Setting aside for a moment the question of whether there was any justification for the Russian Federation to deploy troops to Ukraine’s semi-autonomous region of Crimea in order to “defend our citizens and our compatriots” as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday, the intense international condemnation of that action raises another question: why is there never any comparable response to U.S. acts of aggression? And, if there were threats of genuine international repercussions, would it modify U.S. behavior at all?
Since Russia sent troops into Crimea, the United States and United Kingdom announced boycotts of the Sochi Paralympic Games, European Union leaders called a special summit at which they are expected to suspend talks with Russia on economic cooperation and liberalized visa rules, the U.S. suspended trade negotiations and all military-to-military engagements with Russia, U.S. lawmakers discussed sanctions on Russia’s banks and freezing assets of Russian public institutions and private investors, the Group of Seven major industrialized nations canceled preparations for the G8 summit that had been scheduled to take place in Sochi in June, and there is even talk of expelling Russia from the G8 altogether.
The Obama administration continues to discuss further ways to isolate and punish Russia, with members of the White House’s National Security Council spending more than two hours in the Situation Room on Monday discussing the administration’s options for pursuing additional diplomatic and economic consequences for Moscow.
“I think the world is largely united in recognizing that the steps Russia has taken are a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, Ukraine’s territorial integrity; that they’re a violation of international law; they’re a violation of previous agreements that Russia has made with respect to how it treats and respects its neighbors,” Obama said.
In short, the international response to Russia’s intervention could hardly be stronger. But even if this uproar is fully warranted (and there are certainly some doubts whether that is the case), it begs the question of why there has been such little international outcry, relatively speaking, over the decade-plus old war on terror that has violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countless countries, including most prominently, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya. When it comes to the U.S.’s ongoing drone wars, there have been some grumblings from the international community over concepts such as transparency, distinction, proportionality and sovereignty, but nothing along the lines of the international response to Russia’s Ukraine incursion.
It should be remembered that while the world is transfixed on this so far bloodless incursion of Russian forces into Ukrainian territory, the United States military deployed military forces to more than 130 countries last year, in near total secrecy.
As a January 16 report by journalist Nick Turse explained,
In 2013, elite U.S. forces were deployed in 134 countries around the globe, according to Major Matthew Robert Bockholt of SOCOM Public Affairs. This 123% increase during the Obama years demonstrates how, in addition to conventional wars and a CIA drone campaign, public diplomacy and extensive electronic spying, the U.S. has engaged in still another significant and growing form of overseas power projection. Conducted largely in the shadows by America’s most elite troops, the vast majority of these missions take place far from prying eyes, media scrutiny, or any type of outside oversight, increasing the chances of unforeseen blowback and catastrophic consequences.
So, the United States is operating in 134 countries around the world (more than half of the total number of UN Member States), and its actions elicit barely a whimper of complaint, but Russia sends forces to one country (arguably on a much firmer pretext and rationale), and the international community reacts as if World War III has just been declared.
The double standards are mind-boggling, and beg the question “why?”
Of course, we all know that the United States is the world’s economic and military powerhouse, but does that fully explain it? Perhaps the U.S. has just been throwing its weight around for so long – invading countries on a whim, disregarding international norms, violating territorial integrity and national sovereignty – that it all seems normal at this point. Or perhaps the U.S. and its allies actually fundamentally agree on the virtue of U.S. military action, and share the same view on Russia: namely that Russia is a negative force in world affairs that must be neutralized at any cost.
If this is the case, it seems that the international community as a whole is just as hypocritical as the United States is, and lacks any sort of guiding principle on what constitutes “normative behavior.” On the other hand, if nations are just afraid of standing up to the bully on the playground, one wonders what might happen if they ever do grow a spine. Perhaps U.S. lawlessness and military adventurism might finally be reined in.
As Washington responds with shock and outrage over the deployment of Russian troops to the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has stressed that if violence spreads in the eastern regions of Ukraine and Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population.
In a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday, Putin reportedly said that Russian citizens and Russian-speakers in Ukraine faced an “unflagging” threat from ultranationalists, and that the measures Moscow has taken – mainly sending troops to serve as a buffer between Ukrainian military forces and the local population – were appropriate given the “extraordinary situation.”
This situation includes outbreaks of violence between Ukrainian nationalists and Russian loyalists, as well as official acts of the newly formed Ukrainian government that have been widely seen as discriminatory against the Russian-speaking population. Last week, pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators clashed in front of the parliament building in Simferopol, the capital of Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea Region, leading to several hospitalizations and at least two deaths.
“Demonstrators slammed each other with flags and threw stones as leaders on both sides urged their followers to avoid provocations,” reported RT.
Further, Russia’s Federal Migration Service said it has seen a sharp spike in applications from Ukrainian citizens seeking refuge from outbreaks of violence following a U.S.-backed coup that toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22. As RIA Novosti reports,
The head of the migration service’s citizenship department, Valentina Kazakova, said 143,000 people had applied for asylum in the last two weeks of February alone.
“People are afraid for the fate of those close to them and are asking not just for protection, but also to help them receive fast-tracked Russian citizenship,” Kazakova said. “A large number of applications are from members of Ukrainian law enforcement bodies and government officials fearing reprisals from radically disposed groups.”
Many people living in Crimea, a 10,000-square mile peninsula on the Black Sea with historical and linguistic ties to Russia, agree with Moscow’s assertion that Ukraine’s revolutionaries are violent, western-backed far-right ultranationalists who intend to roll back the rights of Russian-speakers and restrict Crimea’s links with Russia itself.
Unfortunately, the actions of the Ukrainian government following the ouster of President Yanukovych have largely confirmed these fears. Last week, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, began immediately moving to prohibit the official use of the Russian language in Ukraine and block broadcasts of Russian television and radio programs in the country.
The Verkhovna Rada’s repeal of the law on the “Principles of the State Language Policy,” which provided for the use of the Russian language in Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, could lead to further division and unrest, warned the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Astrid Thors.
“The authorities have to consult widely to ensure that future language legislation accommodates the needs and positions of everyone in Ukrainian society, whether they are speakers of Ukrainian, Russian or other languages,” said Thors.
In response to the blocking of Russian broadcasts, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, noted in a letter to Oleksandr Turchinov, Acting President of Ukraine and Chair of the Verkhovna Rada, that “Banning broadcasts is one of the most extreme forms of interference in media freedom and should only be applied in exceptional circumstances.”
It is in this context of official suppression of Russian rights, as well as the sporadic violence leading to a dramatic spike in asylum seekers, that Putin sought authorization from the Russian Parliament to deploy military forces to Crimea. Putin said he proposed military action because of “the threat to the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation,” and the Parliament passed his proposal unanimously.
Although no shots have been fired by the Russian troops and a Ukrainian colonel was quoted as saying that the Ukrainian and Russian sides had “agreed not to point our weapons at one another,” the presence of Russian forces in Ukraine is being denounced in the strongest terms by U.S. officials, including President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Appearing on ABC News’ This Week on Sunday, Kerry said,
What has already happened is a brazen act of aggression, in violation of international law and violation of the UN Charter and violation of the Helsinki Final Act. In violation of the 1997 Ukraine-Russia basing agreement. Russia is engaged in a military act of aggression against another country, and it has huge risks, George. It’s a 19th century act in the 21st century. It really puts at question Russia’s capacity to be within the G-8.
If the United States had a truly free press, the outrage expressed by the U.S. Secretary of State over the Russian deployment of troops and its alleged violation of international law would lead any honest journalist to follow up with a question like, “Excuse me, Mr. Secretary, but how can you possibly feign such outrage with a straight face when we all know that the U.S. has repeatedly invaded foreign countries and habitually violated the UN Charter with impunity for years? What gives the United States the moral authority or credibility to be the arbiter of international law and the legitimate use of force?”
