UN experts express shock over water shutoffs in Detroit, highlight U.S. international obligations

Demonstrators protest against the Detroit Water and Sewer Department July 18, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. The Detroit Water and Sewer Department have disconnected water to thousands of Detroit residents who are delinquent with their bills. (AFP Photo / Getty Images / Joshua Lott)

Demonstrators protest against the Detroit Water and Sewer Department July 18, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. The Detroit Water and Sewer Department have disconnected water to thousands of Detroit residents who are delinquent with their bills. (AFP Photo / Getty Images / Joshua Lott)

A delegation from the United Nations has completed a fact-finding mission to the U.S. city of Detroit, which is currently experiencing large-scale water disconnections, with at least 27,000 households having their water services cut off this year.

The UN delegation, consisting of the Special Rapporteur on housing, Leilani Farha, and the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, visited Detroit from Oct. 18-20 on the invitation of U.S. civil society groups. Noting that 40.7 percent of Detroit’s population live below the poverty level and about 80 percent of the population are African American, the experts said that the water shutoffs disproportionately affect vulnerable people and low-income African Americans.

“Twenty percent of the population is living on 800 USD or less per month, while the average monthly water bill is currently 70.67 USD,” the delegation pointed out. “This is simply unaffordable for thousands of residents, mostly African Americans.”

As the experts further explained in a press release concluding the visit,

Without water, people cannot live a life with dignity – they have no water for drinking, cooking, bathing, flushing toilets and keeping their clothes and houses clean. Despite the fact that water is essential for survival, the city has no data on how many people have been and are living without tap water, let alone information on age, disabilities, chronic illness, race or income level of the affected population.

Denial of access to sufficient quantity of water threatens the rights to adequate housing, life, health, adequate food, integrity of the family. It exacerbates inequalities, stigmatizes people and renders the most vulnerable even more helpless. Lack of access to water and hygiene is also a real threat to public health as certain diseases could widely spread.

In addition, thousands of households are living in fear that their water may be shut off at any time without due notice, that they may have to leave their homes and that children may be taken by child protection services as houses without water are deemed uninhabitable for children. In many cases, unpaid water bills are being attached to property taxes increasing the risk of foreclosure.

We were deeply disturbed to observe the indignity people have faced and continue to live with in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and in a city that was a symbol of America’s prosperity.

The experts also reminded the United States that it is bound by international human rights law and principles, “including the right to life as well as the right to non-discrimination with respect to housing, water and sanitation and the highest attainable standard of health.” These obligations not only apply to the federal government, but to state and municipal governments as well, including the judiciary.

In September, U.S. bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes threw out a motion to stop Detroit’s mass water shutoffs, declaring that despite “findings of irreparable harm,” there is no “fundamental enforceable right to free or affordable water.”

“We were shocked, impressed by the proportions of the disconnections and by the way that it is affecting the weakest, the poorest and the most vulnerable,” said de Albuquerque at a press conference on Monday.

“I’ve been to rich countries like Japan and Slovenia where basically 99 percent of population have access to water, and I’ve been to poor countries where half the population doesn’t have access to water … but this large-scale retrogression or backwards steps is new for me.” She added, “From a human rights perspective, any retrogression should be seen as a human right violation.”

As the delegation’s joint statement elaborates:

The human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation and to adequate housing both derive from the right to an adequate standard of living which is protected under, inter alia, article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is fully applicable to the United States. In addition, adequate housing and access to safe water are clearly essential to maintain life and health, and the right to life is found in treaties the United States has ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Ensuring freedom from discrimination does not mean that everyone should be treated equally when their circumstances are different. Water and sanitation does not have to be free. It must rather be affordable for all. The price cannot put a household in debt or limit access to essential services such as food or medicine. A human rights framework provides that people should not be deprived of these rights if they cannot pay the bill for reasons beyond their control. Disconnections of water due to non-payment are permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. When people are genuinely unable to pay the bill, it is the State’s obligation to provide urgent measures, including financial assistance, a specially low tariff or subsidies, to ensure access to essential water and sanitation for all. Not doing so amounts to a human rights violation.

