Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper was America’s ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues from 2001 to 2005, as well as a prosecutor at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. He joined me Monday morning to talk about the upcoming Committee and Senate votes on Rex Tillerson for SecState:
HH: I begin with a gentleman far across the [world]. Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper is an old law partner of mine. He was, for many years, the United States Ambassador for War Crimes. He was a war crimes prosecutor as well at the United Nations. He is now a lawyer at Arent-Fox and a good friend. Ambassador Prosper, welcome, good to have you up. What time is it, I think you’re in Singapore, aren’t you, or Hong Kong?
PRP: Yeah, no, good morning. I’m in Singapore. It’s a little after 7pm here.
HH: Well, thank you for spending, staying up a little bit later for us tonight and taking some time after a long day at work. I read your Washington Post op-ed and thought I want to talk to Ambassador Prosper about this. I’ll also send you a copy of The Fourth Way as a complimentary parting gift for staying up late.
HH: Mr. Ambassador, first of all, you’re a proud graduate of Pepperdine. Ron Phillips will be very happy that I’m talking to you this morning, Dean Ron Phillips from Pepperdine Law School. How did you end up going from Pepperdine Law School to being United States Ambassador for War Crimes?
PRP: Well, you know, it wasn’t a route that was planned. I started off as a deputy D.A. in Los Angeles in the hard-core gang unit. Then, I went and became an assistant U.S. Attorney out of Los Angeles. And in the mid ’90s, I was tapped to be the U.S. prosecutor assigned to the Rwanda, the U.N. Rwanda tribunal. And after prosecuting the first case of genocide in history, I came back and started to work in Washington as a foreign policy adviser in the State Department first to Madeleine Albright, and then when President Bush came in, he decided to elevate me to the role of Ambassador-at-large.
HH: So as Ambassador-at-large, your piece, Rex Tillerson Wouldn’t Call Putin A War Criminal: That Was The Right Choice, reflected on a very interesting exchange that most people have seen. I played it a few times last week, I’m not going to play it again, between Senator Marco Rubio and Secretary of State nominee-designate Rex Tillerson, wherein Marco Rubio asked is Vladimir Putin a war criminal, and wherein Rex Tillerson said I would not use that language. Your point is that Rubio asked the right question, Tillerson gave the right answer. Would you explain why?
PRP: Yeah, so I think Senator Rubio’s instincts were correct. I mean, when you look at what’s happening or what happened in Syria, and perhaps even elsewhere, it’s appalling. I mean, you do, you have civilians that are being killed, you have a disproportionate use of weapons. But the problem is you can’t take that and jump to a conclusion that the head of state of a particular country, here Russia, is a war criminal. These are determinations that are made after lengthy investigations of facts and law, and you’re looking at every single act of bombing or shooting to make a conclusion as to whether it was lawful or not.
HH: You noted in your piece that you co-authored with John Bellinger, who was legal adviser at State for a while, that genocide was a legal determination made about Darfur, and the government of Sudan was held responsible. And in Iraq, in the terrorist organization Islamic State, was held responsible. But I remember leading up to the declaration of genocide in Iraq by the Islamic State, it took them a lot of pressure and a lot of argument and a lot of detail, because there are significant consequences. You just don’t kind of throw that off in a hearing, do you?
PRP: No, no, you don’t. I mean, the consequences does have, it has a legal significance. It begins to be, to form part of the international dialogue, and it invokes certain responsibilities of states. I can speak to the Darfur situation, because I was intimately involved in that with Secretary Powell, General Powell. And we actually sent a team to Darfur to the border to speak with refugees. We looked at satellite imagery. We looked at all sorts of information before forming that conclusion and calling it a genocide.
HH: Now you’ve served with Secretary Albright, Secretary Powell, Secretary Rice. You’re deeply and well known and respected in the international diplomatic community as well as at home, and you’re one of us. You’re a conservative. The question is do you think Rex Tillerson will make a good Secretary of State?
PRP: You know, I actually think he will. You know, his background is one that is obviously unique the role, but there are a lot of skill sets that he brings. You know, the oil and gas business is a tough business, and I think people really need to recognize when you’re out there negotiating with these various states and emerging markets in the developing world. They’re not easy pushover negotiations. And obviously, he did well representing the interests of Exxon, and I believe he’ll do well representing the interests of the United States. I will add to it also that in addition to the obviously, you know, oil and gas, he had to deal with issues such as indigenous populations, corporate social responsibility, you know, the human rights aspects of the industry. So I do believe that he’ll bring a breadth of knowledge that will be transferable.
