, Demark, the Netherlands, and Norway.
Describe your work as Director for Investigations and Operations.
There is plenty of variety in my work, and I enjoy that. I am constantly on the road meeting with our field team members, working with local law enforcement, talking to witnesses, and training others to do this type of work. Of course, I spend some days in the office behind a computer hammering out management reports, doing research, writing up notes of interviews, and managing the operational side of the organization. That includes sitting with our team leaders to work out investigative plans, addressing security issues across the different conflict zones and countries where we have people, and developing strategies for our future work. I work with a great team full of dedicated people who all work hard. It is not always the case that you get to work with a competent team that enjoys their work. I am extremely fortunate to have such a professional and passionate team at CIJA.
Describe CIJA’s collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and other U.S. government entities.
By design, CIJA has a strong relationship with U.S. law enforcement. CIJA’s primary goal is to assist in the prosecution of those responsible for the terrible crimes committed during conflicts. We have the advantage of being able to operate safely in conflict zones with unique skills to preserve the materials we collect in a way that they can be used at trial. This is the key to our success. We are not interested in writing reports, human rights advocacy or political discussions. Those things are, of course, important. But CIJA focuses simply and solely on collecting evidence to ensure dictators, terrorists, and their cronies who kill, torture, and rape civilians do not escape justice. Once we have done our job, the information needs to get to law enforcement so that justice can be done.
To do that, we work with any legitimate governmental agency that is investigating these types of crimes including the FBI and DHS. We are happy to work with them and believe it is our responsibility to do so. We received over 500 requests last year to assist in law enforcement investigations and the number is increasing this year. In the United States, this work has a national security element as well. If we can stop these criminals from getting into the United States, then we are all better off. By collecting evidence now, we can identify those who are responsible for these crimes and this information can assist in making sure they do not get visas and are not allowed to enter the United States. You can see how this information provides important data necessary to secure our U.S. borders against international criminals.
Have members of Congress supported the work of CIJA?
Oh yes. The best example of this is probably from congressional hearings on the issue. I have had the opportunity to appear before the Helsinki Commission and the Lantos Commission to discuss international criminal justice. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Wicker and Co-Chairman Congressman Smith, are both great supporters of this type of work and they fully support our justice efforts. More generally, you can see the will of Congress to support this type of work in the many resolutions, laws passed, and bills still making their way through Congress–like H.R. 390 (Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act). It is clear to me that Congress supports justice for victims of these crimes and sees the value in making sure dictators and terrorists are brought to justice, giving notice to those who may consider similar paths in the future.
How is this work relevant to the national security of the United States?
It is directly relevant in many ways. For example, we have spent the last four years investigating individuals associated with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. We have collected a great deal of evidence on fighters who had no plans to leave Syria when they arrived. Those who were completely happy to participate in the terrible crimes committed against civilians while Islamic State was winning the fight. Today, with the near totally defeat of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, we see that many of these fighters are now trying to get back into Europe and eventually will attempt to make their way to America. The evidence we have will help ensure these individuals are not allowed to travel freely, and if they do try to do so, they will be arrested and prosecuted.
I’d say a second benefit is that our evidence shows clearly that these so-called holy warriors were in reality drug traffickers, human traffickers, rapists, slavers, thugs and criminals that simply used their power to exploit and abuse anyone they chose for any reason. I think this helps open the eyes of some vulnerable young people who might join these types of groups. Islamic State has made good use of propaganda, but the reality is very different. Demonstrating this with strong evidence is a necessary part of any effort to stop the ideology from spreading into the country. We are happy to be working on that.
It’s also important to say that governments that do not respect the rights of their own people certainly do not respect the rights of other people. It is not a coincidence that many governments which permit or even actively engage in the murder, torture, and rape of their citizens also protect, harbor, and even support people engaged in international terrorism. Regimes willing to engage in atrocities often become exporters of that terror to the United States and our allies at home and abroad. When the international community holds officials accountable for their crimes through fair trials, not only is justice served but it can also deter those who threaten peace and security from acting in the future.
What is the American legacy, past and present, on this work?
America’s leadership has promoted international justice from its earliest days. We were the engine behind the Nuremburg Tribunal and the other post-WWII prosecutions. We were a driving force for the Yugoslav and Rwanda tribunals. America has been an advocate of justice across the world and ready to stand up against dictators who were killing their people. This process is never simple; it’s often messy. But we as a people have pushed forward this sense of responsibility to protect others who cannot protect themselves. I believe that is a noble American trait that should preserved.
What is it like being an American doing this work? What do you tell people abroad about your home country and home state? Do you miss home when you are abroad?
Absolutely, I miss home when I am abroad. I think there are a lot of people working internationally who used this type of work to get out of the place they came from for whatever reason. That is not me. I love Mississippi; my family is there and so are the catfish and the crawfish. I believe in the work I do and that work takes me all over the world, but Jackson is my home. To put it more succinctly, the first house I bought was in Jackson, and I assume the last house I live in will be in Jackson as well.