Similarly, the human right to adequate housing means that housing must be affordable, including the costs of water, sanitation and other housing-related services. Houses without water and sanitation are unsafe and uninhabitable. They expose residents to disease, exacerbate existing health conditions, and threaten the security of tenure of residents. If costs associated with housing are not in line with income levels, housing is rendered unaffordable for many low-income residents, leading to accumulated arrears which in turn create real risks for foreclosure, eviction and homelessness. This contravenes the State’s obligation to ensure tenants and owners enjoy secure tenure.

The UN officials offered a number of recommendations to the City of Detroit and other relevant authorities, calling for Detroit to “restore water connections to residents unable to pay and vulnerable groups of people, stop further disconnections of water when residents are unable to pay, and provide them the opportunity to seek assistance that must be made available through social assistance schemes.”

Further, the U.S. should adopt, at all levels of government, a mandatory affordability threshold and specific policies should be adopted to ensure specific support to people who live in poverty.

In addition, the federal government should immediately undertake an investigation into the water shutoffs to determine if they are having a disproportionate impact on African Americans and other groups protected against discrimination.

For the full statement and list of recommendations, visit the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights web page.

Testimonies from residents of Detroit coping with the effects of the water shutoffs are available here.

Video of the delegation’s post-visit press conference is on YouTube:

Torture impunity becomes further entrenched in the USA


With recent reports indicating that the Obama administration is maintaining the legal arguments of the previous administration as they pertain to the applicability of international law in counterterrorism operations overseas, as well as leaked news of the much-touted Senate CIA torture report avoiding the assignment of responsibility for these policies, it is growing increasingly obvious that impunity for torture has become undisputed official U.S. policy.

As The New York Times reported over the weekend,

When the Bush administration revealed in 2005 that it was secretly interpreting a treaty ban on “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” as not applying to C.I.A. and military prisons overseas, Barack Obama, then a newly elected Democratic senator from Illinois, joined in a bipartisan protest.

Mr. Obama supported legislation to make it clear that American officials were legally barred from using cruelty anywhere in the world. And in a Senate speech, he said enacting such a statute “acknowledges and confirms existing obligations” under the treaty, the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

But the Obama administration has never officially declared its position on the treaty, and now, President Obama’s legal team is debating whether to back away from his earlier view. It is considering reaffirming the Bush administration’s position that the treaty imposes no legal obligation on the United States to bar cruelty outside its borders, according to officials who discussed the deliberations on the condition of anonymity.

If Obama does decide to continue the policy of denying the Convention Against Torture’s jurisdiction in overseas operations, the message to the world will be received loud and clear that U.S. torturers are indeed above the law – that indeed no legal constraints exist on the U.S. global war on terror, neither its military operations that respect no nation’s sovereignty, its secret black site prisons nor its grotesque regime of enforced disappearances and torture.

While some might argue that it’s unfair to jump to conclusions and important to give Obama the benefit of the doubt until a final decision is made as to whether the treaty is legally binding on the United States regarding human rights obligations, in fact there is little reason to offer such latitude.

After all, the Obama administration has already declared that another landmark human rights accord – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – has no bearing on U.S. overseas operations, drawing a stinging rebuke earlier this year from the UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the ICCPR.

As stated in the HRC’s “concluding observations” issued on March 27, 2014:

The Committee regrets that the State party [the United States] continues to maintain the position that the Covenant does not apply with respect to individuals under its jurisdiction, but outside its territory, despite the interpretation to the contrary of article 2, paragraph 1, supported by the Committee’s established jurisprudence, the jurisprudence of the International Court of Justice and State practice. The Committee further notes that the State party has only limited avenues to ensure that state and local governments respect and implement the Covenant, and that its provisions have been declared to be non-self-executing at the time of ratification. Taken together, these elements considerably limit the legal reach and practical relevance of the Covenant (art. 2).