HH: Rand Paul announced yesterday that he will be voting for Mr. Tillerson, so that really comes down to Marco Rubio’s vote. I believe Senator Rubio did the right thing by calling attention to the atrocities in Syria and Ukraine. He absolutely did the right thing, because that’s what Senators ought to do. But I found myself agreeing with you. I would be a little bit worried about a Secretary of State who was quick to answer a question like that where the tempting answer is the grandstand play, but the diplomatic answer is to wait and be fully informed and follow through on the consequences.
PRP: That’s absolutely right. You know, there’s a process for this. And again, once you, and as a state label a country as having acts of genocide, war crimes, or a head of state as having committed those acts, there are a series of ramifications, important ramifications, that unfold. So it’s important to make an informed decision, a knowledgeable decision, understanding not only the gravity of the offenses, but also the magnitude that the determination will have. And one point I just want to quickly add on this, you know, we have seen this in the United States where people just throw out the term against, they said for President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama, and it’s, they’re politicizing. And by politicizing the term, you dilute the meaning and significance and the importance.
HH: Now Ambassador, I’m talking with Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper, former U.S. Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes, and a veteran diplomat and very well respected around the world. Mr. Ambassador, when I wrote The Fourth Way, it’s mostly about domestic policy, the investment, the infrastructure investment, overhaul of entitlement, expansion of Obamacare or reform and repeal of Obamacare and the military build-up. I left diplomacy alone largely because it is so unpredictable. So when I look at the confirmation hearings this week, tomorrow they have Ryan Zinke before the Natural Resources Committee, predictable set of controversies. Health, Education and Labor and Pensions, Betsy DeVos goes up there on Tuesday – predictable. Wednesday, we’ve got Wilber Ross going to Commerce, and we’ve got Scott Pruitt going to Environment and Public Works, predictable set of controversies. Nikki Haley goes to Foreign Relations, though, on Wednesday, I expect she will be confirmed. The one that is least predictable is Secretary of State. You really, and that’s why I didn’t write about it in The Fourth Way, and that’s why I think people ought to give the President great, great deference on Defense and State, on CIA and on DNI and on Attorney General, because that’s our national security team, and you never know what’s coming.
PRP: That’s absolutely right. You know, being a diplomat, the Secretary of State is a very fluid job. The facts on the ground change, I was about to say daily, but probably hourly. I recall when I was in the Department, the first thing you do when you wake up is look at the news, look at the cable, the intelligence, to see what happened overnight while I was asleep, what changes actually took place, and what should the U.S. response be. So it’s an extremely important role, one that requires someone that is nimble, someone that can actually think through these things and have a clear view of the direction that the President has asked for and the country should be going.
HH: So what’s your advice to Senator Rubio, who has the deciding vote on the Committee, which is divided 11-10? I’m not sure Democrats will vote against Mr. Tillerson, but if Rubio votes for him, his confirmation is secure. What’s your advice to Senator Rubio?
PRP: Well, my advice to him is to vote for the Secretary-designate. And again, I do think that Senator Rubio did the right thing by raising the issue. I think we need to continue to raise the issue. He should also, once the Secretary, Mr. Tillerson is confirmed, he should hope that and press the Department of State to continue to look at these issues not only as it relates to Russia, but around the world. We’re seeing atrocities and human rights abuses everywhere. And if Senator Rubio is as passionate as he showed last week, then I imagine he will continue to ring the bell, so to speak.
HH: 30 seconds, Pierre, how long does it take to staff State? Foggy Bottom’s big. I mean, Exxon-Mobil’s 70,000. But how long is it going to take Rex Tillerson to staff up State?
PRP: Oh, it’s going to take quite a while, because we, you know, you have, not only do you have beneath him the two deputy secretaries and five undersecretaries of State, but we have, you have a whole host of assistant secretaries and other positions that are all critically important. And it’s important to take the time to find the right people that will get the job done.
HH: And to get moving, though, for the Senate to move it along. Ambassador Pierre Prosper, thank you, my friend, for staying up a little bit later far across to bring some additional illumination to a fine, fine piece in the Washington Post. Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper, thank you.
End of interview.