Instead, George Stephanopoulos followed up with, “I understand it’s a violation, sir. So what’s the penalty for what Russia has already done?”
To which Kerry responded:
Well, we are busy right now coordinating with our counterparts in many parts of the world. Yesterday, the president of the United States had an hour and a half conversation with President Putin. He pointed out importantly that we don’t want this to be a larger confrontation. We are not looking for a U.S.-Russia, East-West redux here. What we want is for Russia to work with us, with Ukraine. If they have legitimate concerns, George, about Russian speaking people in Ukraine, there are plenty of ways to deal with that without invading the country. They have the ability to work with the government, they could work with us, they could work with the UN. They could call for observers to be put in the country. There are all kinds of alternatives. But Russia has chosen this aggressive act, which really puts in question Russia’s role in the world and Russia’s willingness to be a modern nation and part of the G8.
Incidentally, the 90-minute phone call between Putin and Obama that Kerry referred to was initiated by the Russian president, who called Obama to explain why Russia was sending troops to the Crimean Peninsula. The Russian government released a statement on the phone call, which reads:
In response to the concern shown by Barack Obama regarding possible plans of the use of Russian armed forces on the territory of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin drew attention to the provocative criminal acts by ultra-nationalist elements, which are in fact encouraged by the current authorities in Kiev.
The Russian President stressed the existence of real threats to the lives and health of Russian citizens and compatriots on Ukrainian territory. Vladimir Putin stressed that in the case of further spread of violence in the eastern regions of Ukraine and Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population.
The White House’s readout of the phone call was quite different. According to an account posted on the White House website,
President Obama expressed his deep concern over Russia’s clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is a breach of international law, including Russia’s obligations under the UN Charter, and of its 1997 military basing agreement with Ukraine, and which is inconsistent with the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the Helsinki Final Act. The United States condemns Russia’s military intervention into Ukrainian territory. …
President Obama made clear that Russia’s continued violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would negatively impact Russia’s standing in the international community. In the coming hours and days, the United States will urgently consult with allies and partners in the UN Security Council, the North Atlantic Council, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and with the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum. The United States will suspend upcoming participation in preparatory meetings for the G-8. Going forward, Russia’s continued violation of international law will lead to greater political and economic isolation.
It is clear from this statement that the United States is committing itself to a confrontational course that intends to rally the world in isolating the Russian government, including perhaps by expelling Russia from the G-8. But as the AP reported on Saturday,
Despite blunt warnings about costs and consequences, President Barack Obama and European leaders have limited options for retaliating against Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, the former Soviet republic now at the center of an emerging conflict between East and West.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far dismissed the few specific threats from the United States, which include scrapping plans for Obama to attend an international summit in Russia this summer and cutting off trade talks sought by Moscow.
“There have been strong words from the U.S. and other counties and NATO,” said Keir Giles, a Russian military analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London. “But these are empty threats. There is really not a great deal that can be done to influence the situation.”
Perhaps what the U.S. hopes is that simply reminding Russia of its “obligations under international law” will somehow lead to changes in Russian policy; that Moscow will just bend to the will of Washington on this issue. The problem is, U.S. pronouncements about international law are largely empty rhetoric, and no one is more aware of this than the Russians.
It was just last summer that the Russian government was admonishing the Obama administration for its drive to war with Syria, largely basing its opposition to a possible U.S. bombing campaign on the grounds of international law.
“The potential strike by the United States against Syria,” Putin wrote in an op-ed published by The New York Times, “despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. … It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”
Putin also chided the U.S.’s over-reliance on military force to settle its disputes, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and the narrowly averted intervention in Syria:
It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”
But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.
With all those military interventions in its recent past – all carried out in violation of the UN Charter – the U.S. is certainly in no position now to lecture Russia on international law, and Moscow knows this.
Then of course, there is also the matter of the U.S.’s drone wars – the ongoing remote-controlled bombing campaigns of countries including Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Just last week, the UN Special Rapporteur on terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, published the second report of his year-long investigation into drone strikes, highlighting dozens of strikes where civilians have been killed.
The report identifies 30 attacks between 2006 and 2013 that show sufficient indications of civilian deaths to demand a “public explanation of the circumstances and the justification for the use of deadly force” under international law.
But somehow the U.S. manages to get a pass when it comes to these unpleasant realities, and is able to maintain a veneer of credibility when it rebukes others for violating international law. At least as far as Russia’s concerned though, these rebukes are not likely to work.
The last three months of protests in Ukraine have provided eye-opening insights into the dynamics of effective strategies for toppling governments that revolutionaries around the world would do well to take note of. Perhaps more noteworthy, however, are the insights offered into the mindset of U.S. policymakers, namely how shamelessly hypocritical they can be in their treatment of protest movements depending on the goals and geopolitical alignments of those movements.
While U.S. officials vocally supported the Euromaidan protests from the beginning, publicly chastising Ukrainian authorities for using force against demonstrators and declining from forcefully condemning acts of violence committed by protesters, U.S. policy towards Bahrain, which has been in the grips of peaceful popular protests for democracy since 2011, has taken a much different approach.
For three years, the U.S. government has been turning a blind eye to the wanton abuses committed in Bahrain, continuing to sell weapons to the Bahraini regime and docking the Navy’s Fifth Fleet on the country’s shores. The three years of unrest has compelled the Obama administration to reluctantly place a hold on sales of some military equipment that could easily be used against protesters, but the U.S. has continued to supply equipment for Bahrain’s “external defense capabilities.”
Human rights groups, however, point out that some of the equipment the U.S. continues to provide, such as Cobra helicopters, have been used against protesters and that the United States cannot be sure that sales to and training of Bahraini military forces is not being used to crush unrest.
Amnesty International’s 2013 country report on Bahrain noted that “The authorities continued to crack down on protests and dissent” and “Scores of people remained in prison or were detained for opposing the government, including prisoners of conscience and people sentenced after unfair trials.”
Further, human rights defenders were harassed and imprisoned and “security forces continued to use excessive force against protesters, resulting in deaths, and allegedly tortured or otherwise ill-treated detainees,” Amnesty reported.
With these human rights abuses in mind, the continued U.S. military aid to the country is likely being carried out in violation of humanitarian obligations under international law. According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,
A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State” (Article 16 of the International Law Commission, “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts,” (2001) which were commended by the General Assembly, A/RES/56/83).
Further, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and the Arms Export Control Act authorizes the supply of U.S. military equipment and training only for lawful purposes of internal security, “legitimate self-defense,” or participation in UN peacekeeping operations or other operations consistent with the UN Charter.
Earlier this month, Human Rights First pleaded with the U.S. government to use the third anniversary of the Bahraini uprising to at least push for the release of human rights defenders who have been imprisoned since the peaceful democratic uprising began.
“Human rights activists in Bahrain wonder when President Obama will act on his 2011 pledge that the United States ‘cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just,’” said Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley. “The Bahraini government’s repression over the last three years, including its jailing of political dissidents, has made the country more unstable. It’s time the United States told its ally that its relationship with Bahrain can’t afford another year like the last three.”
While the Obama administration won’t even call for the release of Bahraini political prisoners, much less move towards implementing sanctions against the Bahraini regime for its gross human rights abuses over the past three years, U.S. policymakers wasted no time in threatening sanctions against President Viktor Yanukovych’s government in Ukraine after police attempted to quell the pro-EU demonstrations this winter.