In response to this highly restrictive interpretation of the ICCPR which undermines human rights globally, the UN urged the United States to “interpret the Covenant in good faith, in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to its terms in their context, including subsequent practice, and in the light of the object and purpose of the Covenant, and review its legal position so as to acknowledge the extraterritorial application of the Covenant under certain circumstances.”

The HRC also regretted the lack of accountability for past human rights violations:

The Committee is concerned at the limited number of investigations, prosecutions and convictions of members of the Armed Forces and other agents of the United States Government, including private contractors, for unlawful killings during its international operations, and the use of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees in United States custody, including outside its territory, as part of the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”. While welcoming Presidential Executive Order 13491 of 22 January 2009 terminating the programme of secret detention and interrogation operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Committee notes with concern that all reported investigations into enforced disappearances, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment committed in the context of the CIA secret rendition, interrogation and detention programmes were closed in 2012, resulting in only a meagre number of criminal charges being brought against low-level operatives. The Committee is concerned that many details of the CIA programmes remain secret, thereby creating barriers to accountability and redress for victims (arts. 2, 6, 7, 9, 10 and 14).

The State party should ensure that all cases of unlawful killing, torture or other ill-treatment, unlawful detention or enforced disappearance are effectively, independently and impartially investigated, that perpetrators, including, in particular, persons in positions of command, are prosecuted and sanctioned, and that victims are provided with effective remedies. The responsibility of those who provided legal pretexts for manifestly illegal behavior should also be established. The State party should also consider the full incorporation of the doctrine of “command responsibility” in its criminal law and declassify and make public the report of the Senate Special Committee on Intelligence into the CIA secret detention programme.

This lack of accountability is expected to continue, with the one comprehensive official attempt to ascertain the level of U.S. criminality in the war on terror – the Senate’s years-long investigation into CIA torture – studiously avoiding the assignment of culpability for these illegal policies.

As McClatchy reported on October 16,

bush tortureA soon-to-be released Senate report on the CIA doesn’t assess the responsibility of former President George W. Bush or his top aides for any of the abuses of the agency’s detention and interrogation program, avoiding a full public accounting of one of the darkest chapters of the war on terror.

“This report is not about the White House. It’s not about the president. It’s not about criminal liability. It’s about the CIA’s actions or inactions,” said a person familiar with the document, who asked not to be further identified because the executive summary – the only part to that will be made public – still is in the final stages of declassification.

The Senate Intelligence Committee report also didn’t examine the responsibility of top Bush administration lawyers in crafting the legal framework that permitted the CIA to use simulated drowning called waterboarding and other interrogation methods widely described as torture, McClatchy has learned.

Despite the lack of accountability for those who actually crafted these illegal torture policies, the United States government had the gall to claim in its “periodic report” recently submitted to the UN Committee Against Torture that it is complying fully with the Convention Against Torture (CAT).

The government claimed [PDF], “U.S. law provides jurisdiction in a number of ways that could be relied on for criminal prosecution of torture and ill-treatment of detainees” and offered a few examples. The problem is, the Justice Department division the government cited as a bulwark against impunity for torture appears to have prosecuted zero public cases of torture against U.S. officials.

So, the government’s periodic report to the UN is basically one lie after another, and for these reasons, it is becoming painfully obvious that the only possibility for accountability may in fact be an international tribunal charged with prosecuting these crimes.

Because the U.S. has so consistently flouted its legally binding obligation under the CAT to “take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction” and to “make these offences punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature,” it may be up to the international community to help ensure that an officially sanctioned climate of impunity does not take hold in the United States on the issue of torture.