That is not to say I do not enjoy my time abroad. Even after 15 years or so of working overseas, I still feel lucky to be out in the world meeting interesting people from different backgrounds, hearing their stories and sharing some of my own Mississippi stories as well. Mississippi is complex, with all its relaxed, humid goodness mixed up with its troubled history. We all know, if you don’t keep an eye on that history, it will try to catch back up with the present, and I think most Mississippians are mindful of that.
I used to be frustrated by all the preconceived notions people had about the South, but I got over that long ago. Sometimes, though, I have to remind people that I didn’t just pop out of the screen from a Hollywood movie or some anachronistic South, lacking culture and grammar, divided into two simplistic race-based groups that perpetually make bad decisions that keep them both poor and ignorant. To tell the truth, I still find it amusing and a little ironic that people who have never visited the South are okay with telling me about how bad things are in the South, but do not see any problem with stereotyping a whole region based on their limited information.
I also think that Americans are often criticized for stereotyping or profiling other countries and regions based on limited information. But that mistake is universal. Every place, every people, every country is complex. Just living in a foreign country will teach you that and the learning will be quick. That’s what makes things interesting. The complexities and differences provide us with opportunities to think differently, act differently, and appreciate new perspectives. We in Mississippi can learn from the complex challenges people in other nations have faced. But we have much to share with them as well.
More importantly, I run into tons of people who know something about Mississippi, whether it’s because of their love for blues or food, they have family or friends in Mississippi, or they’ve visited and want to talk about their next visit to the South. It’s great to talk to those people whether in Europe, the Middle East, Asia or on a plane in between. I also find plenty of people who are mystified by the South and want to know more. As you’ve probably guessed, I have plenty to say on that topic.
There is more to be done to bring communities together in the South, but this experience can be a positive. We have come a long way as a group of people, while still facing relative poverty and still building trust across communities. There is a message in this work for those that are experiencing a civil war or reeling from its immediate aftermath. It’s a long road and not everyone is on board, but our example can give hope to those who currently have little reason to believe their tomorrow will be any better than their today.
Describe growing up, going to college, and living in Mississippi.
I grew up during a sweet spot in time for a Southerner, I believe. Being born in the mid-70’s, I spent my youth without the Internet. This not only freed up a great deal of time to run around in the woods, paddle down rivers, and occasionally act like I was fishing, but it also meant I was sort of sequestered, unknowingly, from the rest of the world. I also saw a changing South, and a changing Mississippi. By the time I could remember things going on around me, the great unrest of the civil rights era had shifted to a time of Southern-paced reconciliation and while no one would say it was perfect, we were moving forward as Mississippians throughout my youth. I think that reconciliation, like justice, is not something to be completed; it is an ongoing process and must be consciously acted upon by each generation. Looking back, I think we were doing that in my youth.
I also picked up a great deal about fairness and respect for individuals from living in Mississippi. We are a people who believe in the power of the individual to change his or her place in life and that those who abuse their power should not be allowed to take advantage of folks. There is a balance in Mississippi between not getting involved in another person’s business and standing up when someone is being mistreated. I think that, as simplistic as it might sound, is the root of my drive to do this work.
Mississippi is my home. My family and friends are in Mississippi. My house is in Mississippi. I vote in Mississippi, and I am a member of the Mississippi Bar Association. I spend a lot of time in foreign countries because my work requires it. When people ask me where I am from, I am proud to tell them I’m from Mississippi. I love to tell the story of Mississippi, and when I’m home, I love to live that story.
What about your experience as an American, specifically one from Mississippi, has fueled your commitment to justice, accountability, counter-terrorism and preventing violence extremism? What have you learned as an American, from Mississippi, that formed how you see others?
I think my experiences growing up have given me some small level of insight into the desire of those I work with to reconcile and rebuild a peaceful and successful society that is better for their children. It’s not just about bringing those to justice who are responsible for these atrocities, it is also about bringing society back together, reconciling after these conflicts, and justice is an important part of that. In Bosnia for years after the war, women walked down the street and saw their rapists, men saw their torturers and young children saw those who executed their fathers and mothers. Communities cannot mend without justice. Martin Luther King Jr. said it well, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” I like to think my work helps to ensure that justice is present for dictators and war criminals wherever they might be.
Yes, some would consider investigating atrocities in Syria and Iraq a dangerous job, and sometimes it might even seem futile given the fact the conflict has lasted so long, but I believe the time will come when the world will try those responsible, and when that time comes CIJA’s work will ensure that the proper evidence is ready and available. In the meantime, we are constantly working with law enforcement agencies around the world to arrest and prosecute those who leave Syria and Iraq and are found in countries willing to bring them to justice.
What are the most satisfying aspects of your job?
I hate that there is a need for my job, but I love doing it. One of the most satisfying parts of my job is to see criminals who thought they were going to get away with torturing and killing their own people, their neighbors, and former classmates, arrested and prosecuted for their terrible acts. But it’s not just about bringing those powerful criminals to justice, it is also about bringing society back together and reconciling after these conflicts. Ensuring those who were most responsible are taken out of the mix and are serving out criminal sentences for their crimes is key to making sure the rest of the society can move forward. I don’t believe we can solve all the problems in the world, but I want to do a good job at this small piece of it. If I can do that, then I feel like all the time and energy is worth it.