The first threat of sanctions came on Jan. 7, a little more than a month after protests began, in a Senate resolution which warned the Ukrainian government that “in the event of further state violence against peaceful protestors, the President and Congress should consider whether to apply targeted sanctions.”
These threats were reiterated by President Obama on Feb. 19, warning that “there will be consequences if people step over the line,” and saying he holds the government “primarily responsible” for showing restraint in dealing with the opposition.
Going beyond diplomatic reprimands of the Ukrainian government, policymakers have gone to absurd and unprecedented lengths to make clear their solidarity and support for the Euromaidan protesters. In mid-December, U.S. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) – both members of the Foreign Relations Committee – flew to Ukraine and addressed a crowd of demonstrators in Kyiv.
“We are here,” said McCain, “to support your just cause: the sovereign right to determine [Ukraine’s] own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe.” Murphy added, “Ukraine’s future stands with Europe, and the U.S. stands with Ukraine.”
Not to be outdone, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt went to the barricades in Kyiv to hand out cookies and buns to the demonstrators, in a move widely seen as an implicit message of official U.S. support to the Euromaidan protests. As Voice of Russia reported,
The recent handing-out of buns and cookies to protesters by the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, has become a graphic illustration of the West’s “policy of non-interference”. First, she shook hands with and embraced the demonstrators and only then left for a meeting with President Yanukovych, whom she lectured for a couple of hours on the poor treatment of the opposition.
President Obama also forcefully defended the rights of the protesters, despite the violent turn that the demonstrations took since the initially peaceful gatherings in late November. After renewed violence on Jan. 19 that left 60 policemen injured and a reported 40 or so protesters hurt, the White House said in a statement that the blame for the bloodshed laid squarely with the Ukrainian authorities.
“The increasing tension in Ukraine is a direct consequence of the government failing to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of its people,” the White House said. “Instead, it has moved to weaken the foundations of Ukraine’s democracy by criminalizing peaceful protest and stripping civil society and political opponents of key democratic protections under the law.”
While it may be confounding to the casual observer why the U.S. government would take such divergent and contradictory approaches to the two situations in Ukraine and Bahrain, there are a couple of important differences to keep in mind that may help explain the difference in U.S. policy. On one hand, Bahrain is ruled by an unelected dictatorship, while Ukraine’s deposed government was democratically elected.
Also, the Bahraini protests have maintained a commitment to nonviolence, while the Ukrainian protests quickly turned militant following the authorities’ attempt to clear the Maidan of demonstrators on Nov. 30. Following that crackdown, Kyiv was rocked by riots, in which a group of protesters commandeered a bulldozer and attempted to pull down the fence surrounding the Presidential Administration building. Others threw bricks and Molotov cocktails at Berkut guards.
But perhaps the biggest difference between Ukraine and Bahrain, as well as the anti-government protests that have gripped each country, is the geopolitical orientation of the governments. In Bahrain, the Sunni royal family is closely aligned with U.S. ally Saudi Arabia while the Shiite protesters are feared to have support from Iran.
In Ukraine, the deposed leader Viktor Yanukovych had close relations with Moscow, a U.S. adversary. Although Yanukovych also attempted to maintain good relations with Brussels, when it came to choosing between the European Union and the Moscow-led Eurasian Union, he chose the latter. This sealed his fate in the eyes of Western leaders, who seemed intent on embracing the pro-EU demonstrators, no matter how violent or militant their tactics.
This leads to a few lessons that can be drawn from these recent events.
Electoral legitimacy does not matter to U.S. policymakers.
If you were under the misimpression that the United States cares about whether leaders are legitimately elected or not, you would be wrong. Despite his flaws, the fact is Yanukovych was voted into office by Ukrainians in an election that the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said “met most OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections and consolidated progress achieved since 2004.”
Bahrain, on the other hand, has been ruled by the al-Khalifa dynasty since 1783. The current King of Bahrain, since 2002, is Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and the head of the government, since 1971, is Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, appointed by the king. In other words, Bahrain is an outright dictatorship, yet, there are no cookies handed out for the demonstrators who have risen up in that country, and no words of support for the political prisoners who languish in Bahraini jails.
It doesn’t matter whether protests are peaceful or violent.
As long as protests have policy goals that are shared by the U.S. government, such as overthrowing a leader who has sympathies with a U.S. adversary such as Russia, the U.S. will support those protests no matter how violent they may be. On the other hand, peaceful protests that pose a dilemma to U.S. strategy, for example by threatening a government that hosts a U.S. naval fleet, will be abandoned by U.S. policymakers. No cookies for them.
Violent protests are more effective than peaceful protests, as long as the protests have Western backing.
In three short months, Ukrainian militants managed to topple the Yanukovych government, while in three long years, Bahraini protesters appear no closer to achieving their goals than they were in 2011. The main difference appears to be the fact that Western governments, including the U.S., quickly moved to de-legitimize the Yanukovych government through policy pronouncements that made clear that the government had lost credibility in the eyes of the world. Threats of sanctions appear to have had an effect on many members of the Yanukovych government who began jumping ship and leaving the president out to dry.
U.S. officials are shameless in their hypocrisy.
While U.S. officials insist that foreign governments listen to their people, they obviously couldn’t care less about what the American people have to say about anything. The White House laid the blame for the tension in Ukraine squarely on the government for “failing to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of its people,” called on the authorities to withdraw riot police and effectively absolved protesters for any role they may have had in the violence.
But when Americans rose up in 2011 and 2012 in protest against corruption and income inequality as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Obama administration was virtually silent when the police carried out a nationwide violent crackdown on the encampments. When asked about the police violence against Occupy Oakland in October 2011, White House spokesman Jay Carney laid the blame on the protesters, despite the fact that YouTube videos clearly demonstrate that the police were the instigators.
“As to the violence,” he said, “we obviously believe and insist that everyone behave in a lawful manner, even as they’re expressing, justifiably, their frustrations. It’s also important that laws are upheld and obeyed.”
This is essentially the exact opposite of what administration officials were saying regarding the violence in Kyiv, which was blamed entirely on the police.
So, what we can infer from all this is that all of the U.S. talk of democracy is just that, talk. What the United States is really interested in is geostrategic advantage and global dominance, so if you want to have a protest that the U.S. will back, you should make sure that your protest will advance U.S. geopolitical goals.
Events are unfolding rapidly in the deeply divided nation of Ukraine, leaving the U.S. in the awkward position of having to deal with a worsening crisis that has largely been precipitated by its own actions and policy pronouncements over the past several months. According to some accounts, the U.S. government is now a bit unsure how to respond to the situation.
This weekend, the Ukrainian parliament voted President Viktor Yanukovych out of office hours after he fled the capital, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison, and the parliament handed presidential powers to speaker Oleksandr Turchinov, a top Tymoshenko ally.
President Yanukovych denounced the toppling of his government as a coup d’etat, while others hailed it as a revolution. Either way, the potential ramifications are severe, including a possible civil or even regional war.
Sporadic violence has already reportedly broken out in Russian-speaking Crimea and some eastern cities between supporters of the new, pro-EU order in Kyiv and those who prefer maintaining close relations with Moscow. The scuffles have revived fears of separatist movements that could tear the country apart, presenting U.S. policymakers with difficult prospects going forward.
“Western leaders, while welcoming the unexpected turn of events in Kiev, are worried about the country fracturing into a pro-Russian and pro-western conflict,” The Guardian reported Sunday.
As the LA Times put it, “The challenges that could soon face the White House include a Yugoslavia-style civil war, an expensive economic bailout and further damage to its strained but crucial relationship with Moscow.”
Incidentally, these problematic outcomes are precisely what Moscow has been warning of for the past three months, as violent demonstrations have rocked Ukraine following Yanukovych’s decision in November to forgo an association agreement with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia.
A statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry last week reminded Secretary of State John Kerry that President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly urged President Barack Obama to “use every opportunity to stop the illegal actions of radicals and return the situation to constitutional channels.”
Instead, the Obama administration has placed the entire onus for the ongoing violence on the Ukrainian authorities, tacitly absolving opposition fighters for any role they may have had in escalating tensions with police. At a Feb. 19 press conference in Mexico, Obama said,
We continue to stress to President Yanukovych and the Ukrainian government that they have the primary responsibility to prevent the kind of terrible violence that we’ve seen, to withdraw riot police, to work with the opposition to restore security and human dignity, and move the country forward. And this includes progress towards a multi-party, technical government that can work with the international community on a support package and adopt reforms necessary for free and fair elections next year. Ukrainians are a proud and resilient people who have overcome extraordinary challenges in their history, and that’s a pride and strength that I hope they draw on now.
Obama’s remarks echoed sentiments that U.S. officials have consistently expressed since the earliest days of the anti-Yanukovych uprising in Kyiv, clearly indicating bipartisan American support for the demonstrators – from the White House, State Department and Congress. In mid-December, U.S. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) – both members of the Foreign Relations Committee – even traveled to Ukraine to meet with opposition leaders, and addressed a crowd of demonstrators in Kyiv.
“We are here,” said McCain at a massive rally, “to support your just cause: the sovereign right to determine [Ukraine’s] own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe.”
Murphy added, “Ukraine’s future stands with Europe, and the U.S. stands with Ukraine.”
On Jan. 7, the Senate adopted a resolution that expressed support for “the sovereign right of the people of Ukraine to chart an independent and democratic future for their country” and “condemn[ed] the decision by Ukrainian authorities to use violence against peaceful demonstrators and call[ed] for those responsible to be brought to justice.”
U.S. policy remained unchanged even as information emerged about the deep influence of far-right ultranationalist extremists leading the anti-Yanukovych protests. Spearheading clashes with police has been Right Sector, a group with ties to far-right parties including the Patriots of Ukraine and Trident, which BBC Ukraine reported is largely comprised of nationalist football fans. The far-right parliamentary party Svoboda is also in the coalition of three opposition parties leading the protests, the Nation reported.
Despite one of the early outbreaks of violence in the Kyiv demonstrations being clearly instigated by protesters who tried to break through police lines with an earth excavating vehicle on Dec. 1, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 15 that the demonstrators in Ukraine have been overwhelmingly nonviolent and have provided inspiration to the whole world.
“The whole world has watched the peaceful protest of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians on the Maidan in Kyiv and tens of thousands in other cities across Ukraine.” While she expressed some condemnation for “the actions of rioters outside a Kyiv court building on January 10,” the bulk of her outrage was reserved for the Ukrainian government.
“The use of violence and acts of repression carried out by government security forces and their surrogates have compelled us to make clear publicly and privately to the government of Ukraine that we will consider a broad range of tools at our disposal if those in positions of authority in Ukraine employ or encourage violence against their own citizens,” she said.
Privately, Nuland was working to manipulate events in Ukraine to the United States’ liking. In a conversation with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt that was surreptitiously recorded and leaked on YouTube, Nuland clearly had preferences for who she would like to take over the government once the U.S. policy goal of deposing Yanukovych had been realized.
“I don’t think Klitsch [opposition leader Vitali Klitschko] should go into the government,” she told Pyatt. “I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
She expressed her preference instead for Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a Ukrainian economist and lawyer. “I think—I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience,” she said. “He’s the guy—you know, what he needs is Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside.”
Nuland also argued for sidelining the European Union in resolving the crisis, saying rather undiplomatically, “Fuck the EU.”
Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University, explained the significance of what Nuland was saying in an appearance on Democracy Now last week.
“The highest-ranking State Department official, who presumably represents the Obama administration, and the American ambassador in Kiev are, to put it in blunt terms, plotting a coup d’état against the elected president of Ukraine,” Cohen said. “They’re not talking about democracy now; they’re talking about a coup now.”
After a new escalation of violence on a Jan. 19, the White House said in a statement that the blame for the bloodshed laid squarely with the Ukrainian authorities – despite the fact that the Ukrainian interior ministry reported 60 policemen injured in the day’s melee, while newswires reported 40 or so protesters hurt.
“The increasing tension in Ukraine is a direct consequence of the government failing to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of its people,” the White House said. “Instead, it has moved to weaken the foundations of Ukraine’s democracy by criminalizing peaceful protest and stripping civil society and political opponents of key democratic protections under the law.”
The White House statement issued this weekend was more nuanced than some of its earlier pronouncements, but nevertheless contained unmistakable veiled messages about flawed U.S. assumptions regarding the elected Yanukovych government and the U.S. desire for regime change in Ukraine:
We have consistently advocated a de-escalation of violence, constitutional change, a coalition government, and early elections, and today’s developments could move us closer to that goal. The unshakeable principle guiding events must be that the people of Ukraine determine their own future. We welcome constructive work in the Rada and continue to urge the prompt formation of a broad, technocratic government of national unity. We welcome former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s release from a prison hospital today, and we wish her a speedy recovery as she seeks the appropriate medical treatment that she has long needed and sought.
We continue to urge an end to violence by all sides and a focus on peaceful, democratic dialogue, working pursuant to Ukraine’s constitution and through its institutions of government. Going forward, we will work with our allies, with Russia, and with appropriate European and international organizations to support a strong, prosperous, unified, and democratic Ukraine. Going forward, the Ukrainian people should know that the United States deeply values our long-standing ties with Ukraine and will support them as they pursue a path of democracy and economic development.
The statement is “deliberately cautious and even-handed,” said Andrew S. Weiss, vice president for studies at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There’s too much uncertainty, about Yanukovych’s situation, about the Russian reaction, to take anything for granted.… We don’t know where the power lies.”
U.S. government proxies, however, such as the State Department-funded advocacy group Freedom House, have been much more outspoken in their reactions to recent events, with clearly drawn lines separating the “good guys” in Ukraine from the “bad guys.”
“The citizens of Ukraine are fighting a gruesome battle for their rights, standing up to armed riot police and a corrupt regime,” said Freedom House last Thursday. “The peaceful protest that followed President Viktor Yanukovich going back on his promise to sign an association agreement with the European Union has since deteriorated into deadly clashes between thousands of Ukrainian citizens and law enforcement officials.”
What Freedom House – and its principle sponsor, the U.S. government – fail to acknowledge is that despite this rosey picture of righteous freedom fighters standing up against tyrannical and corrupt forces, the reality is of course far more complicated. Despite his flaws, Yanukovych was legitimately elected in 2010, in an election that the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said “met most OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections and consolidated progress achieved since 2004.”
“The process was transparent and offered voters a genuine choice between candidates representing diverse political views,” said the OSCE.
Now that the Yanukovych government has been toppled, it is far from clear what precisely will come to replace it, but some analysts think that extreme far-right parties such as Svoboda may come out on top. Then of course, there is the question of whether the country will continue to be torn apart along regional and ideological lines.
Regardless of the outcome, the question should be asked, what exactly gives the U.S. the right to interfere in the internal affairs of a country like Ukraine? Even if Ukrainian security forces overreacted to the Euromaidan protests early on, does the U.S. somehow have legitimacy or moral authority on these matters?
It should be remembered that when American citizens angered by income inequality and corruption took to the streets and occupied downtown parks in U.S. cities in 2011 as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, they were treated in a similar fashion by U.S. police. Interestingly, though, President Obama didn’t use his bully pulpit at the time to tell American cops to stand down, instead remaining silent as police used brute force to quell the demonstrations across the country.