Under the terms of the CAT (which the U.S. has ratified), a state party that is not fulfilling its obligations to prosecute torture may be referred to a committee to adjudicate the matter. As the Compliance Campaign has previously noted, it’s high time for this adjudication to take place. If it doesn’t, torture impunity will become even further entrenched, with ominous implications for the whole world.

International campaign urges U.S. to drop opposition to UN resolution on depleted uranium


Domestic and international civil society groups are mobilizing a grassroots campaign to urge the State Department and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations to stop opposing UN resolutions on depleted uranium in advance of a pivotal vote scheduled next month in the General Assembly.

For the fifth time, the Non-Aligned Movement – a global grouping of 120 states not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc – has submitted a resolution on depleted uranium weapons (DU) at the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly. This year’s resolution contains new language calling for governments to assist countries affected by the weapons.

In a new operative paragraph, the text “Encourages Member States in a position to do so to provide assistance to States affected by the use of arms and ammunition containing depleted uranium, in particular in identifying and managing contaminated sites and material.”

Since 2007, the General Assembly has passed a series of resolutions, backed by the majority of the world’s nations, affirming the need for disclosure of where weapons containing DU have been used, as well as research on the effects of these weapons. But the U.S. government has consistently opposed these resolutions. Another resolution will be introduced later this month and a vote is scheduled for November 5.

Through the Right to Heal Initiative, the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights is working to raise awareness about skyrocketing rates of cancer and birth defects associated with the U.S. military’s use of DU in Iraq. CCR and Iraq Veterans against the War recently filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the U.S. military’s firing coordinates of depleted uranium weaponry in Iraq – information that is crucial to begin cleaning up toxic areas in Iraq and so that U.S. veterans and service members are aware of possible exposure.

Together with Roots Action, the groups are gathering signatures for a petition to demand that the United States join the rest of the world in its growing concern about use of depleted uranium and end its opposition to U.N. action on this issue.

The text of the petition is as follows:

Dear Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Power,

We, the undersigned, urge the United States government to address the toxic legacy of its depleted uranium use in Iraq.

On November 5, a new resolution on depleted uranium weaponry will be introduced to the United Nations General Assembly. While the text of this year’s resolution is still being negotiated, since 2007, UN resolutions have included language affirming the need for research on the potential harmful effects of depleted uranium as well as the need for disclosure of where this weaponry has been used. The resolutions have been passed by the vast majority of the world’s nations, indicating a growing global concern. Unfortunately, each year the U.S. has isolated itself by opposing these resolutions, alongside only a few other countries.

The U.S. must end its opposition to UN action on depleted uranium. It must also support clean-up of areas where it has used depleted uranium and further scientific study of the impact of these materials on people, such as the relationship of these materials to increased cancer rates and birth defects, so that proper treatment can be pursued for those who have been exposed. These actions are critical to both civilian communities in Iraq and U.S. veterans and servicemembers.

We note the renewed urgency of this matter given the current U.S. military actions in Iraq and Syria.

syria du

As the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons explains,

Overwhelming evidence from the peer-reviewed literature now indicates that DU is a carcinogen and can damage DNA. ICBUW argues that it is therefore imperative that those most at risk of harm, such as children living in proximity to contaminated sites, and those most at risk of exposure, such as scrap metal workers are assessed. To date the overwhelming majority of exposure studies have been on military personnel only.

Since 2010 the resolution has called for DU users to transfer targeting data to affected states when requested to do so. To date the US has refused to disclose targeting data to Iraq and its failure to do so is a major barrier to clearance and health research. Last month, the US Center for Constitutional Rights and Iraq Veterans Against the War submitted a FOIA request calling for the data to be released.

Earlier this summer, Iraq called for help from the international community in dealing with contamination resulting from U.S.-led wars in 1991 and 2003. Two recent reports from the Dutch NGO PAX have documented the problems Iraq has faced in trying manage contaminated sites and material.

In Fallujah – which was targeted mercilessly by U.S. forces in 2004 – the use of depleted uranium has led to birth defects in infants 14 times higher than in the Japanese cities targeted by U.S. atomic bombs at close of World War II, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

To add your name to the petition demanding that the U.S. drop its opposition to the UN resolution on depleted uranium, click here.

Voting wars, election-rigging in full effect heading into U.S. midterm season


With mere hours before polling stations were scheduled to open in Ohio for early voting in November’s midterm congressional elections, the Supreme Court on Monday blocked voters from beginning to cast their ballots. In a 5-4 party-line vote, the Justices backed a Republican plan to limit early voting in Ohio by granting the state’s request to stay decisions of lower courts that threw out the state’s new plan, passed by the Republican-led legislature.

Last week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals had upheld a lower court’s ruling in in NAACP v. Husted, which stopped new restrictions on early voting in Ohio from taking effect. The case concerned a state law passed earlier this year eliminating Ohio’s limited window for same day registration and early voting, which tens of thousands of voters have taken advantage of in the past two presidential elections.

Evidence presented in the lower court showed that African American, low-income, and homeless voters were more likely to use this voting opportunity. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s preliminary injunction, based on its conclusion that the NAACP and other plaintiffs had shown likely violations of both the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.

Ohio’s Republican Attorney General and Secretary of State, however, immediately filed an emergency petition with the United States Supreme Court to block the Circuit Court’s ruling.

Now, the Supreme Court has sided with the Ohio Republicans, who argued that Ohio’s early voting opportunities are more generous than most states’. Further, as Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted argued, the ruling by the lower court “eliminates elected officials’ ability to do what we elected them to do . . . Whether we vote 35 or 28 days, by mail or in person this November, elected officials and not federal judges should be making Ohio law.”

There has been a lenghty legal battle over voting in Ohio since 2004, when long election-day lines meant some Ohio residents missed the chance to vote. Laws passed by Democratic-controlled legislatures have created extensive early voting opportunities, but when Republicans have controlled the legislature, they have sought to roll back those laws.

International election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have generally welcomed the implementation of early voting in the United States as an important component of addressing the country’s notorious election day capacity problems. OSCE observers noted for example in 2008:

While prior to the elections concern was expressed over the ability to process the expected record turnout, the large amount of early voters likely played an important role in making election day successful and absent of major problems. Still, it is clear that early voting did not remedy all capacity problems, as witnessed by voters having to wait to vote for often many hours in numerous places around the country.

The Ohio case is not the only one being currently decided in the courts. In fact, with midterm elections less than six weeks away, the rules for voting in several states are still unclear. Courts are currently considering challenges to voter ID requirements in Texas and Wisconsin, and whether new restrictions on early voting in North Carolina and Ohio should stay in place. All this uncertainty is making the jobs of election administrators more difficult.

“Voters and elections officials need to know what the rules of the game are going to be several weeks before the election,” says Daniel Tokaji, an election law expert with the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.

But right now in several places, they don’t, he says.

As electionlineWeekly reports,

Nowhere does it seem have recent court rulings been more acutely felt than in Wisconsin.

Last week the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the state’s voter photo ID law and now elections officials, state agencies and colleges and universities are scrambling to not only inform voters about the law, but make sure voters have the necessary ID.

The state’s Government Accountability Board (GAB) said at a press conference following the ruling that they are taking “extraordinary efforts” to put the ID law into place.

“Implementing the photo voter ID law close to an election will not be easy,” GAB Executive Director Kevin Kennedy said at the press conference. “But the GAB and Wisconsin clerks are up to the challenge.”

The Florida Supreme Court is currently considering a case over the state’s congressional district map, which opponents say has been gerrymandered, or purposefully drawn to give unfair electoral advantage to one side. Last Friday, the court heard arguments over whether documents that played a central role in a redistricting trial which compelled the state legislature to redraw its congressional districts should remain secret or be made public.