The Internet fought back yesterday against the ever-encroaching mass-surveillance state being imposed by the NSA and associated government agencies in the U.S. and its international partners. Members of Congress were bombarded with emails and phone calls as part of a coordinated day of action, billed as “The Day We Fight Back,” involving more than 6,000 websites and countless more individuals.
The online protest began at midnight on Feb. 11 and continued throughout the day. Participating websites included major online platforms such as Reddit and Tumblr and a number of advocacy groups, including Upworthy, Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, and Demand Progress.
In addition to protesting the widespread government surveillance made public by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the event was timed to commemorate the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, an Internet pioneer and freedom of information activist who was found dead of an apparent suicide in January 2013 amid an overzealous government prosecution that threatened to send him away for 35 years to a U.S. federal prison.
Swartz was a victim of the U.S. “war on whistleblowers,” an ongoing government campaign to clamp down on the free flow of information which has caused the United States to lose its once-touted status as a global champion for freedom of the press. In Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index released today, the U.S. fell 13 places from its position last year, being ranked now just 46th out of 180 surveyed countries worldwide.
As Reporters Without Borders explains on its website,
Countries that pride themselves on being democracies and respecting the rule of law have not set an example [for press freedom], far from it. Freedom of information is too often sacrificed to an overly broad and abusive interpretation of national security needs, marking a disturbing retreat from democratic practices. Investigative journalism often suffers as a result.
This has been the case in the United States (46th), which fell 13 places, one of the most significant declines, amid increased efforts to track down whistleblowers and the sources of leaks. The trial and conviction of Private Bradley Manning and the pursuit of NSA analyst Edward Snowden were warnings to all those thinking of assisting in the disclosure of sensitive information that would clearly be in the public interest.
While obsessively persecuting conscientious leakers of state secrets, the U.S. government has simultaneously waged a war against individual privacy that violates a host of international norms, including as Privacy International has pointed out: Article 12 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which specifically protects territorial and communications privacy; Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966; Article 14 of the United Nations Convention on Migrant Workers, and Article 16 of the UN Convention of the Protection of the Child.
Other international conventions that recognize the right to privacy include Article 10 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Article 11 of the American Convention on Human Rights, Article 4 of the African Union Principles on Freedom of Expression, Article 5 of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, Article 21 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, and Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
In an attempt to counter this assault on international norms and U.S. constitutional rights, websites participating in The Day We Fight Back embedded a large black banner that allowed visitors to input their email address and location and send a letter to their representatives in Congress asking them to oppose the FISA Improvements Act, an Orwellian piece of legislation that would retroactively legalize the government’s unlawful mass spying program.
The ACLU called the proposed act “a dream come true for the NSA” that would “codify the NSA’s unconstitutional call-records program and allow bulk collection of location data from mobile phone users.”
Following up on the U.S.-oriented Day We Fight Back, today several groups launched a European-based campaign to protest, in particular, the activities of the NSA’s junior partner in mass surveillance, Britain’s GCHQ. Privacy International, Article 19, Big Brother Watch, English PEN, Liberty, and Open Rights Group initiated the Don’t Spy On Us campaign. In an announcement at the Privacy International blog, Gus Hosein notes,
In almost every week since last summer, a new Snowden document has been released which details the growing surveillance powers and practices of intelligence agencies, each one astonishing in its own right. The documents have exposed the illegal activities and intrusive capabilities of the UK’s intelligence agency, GCHQ, which has secretly sought to exploit and control every aspect of our global communications systems.
For far too long, mass and intrusive government surveillance programs have operated in the shadows, outside of the rule of law, and without democratic accountability. Now our governments are even defending this state of affairs. This should not be, and certainly cannot continue.
We must fight back.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch recently warned that the NSA is “setting trends” and that there will soon there will be “no safe haven” from the worldwide surveillance practices being pioneered by the United States government.
“As the world’s information moves into cyberspace, surveillance capabilities have grown commensurately,” says HRW in its 2014 World Report. “The U.S. now leads in ability for global data capture, but other nations and actors are likely to catch up, and some already insist that more data be kept within their reach.”
Hopefully the international grassroots movement to counter this trend is able to keep up.
For more information, please see:
The escalating crisis in Ukraine, triggered by President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision in late November to forego closer ties with the EU in favor of strengthening ties with Moscow, has reached a boiling point in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, with intense clashes between protesters and police over the weekend.
Following Yanukovych’s decision on Saturday to sign a new set of laws criminalizing some tactics of the pro-EU movement and clamping down on NGOs that receive funding from foreign sources, violence erupted when police tried to stop hardliners from marching on government buildings.
The Ukrainian interior ministry said 60 policemen were injured, while newswires report 40 or so protesters hurt. The violence on the part of the protesters was at times vicious, as seen in this video footage of demonstrators beating two police officers:
Ukrainian opposition leader and former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko was also assaulted by demonstrators when he tried to prevent protesters and riot police from clashing Sunday. Klitschko was sprayed with a fire extinguisher by the same protesters he had been rallying for weeks in an attempt to overthrow the government.
Although the situation in Ukraine has been volatile for some time, with sporadic outbreaks of violence committed by both protesters and police throughout December and January, the United States was quick to lay the blame for the new escalation of violence squarely with the Ukrainian authorities.
“The increasing tension in Ukraine is a direct consequence of the government failing to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of its people,” the White House said in a statement on Sunday.
Instead, it has moved to weaken the foundations of Ukraine’s democracy by criminalizing peaceful protest and stripping civil society and political opponents of key democratic protections under the law. We urge the government of Ukraine to take steps that represent a better way forward for Ukraine, including repeal of the anti-democratic legislation signed into law in recent days, withdrawing the riot police from downtown Kyiv, and beginning a dialogue with the political opposition.
From its first days, the Maidan movement has been defined by a spirit of non-violence and we support today’s call by opposition political leaders to reestablish that principle. The U.S. will continue to consider additional steps — including sanctions — in response to the use of violence.
The White House statement followed similar remarks by Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State, at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. Asserting that demonstrators in Ukraine have been nonviolent, she said, “The whole world has watched the peaceful protest of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians on the Maidan in Kyiv and tens of thousands in other cities across Ukraine.”
She noted that protesters were first inspired by the government’s decision to halt the Association Agreement negotiations with the European Union, but claimed that their resolve “deepened and broadened into something much more in the ensuing weeks as events snowballed.”
These included, she said, “the violent attempt by security forces to clear the Maidan of protestors on November 30 and the lack of government accountability that followed; the second attempt to use security forces to shut down the Maidan in the wee hours of December 11; and finally the Ukrainian government’s decision to accept $15 billion in Russian bail-out money.”
What is completely absent from her “analysis” is the role played by far-right hardliners in Ukraine, who have had a deep influence over the direction of the protests from the beginning.
One of the early outbreaks of violence in Kyiv was on December 1, when clashes broke out on Bankova Street near the building of the Presidential Administration, where the special Ukrainian police force, the Berkut, held a line against hundreds of violent demonstrators. The protesters threw flares, smoke bombs, Molotov cocktails and stones at the police, beat them with chains, fired tear gas, and brought up an excavator to break through the police cordon.Media reports referred to this hardcore group – many of them masked – as “unknown activists,” largely because it was unknown whether their actions were, in fact, sanctioned by the opposition.
Since the opposition had specifically renounced any use of violence, the media soon started to refer to these men as “provocateurs.” An analyst at OpenDemocracy.net, however, said that the situtation is more complicated.
“What is clear,” wrote Anton Shekhovtsov on 3 December, ”is that the hardcore of the violent crowd was not the titushki [provocateurs], but right-wing extremists and far right football hooligans. Almost all of them wore masks and yellow armbands with the wolf’s hook symbol; and were clearly battle-equipped.”
Shekhovtsov pointed out that the black wolf’s hook on yellow armbands indicated their political affiliation: the Social-National Assembly (SNA), a neo-Nazi organization. In addition to the SNA, the violent extremists likely included members of ‘Tryzub’ (Trident) and ‘Bily Molot’ (White Hammer).
The U.S., however, appears more than happy to ignore those elements and place all the blame for Ukraine’s escalating violence with the government. In explaining why the outcome of the struggle in Ukraine matters to the United States, Victoria Nuland claimed last week that “these same principles and values are the cornerstone of all free democracies, and America supports them in every country on the planet.”
The Ukrainian protesters, she said, “are all calling for the same basic rights we hold dear here in the United States. They want to live in a country where their government truly represents the wishes of the people and where they can safely exercise their rights without the fear of oppression.”
Ironically, on the same day that Nuland was offering this testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the largest civil rights settlement for protest-related mass arrests in U.S. history was being handed down in New York City.
After nearly a decade of legal wrangling, the deal reached last Wednesday offered some degree of justice — albeit delayed — for more than 1,800 peaceful protesters arrested during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. The settlement comes 15 months after a ruling by a federal judge in September 2012, which determined that “there was no probable cause to arrest protestors.”
Yet, some said that the agreement was bittersweet.
“This settlement is not justice, but it is positive closure,” Zachary Miller, who attended the RNC protests as a journalist with the Urbana-Champaign, Illinois Independent Media Center and was held for 23 hours after being swept up in a mass arrest, told Common Dreams.
“Settlements are symbolic and will never curb repression,” said Barucha Peller, who was also arrested at the protests.
Indeed, after spending almost $16 million dollars of taxpayer money defending itself during nearly ten years of litigation, the New York Police Department has continued to violate protesters’ civil rights, most notably in the violent crackdown on Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and 2012.
In an attempt to clear out a downtown encampment in November 2011, the NYPD, decked out in riot gear with batons drawn, used teargas and “sonic cannon” crowd control weaponry to attack peaceful protesters. About a dozen demonstrators were injured. One 19-year-old protester was photographed being taken away with blood dripping down his face, with a possible skull injury resulting from a baton strike to the head. Witnesses saw police push protesters to the ground and one young woman was reportedly dragged away by police by her hair.
As CBS News reported at the time, “some of these altercations … seemed unprovoked. Others appeared touched off in part by protesters removing barricades erected to control the demonstrations. But in both cases the level of violence suggested, at best, indiscipline by individual cops and at worst official license to cause bodily harm.”
On the other side of the country, Oakland police used “an overwhelming military-type response” to disperse Occupy Oakland demonstrators in October 2011 and intentionally fired at Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen who was critically injured in the protests, according to a report issued by an outside monitor of the Oakland Police Department.
Video taken of the October events shows that when fellow demonstrators went to the aid of Olsen, another cop threw a flash grenade into the crowd, further endangering the injured protester and those who were coming to his aid.
In response, Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling on police to respect the fundamental rights of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators across the country.
“The United States’ tradition of peaceful protest is protected not only in U.S. law but also under international law,” said Alison Parker, U.S. program director at Human Rights Watch. “Even when protesters’ actions warrant police intervention, force should only be used where strictly necessary and then only to the degree necessary.”
Amnesty International also weighed in, urging authorities “to ensure that police show restraint in their response to Occupy Wall Street protests, following critical injuries suffered by a man in Oakland, Ca. in clashes between police and demonstrators.”
“The increasingly heavy-handed policing tactics used to quell the Occupy Wall Street protests are deeply alarming,” said Guadalupe Marengo, deputy program director for the Americas. “The police must not resort to using excessive force, such as tear gas, unless strictly necessary.”
All in all, nearly 8,000 overwhelmingly peaceful protesters were arrested over two years of Occupy Wall Street-related protests.
At the height of the Occupy movement, public opinion surveys indicated that 79% of Americans agreed with the protesters’ main grievances, particularly the statement that the “The big banks got bailed but the middle class got left behind.” On the other hand, when it comes to the political crisis in Ukraine, the situation is much murkier.
As far as the primary issue that sparked the demonstrations in Kyiv — the decision by the Ukrainian government to forgo the EU Association Agreement in favor of the Moscow-led Customs Union — the Ukrainian public seems rather evenly split, and seems to understand that there are complex geopolitical and economic concerns that the government is trying to balance.
Among the findings of a public opinion poll from December, conducted by the Research & Branding Group on Euromaidan 2013, include the following:
Despite this more nuanced and complicated picture, U.S. officials are not hesitating to paint this issue as black-and-white, with the Kyiv protesters righteously defending the will of the people, and the authorities attempting to violently crush Ukraine’s democratic aspirations.
Ukrainians “want to live in a country where their government truly represents the wishes of the people and where they can safely exercise their rights without the fear of oppression,” Victoria Nuland said last week.
Perhaps if she also spoke out on behalf of U.S. protesters repressed by their government, it would be easier to take her comments seriously, but as it stands, it looks obvious that U.S. policy towards Ukraine is just another attempt to undermine the foreign policy goals of the Yanukovych government and Russia — as well as any country not within the U.S. sphere of influence.
The U.S. government should stop meddling in the affairs of other nations, says a majority of Americans in a recent poll. According to the survey, 52% say the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Just 38% disagree with the statement.
“This is the most lopsided balance in favor of the U.S. ‘minding its own business,’ in the nearly 50-year history of the measure,” according to the Pew Center for People and the Press, which conducted the survey.
When asked to describe in their own words why they feel this way about the U.S. role in the world, nearly half (47%) say problems at home, including the economy, should get more attention.
Nearly eight-in-ten Americans (77%) agree that “in deciding on its foreign policies, the U.S. should take into account the views of its major allies.” And most (56%) disagree that “since the U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world, we should go our own way in international matters.”
Further, “when it comes to working with the United Nations, 56% of the public agrees that the U.S. should cooperate fully with the international organization, which is virtually unchanged from 2011 (58%).”
Although Americans thought that impressions of how the U.S. is perceived abroad improved after Barack Obama took office, they are now as negative as they were during the Bush administration. Seven-in-ten believe the U.S. is less respected by other countries than in the past, while just 7% say the U.S. is more respected and 19% say it is as respected as in the past.
The survey found that promoting human rights abroad, helping improve living standards in developing countries and promoting democracy are relatively low priorities for the American public. But at a human rights conference in Washington this week, activists urged the U.S. government to be more consistent in its approach toward repressive regimes, warning that double standards send the wrong message to democracy campaigners.
America’s over-arching focus on security concerns is obscuring the need to hold governments accountable for rights abuses, activists said. UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, Maina Kiai, argued that the United States needed to treat all governments the same way.
“It’s very difficult to understand why the US government treats Ethiopia when it attacks human rights defenders differently from how the US treats Zimbabwe. Or how the US treats Egypt as opposed to Bahrain,” he said.
“Once you start seeing these differences they start sending a message across the world that actually the US wants to pick and choose where it wants to defend human rights.”
As reported by AFP, “the message was particularly confused in Egypt, where the US has frozen part of its aid to the military, and put on hold the delivery of large weapons systems, after it ousted president Mohamed Morsi in July, said activist Nadine Wahab.”