As reported by the Florida Herald-Tribune,

In dispute are 41 pages of documents from Pat Bainter, a Gainesville-based Republican consultant who runs Data Targeting. The documents played a central role in Judge Terry Lewis’ decision this year to reject Florida’s congressional redistricting map, ruling that two districts violated the state constitutional ban against partisan line-drawing.

Although Data Targeting was not directly named in the lawsuit that challenged Florida’s 27 congressional districts, the groups that sued contend the documents proved that the consultants worked in concert with Republican legislators to violate the state’s Fair Districts amendments. The Florida Supreme Court is under no time constraint to issue a ruling and it’s unclear when a decision is expected.

All of the cases currently working their way through the courts and causing such confusion for election officials and voters  have one thing in common. The root problem is that partisan interests are given free reign over election administration in the United States. From the national level to the state level to the local level, elected representatives and partisan hacks manipulate and game the system to ensure preferred electoral outcomes, in a system generally out of step with international electoral standards.

As the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights rather mildly put it in its final report on the 2012 U.S. election:

General elections are administered at the state level and there is no federal election management body with oversight responsibilities. On the state level, administrative authority is vested in the respective state secretary or state election board. However, the greater part of election administration is typically delegated to county or lower-level election officials, resulting in a wide variety of electoral practices across the country. …

While some senior election officials are appointed, others are elected. Election administration bodies are often partisan, although 19 states and the District of Columbia provide bipartisan or independent bodies. Very few OSCE/ODIHR LEOM interlocutors raised concerns about the impartiality of county election officials. However, some county-level election supervisors ran on party tickets for re-election in 2012, raising possible conflicts of interest.

In order to avoid these conflicts of interest, the OSCE recommended that “if senior election officials at state and lower levels are elected, the states could consider holding such elections in non-federal election years, to avoid any real or perceived conflicts of interest.”

Further, “there should be a national body with sufficient resources and outreach capacity to provide guidance on election administration and serve as a central clearinghouse to develop good electoral practices. Congress should ensure that such a body has the necessary financial and human resources to fulfil these duties in an effective manner.”

Bombing Syria in violation of international law


Following President Obama’s announcement last week that the U.S. would be launching strikes against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, a growing number of international legal scholars and foreign governments are raising questions over the legality of such strikes, particularly as they pertain to action on Syrian territory.

The Syrian government and its allies in Moscow and Tehran have warned Obama that an offensive against within Syria would violate international law, with Iran’s foreign ministry saying that “the so-called international coalition to fight the [Islamic State] group … is shrouded in serious ambiguities and there are severe misgivings about its determination to sincerely fight the root causes of terrorism.”

Russia said it would not support any military action without a UN resolution authorizing it.

While administration officials have attempted to explain the domestic legal rationale for the strikes on the basis the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force – unconvincingly to some, such as the New York Times, which pointed out that the 2001 law applied specifically to the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and al-Qaeda more broadly, but since al-Qaeda has disavowed ISIS the law clearly doesn’t apply to the current situation – it has offered no comparable justification under international law.

It has instead asserted without elaboration that borders present no constraints to U.S. military action. “We are lifting the restrictions on our air campaigns,” a senior administration official told reporters during a recent background briefing. “We are dealing with an organization that operates freely across a border, and we will not be constrained by that border.”

Under international law, however, borders most certainly do pose constraints. The sanctity of borders is enshrined in the UN Charter, which plainly states, “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

Indeed, since the end of World War II, the international political system has been structured around three main principles: the equal sovereignty of states, internal competence for domestic jurisdiction, and territorial preservation of existing boundaries.

These principles have been violated repeatedly by the Obama administration over the years, especially in regards to drone strikes, and the administration has rarely even attempted to justify its actions under international law.

As John Bellinger writes at Lawfare, Obama administration officials “have been reticent about the international law basis for many U.S. actions, which is especially surprising given the Administration’s touted commitment to compliance with international law.”