“When funding… continues to go to the weapons that attack and create human rights violations, like tear gas and bullets, but you hold the F-16s, the message that’s going to these governments and going to human rights defenders is that human rights is not important,” said Wahab, an expert with the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
And she challenged the US administration’s policy of not cutting off all military aid to Egypt, which was aimed at helping the Egyptian army to battle militants in the Sinai peninsula and help maintain regional stability.
“One of the things that the United States really needs to do is look at its counter-terrorism narrative, look at how security is thought of within a domestic policy and an international policy and see whether security and stability is human rights? Or whether security and stability is guns and more weapons?” said Wahab.
Seemingly disregarding these concerns, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said this week that the U.S. will continue its military involvement globally.
“Last week we entered our thirteenth year of combat in Afghanistan,” Hagel noted, adding that the U.S. has continued to have a “steady state of presence in the Arabian Gulf and elsewhere.”
Hagel’s comments were made as he heads for Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, and focused on promises of U.S. military support for those nations, despite their troubling human rights records. Both countries are considered “not free” in Freedom House’s annual survey of “freedom in the world.”
Regarding Bahrain, Amnesty International notes that in 2013, “the authorities [have] continued to crack down on protests and dissent.”
Scores of people remain in prison, detained for opposing the government, including prisoners of conscience and people sentenced after unfair trials, says Amnesty. Further, human rights defenders and other activists are being harassed and imprisoned.
Over the past few years of the crackdown against pro-democracy activists in Bahrain, the U.S. government has showered the regime with tens of millions of dollars in military aid. The Obama administration has not imposed any sanctions on Bahrain or on Bahraini officials for human rights abuses.
The controversy over whether the United States should apologize for the many war crimes committed during its 12-year occupation of Afghanistan misses an important point. Although the U.S. government now insists that there is no chance of issuing an apology, or even acknowledge “past mistakes,” the fact is so many apologies have been issued over the years it’s not clear exactly what good another one would do.
Judging by the hostile reaction to the idea that the U.S. might apologize, it appears most have forgotten that the Defense and State Departments – as well as the White House – have issued numerous high-profile apologies, for example, regarding the desecration of corpses in Afghanistan, a photograph of U.S. Marines posing with a Nazi SS flag, an incident in which copies of the Koran were burned by U.S. personnel at a military base, the emergence of gruesome “kill team” photos and the killing of nine young Afghan boys in March 2011.
The apology over the massacre of the young boys, incidentally, was rejected at the time by Afghan President Hamid Karzai who said that excuses by the U.S. cannot relieve the pain caused by these incidents. “Regrets and condemnations of the incident cannot heal the wounds of the people,” he said.
Another controversy erupted in early 2012 when a group of U.S. Marines were caught urinating on killed Taliban fighters in a video that went viral on YouTube. The NATO command in Afghanistan, the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department all denounced the actions, offering varying levels of apologetic remarks.
“A video recently posted on a public website appears to show U.S. military personnel committing an inappropriate act with enemy corpses,” said NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in a statement. “This disrespectful act is inexplicable and not in keeping with the high moral standards we expect of coalition forces.”
The U.S. Marine Corps vowed a full investigation. Those involved could face court martial proceedings for violating U.S. military rules which specifically forbid “photographing or filming… human casualties,” according to a CBS News report.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, “I have seen the footage, and I find the behavior depicted in it utterly deplorable. Those found to have engaged in such conduct will be held accountable to the fullest extent.”
A Pentagon spokesman emphasized that “the actions portrayed are not consistent with our core values and are not indicative of the character of the Marines in our Corps.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney later echoed these remarks, telling reporters, “We apologize to the Afghan people and disapprove of such conduct in the strongest possible terms.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the “deplorable behavior” of the Marines and said that “it is absolutely inconsistent with American values.”
About a month after the corpse desecration episode, another incident erupted over the burning of a number of Korans on a military base north of Kabul. Again, apologies were issued, including one by Defense Secretary Panetta who called the incineration of the Muslim holy book by U.S. occupation forces “inappropriate.” He pledged to “carefully review the final results of the investigation to ensure that we take all steps necessary and appropriate so that this never happens again.”
Gen. John Allen, the U.S. Marine who commands Western forces in Afghanistan, reiterated the apology, saying, “I offer my sincere apologies for any offense this may have caused, to the president of Afghanistan, the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and, most importantly, to the noble people of Afghanistan.”
However, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “even some Afghans who said they believed the action had been the result of error, not malice, found it difficult to accept” the U.S. apology.
“They are careless with our holy things, and they are careless with our country,” said Wali Aziz, an Afghan shopowner.
In response to a March 2012 atrocity in which 16 Afghan civilians – including women and children – were methodically murdered by a U.S. soldier, Secretary of State Clinton asserted that “This is not who we are, and the United States is committed to seeing those responsible held accountable.”
“This incident is tragic and shocking, and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan,” said President Barack Obama in a statement.
Yet, despite all of these previous apologies and statements of regret, the U.S. now appears to be drawing a line in the sand, insisting that it will not offer a new one.
As the New York Times reported earlier this week,
Afghan officials said Tuesday that in return for such a letter from Mr. Obama, President Hamid Karzai would end his vehement opposition to American counterterrorism raids on private Afghan homes — one of the most contentious issues between allies over a costly dozen-year war — clearing the way for an agreement to keep a smaller American troop force in the country past the 2014 withdrawal deadline.
As described by Mr. Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, the letter would be tantamount to an apology, though he did not use that word. But not even that would be enough to ensure the final passage of a security agreement the United States had pressed to have in hand before next year. The Afghans have made final approval subject to an Afghan grand council of elders, a loya jirga, that is to begin meeting on Thursday, and aspects of the security deal remain deeply unpopular with the public.
But even the notion that the pact would include a U.S. acknowledgement of “past mistakes” touched off a flurry of criticism, with some declaring the idea outrageous. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said, “The president will be severely criticized if anything comes out looking like the United States is apologizing to Afghanistan after all the blood and treasure the U.S. committed to trying to help the Afghan people since 9/11. That will be pretty politically outrageous here.”
Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser, said bluntly that an apology was “not on the table.”
“Quite the contrary, we have sacrificed and supported them in their democratic progress and in tackling the insurgents and al Qaeda,” Rice told CNN.
Jen Psaki, the chief State Department spokeswoman, reiterated the point and noted that nobody on the Afghan side actually asked for an explicit apology.
President Karzai apparently however had spoken with Secretary of State Kerry on the phone twice in two days, in which Kerry acknowledged “mistakes” had been made by U.S. forces over the twelve years of war.
Indeed, the number of civilians harmed in the war annually spiked dramatically since Obama intensified the fighting during the 2010-12 troop surge, although the United Nations mission in Afghanistan says that around 90% of civilian deaths and injuries are now attributed to the Taliban.
Nevertheless, U.S. war crimes and atrocities are commonplace, as recently documented by an in-depth investigative report by Rolling Stone into killings of civilians and torture by a U.S. special forces unit.
“Over the past five months,” journalist Matthieu Aikins reported on Nov. 6,
Rolling Stone has interviewed more than two dozen eyewitnesses and victims’ families who’ve provided consistent and detailed allegations of the involvement of American forces in the disappearance of … 10 men, and has talked to Afghan and Western officials who were familiar with confidential Afghan-government, U.N. and Red Cross investigations that found the allegations credible. In July, a U.N. report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan warned: “The reported disappearances, arbitrary killings and torture – if proven to have been committed under the auspices of a party to the armed conflict – may amount to war crimes.”
It is perhaps because of this history of war crimes that the Bilateral Security Agreement hatched between United States and Afghanistan ensures that the U.S. military will retain legal jurisdiction over its forces, a key requirement for the United States. Without such an agreement, U.S. troops could be arrested and tried in Afghan courts.