One reason for the administration’s silence regarding the legal basis for the possible use of force against ISIS in Syria is that none exists, since the Bashar al-Assad regime has not consented to the use of force in its territory.

“This will leave the Administration to cobble together,” Bellinger writes, “a variety of international legal rationales.” Some of these might include the argument that ISIS is part of al-Qaeda and therefore part of the U.S. armed conflict, or perhaps a co-belligerency theory, or perhaps collective self-defense.

“Ultimately,” Bellinger speculates, “the Administration may choose not to articulate an international legal basis at all, and instead to cite a variety of factual ‘factors’ that ‘justify’ the use of force, as the Clinton Administration did for the Kosovo war.  But it would be much preferable for the Administration to provide legal reasons.”

This is especially true considering the fact that the administration has been waving around “international law” as a rallying cry to confront and isolate Russia over its alleged meddling in eastern Ukraine. As Secretary of State John Kerry said following the Russian annexation of Crimea last spring, “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.”

President Obama gave a speech in May at West Point at which he touted principles of international law and the importance of the U.S. leading by example. “American influence is always stronger when we lead by example,” he said. “We cannot exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else.”

It is now Russia that is one of the strongest critics of the U.S.’s actions against the territorial integrity of Syria. Moscow said Thursday that air strikes against militants in Syria without a UN Security Council mandate would be an act of aggression.

“The U.S. president has spoken directly about the possibility of strikes by the U.S. armed forces against [Islamic State] positions in Syria without the consent of the legitimate government,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.

“This step, in the absence of a UN Security Council decision, would be an act of aggression, a gross violation of international law.”

Amending the Constitution to ensure free and fair elections


A U.S. Senate vote is scheduled next month on a proposed Constitutional amendment to empower Congress to enact reasonable campaign finance legislation. The movement to amend the Constitution is a response to recent Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United and McCutcheon, which overturned campaign finance laws on constitutional grounds, and is seen by many as the best chance to promote clean elections that aren’t dominated by a few wealthy oligarchs.

Considering that the highly unregulated campaign finance system of the United States has long been a concern of the international community, the vote could also be seen as a demonstration of the U.S. commitment to meeting its international obligations on holding democratic elections.

Although international election-related commitments are somewhat ambiguous on the topic of campaign finance laws, it is widely understood that unregulated private money has the potential for tilting the playing field in favor of a particular party or candidate, thus potentially violating the requirement in the 1990 Copenhagen Document for OSCE member states (including the U.S.) to “provide political parties and organizations with the necessary legal guarantees to enable them to compete with each other on a basis of equal treatment before the law and by the authorities.”

Following the 2010 midterms, OSCE election observers noted that “Money played a significant role, creating an uneven playing field between candidates. About three-quarters of the total of upwards four billion dollars was spent on political campaign ads on television and radio. The ads inundated the airwaves, turning many voters off.”

In its statement on the 2012 general elections, the OSCE noted “the unprecedented and often negative role played by private campaign financing [which] has a potential to impact negatively on the fairness of the process.”

The amendment being considered by the Senate in a vote scheduled for Sept. 8 would address some of these concerns by unequivocally empowering Congress to adopt laws geared towards curbing the undue influence of big money in U.S. elections. If the amendment passes by a 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress, it would then have to be ratified either by the legislatures of 3/4 of the states or by conventions in 3/4 of the states, depending on which means of ratification Congress proposes.

The full text of the amendment is as follows:

Section 1. To advance democratic self-government and political equality, and to protect the integrity of government and the electoral process, Congress and the States may regulate and set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.

Section 2. Congress and the States shall have power to implement and enforce this article by appropriate legislation, and may distinguish between natural persons and corporations or other artificial entities created by law, including by prohibiting such entities from spending money to influence elections.

Section 3. Nothing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress or the States the power to abridge the freedom of the press.