According to the BSA wording,
Afghanistan, while retaining its sovereignty, recognizes the particular importance of disciplinary control, including judicial and non-judicial measures, by the United States forces authorities over members of the force and of the civilian component. Afghanistan therefore agrees that the United States shall have the exclusive right to exercise jurisdiction over such persons in respect of any criminal or civil offenses committed in the territory of Afghanistan.
The deal will also reportedly allow U.S. night raids on Afghan homes to continue in “exceptional circumstances” as demanded by the U.S., and it explicitly states that the pact will remain in effect “until the end of 2024 and beyond.”
And, of course, no apologies if we happen to commit a few war crimes. President Obama, however, tried to offer the Afghan people assurances that we’ll do our best not to commit any more atrocities.
In a letter that Karzai read out to 2,500 delegates of the Afghan Loya Jirga this week, Obama promised: “We will continue to make every effort to respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans, in their homes and in their daily lives, just as we do for our citizens.”
Despite earlier threats from European officials to delay trade negotiations with the United States over the latest revelations of spying on French and German leaders (which have followed earlier revelations that that the NSA has tapped the telephone lines and computer networks of EU offices in Brussels, New York and Washington), German Chancellor Angela Merkel today offered assurances that U.S.-EU trade talks would go forward without interruption.
Although she said she was skeptical of efforts to delay those negotiations, she expressed tepid support for temporarily halting a program that gives U.S. intelligence agencies access to information about the financial transactions of suspected terrorists routed through the SWIFT clearing house in Brussels. SWIFT, or the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, is an industry-owned co-operative that facilitates international financial transfers within the global banking community, consisting of banks, securities broker-dealers, and regulated investment management institutions.
Merkel’s cautious support for restraining U.S. access to SWIFT follows allegations that the NSA has been gaining unauthorized access to the international financial messaging system, which could have major ramifications for the operation of the global financial system.
“Claims that the NSA has tapped the computing infrastructure of the SWIFT system and consequently has access to information about more than 90% of the world’s international banking transactions has huge implications for financial institutions and the individuals who bank with them,” writes Caroline Wilson of Privacy International.
The European Parliament has asked the U.S. to explain its actions and to reveal whether the NSA’s actions are breaching a U.S.-EU agreement that sets forth various rules the U.S. must follow when obtaining and processing financial data stored in the EU. The pact came about in 2010 because of allegations at the time that the U.S. was seeking direct and virtually unrestrained access to Europeans’ SWIFT data.
“If the NSA is obtaining SWIFT messages outside of the rules set forth in the 2010 US-EU Agreement, such action imperils further the relationship between the two parties, and violates the privacy rights of millions of Europeans,” notes Wilson.
In response to the latest allegations, the leaders of Germany and France today proposed creating a new agreement on cooperation among their intelligence services and those of the United States, in the wake of a new report alleging that the National Security Agency had monitored the phone conversations of 35 world leaders.
Noting diminished trust in the United States, Merkel pledged that she and French President Francois Hollande would rapidly forge a new pact to ensure more transparency for U.S. intelligence operations in Europe.
What is unclear though is why these leaders would expect the U.S. government to adhere to the rules of a “new pact,” when it is obvious that it has been brazenly flouting numerous existing pacts for years. Besides violating the 2010 agreement on SWIFT, the United States appears to be violating a host of international laws, including the 1961 Vienna Convention which states that “the official correspondence” as well as “the premises” of diplomatic missions “shall be inviolable.”
The individual’s right to privacy is also enshrined in numerous human rights conventions including in Article 12 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, Article 14 of the United Nations Convention on Migrant Workers, and Article 16 of the UN Convention of the Protection of the Child. It is also guaranteed by Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
At a hearing in the European Parliament on Oct. 14, NSA surveillance initiatives were the subject of legal scrutiny which included the participation of a judge who has served in the European Court of Human Rights for 15 years, a former United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, and a London-based international law professor. All of them agreed that the scope of the surveillance constituted violations of both European and international laws and treaties.
Martin Scheinin, former UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, said that the NSA spying represents a “massive interference with the privacy rights of EU citizens and others.” The surveillance amounted to “an unlawful or arbitrary interference with privacy or correspondence, and this conclusion follows independently from multiple grounds,” he said.
In response to the allegations of massive U.S. law-breaking, German prosecutors have launched a legal investigation, and officials in Berlin said the scandal could disrupt counterterrorism collaboration between the United States and the European Union.
This is also a point that independent U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders made in a letter to Barack Obama on Thursday. Sanders, who is cosponsoring legislation that would significantly rein in the surveillance activities of the NSA and other intelligence agencies, wrote to Obama that the U.S. actions could undermine cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
“The strained relations with our allies as a result of wholesale NSA eavesdropping have impacted our ability to work with these countries in combating terrorism and advancing common economic goals,” Sanders said. “Clearly, in the complex and difficult world we now find ourselves, it is imperative that we try to improve our relations with friendly countries, not exacerbate them.”
European leaders from across the continent have also been vocal in their opposition to the U.S. surveillance activities. If it’s true that Merkel’s cellphone has been tapped, “it is exceptionally serious,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at an EU summit this week.
Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt called it “completely unacceptable” for a country to eavesdrop on an allied leader. “We want the truth,” Italian Premier Enrico Letta told reporters. “It is not in the least bit conceivable that activity of this type could be acceptable.”
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said, “We need to re-establish with the U.S. a relationship of trust, which has certainly suffered from this.”
But despite the current grandstanding of European leaders, it should be remembered that the whistleblower who shared all the revelations of U.S. spying – former NSA contractor Edward Snowden – has been largely abandoned by the governments that are now expressing shock over the NSA’s abuses.
When Snowden was seeking refuge from the U.S. government fearing persecution and torture, ten EU countries immediately indicated that they would deny the whistleblower’s political asylum requests, with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle saying that Snowden’s request would be reviewed by German authorities “according to the law,” but he “could not imagine” that it would be approved.
After the United States received a tip that Snowden may have been on a plane carrying Bolivian president Evo Morales, who was flying home from a Moscow summit via Western Europe, European governments fell over themselves to do the bidding of the United States, with France, Spain and Portugal all refusing to let Morales’ plane through their airspace.
The plane was forced to land in Austria, where it remained grounded for 14 hours as the authorities determined that Snowden was not on board.
Morales called the rerouting of his plane a violation of national sovereignty and a provocation to all of Latin America, urging European countries to “free themselves” from the undue influence of the United States. The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, later described the measure by certain EU countries to ground Morales’s plane as “ridiculous and unacceptable.”
It is against this backdrop of acquiescing to U.S. power that the current admonitions of European leaders should be considered.
Snowden himself has been one of the most articulate advocates for greater action by the international community to protect privacy and hold the U.S. rogue superpower accountable.
In a prepared statement to the European Parliament on Sept. 30, Snowden argued that surveillance is one of the greatest challenges facing human rights today, and appealed for help in protecting the whistleblowers who bring these abuses to light.
“If we are to enjoy such debates in the future, we cannot rely on individual sacrifice, we must create better channels for people of conscience to better inform not only trusted agents of government but independent representatives of the public outside of government,” he said.
Snowden, who is currently living in Moscow after being granted temporary asylum by the Russian government, said that public debate on mass surveillance should not have to rely on the persecution and exile of people willing to leak information to the public.
A mass rally is being held in Washington on Saturday in support of Snowden and calling on the NSA to halt its mass surveillance activities. Under the banner, “Stop Watching Us,” thousands of Americans of all political stripes will demand investigations of the NSA’s illegal spying and to “hold accountable those public officials who are found to be responsible for this unconstitutional surveillance.”