From the perspective of the U.S.’s international election-related commitments, the amendment would likely be seen as a positive step in redressing some of the problems identified in the U.S. electoral system. As the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) explains in its “Guidelines for Reviewing a Legal Framework for Elections,” countries “may establish reasonable limits on private financing of political parties and candidates in order to preserve fair competition during elections and lessen incentives for corruption and undue influence in politics.”

When it comes to independent expenditures, the question at the heart of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, ODIHR further explains that outside groups “should have the right to expend funds during a campaign, [but] those expenditures should also be subject to reasonable limitations and disclosure requirements.”

Recognizing that expenditure limits may be problematic in countries such as the U.S. whose constitutional framework considers the right to spend money in a political campaign to be protected as political speech, ODIHR nevertheless explains that “within the context of international good practice, however, a reasonable limitation on expenditures is acceptable because a state has an obligation to ensure that the free choice of voters is not undermined, or the democratic process distorted, by the disproportionate expenditure on behalf of any candidate or party.”

In this regard, a reasonable limitation can help promote the existence of a “level playing field,” says ODIHR, and “ensure that the campaign information received by voters does not disproportionately favor one contestant because that contestant is able to monopolize the flow of information through campaign expenditures.”

Numerous grassroots campaigns are mobilizing to put pressure on the U.S. Senate ahead of the Sept. 8 vote. The group Public Citizen is urging people to contact their senators to help build support for an amendment.

“Now is the moment for your senators to stand up for democracy against the enormous deluge of money in our elections,” says Public Citizen, warning that “a weak vote may make it difficult to bring the issue up again.”

According to an action alert by CREDO Action,

An overwhelming majority of Americans oppose the toxic influence of money in politics. But a conservative majority on the Supreme Court has systematically eroded barriers to the 1% buying elected officials.

Now we have a major opportunity to fight back.

On September 8, the Senate is scheduled to vote on a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and other toxic Supreme Court decisions that have opened the floodgates to unlimited political spending by corporations.

CREDO is urging citizens to sign a petition stating that “Corporations and the ultra-rich shouldn’t be allowed to buy our elected officials by spending unlimited amounts of money influencing elections. Pass Senate Joint Resolution 19, which would amend the Constitution and overturn Citizens United.”

To add your name, click here.

U.S. police display total disregard for international norms on law enforcement

Police attack protesters in the Missouri suburb of Ferguson on Aug. 17 Picture: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Police attack protesters in the Missouri suburb of Ferguson on Aug. 17
Picture: Scott Olson/Getty Images


 Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

In the performance of their duty, law enforcement officials shall respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons.

Law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.

In response to protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the police murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old shot by Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, police have employed highly threatening and repressive measures, including pointing military assault rifles at peaceful protesters, deploying armored vehicles in the streets, and targeting journalists and African Americans for arrest.

These measures, human rights observers on the ground point out, infringe on basic fundamental rights to peaceful assembly and expression. Amnesty International, which has a team of observers in Ferguson, “remains deeply concerned about government infringement on the community’s right to peacefully protest the killing by police of Michael Brown,” according to an Aug. 19 blog post, which contains details on how Ferguson police have engaged in arbitrary arrests and acts of violent repression in recent days.

Amnesty reiterated its calls for a prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigation into the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, as well as independent investigations into any human rights abuses in connection with the policing of protests. Further, the group has urged a thorough review of all trainings, policies and procedures with regards to the use of force and the policing of protests.

Police point to a demonstrator who has his arms raised before moving in to arrest him on August 19.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Police point to a demonstrator who has his arms raised before moving in to arrest him on August 19. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A statement issued by Human Rights Watch on Aug. 20 noted that although some scattered looting has been reported in the two weeks of demonstrations in Ferguson, most observers have described the protests as overwhelmingly peaceful. Nevertheless, the police have used “unnecessary or excessive force – including firing teargas and rubber bullets into crowds, and arbitrarily detained journalists covering the events,” according to HRW.

In the statement, HRW urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to press state and local officials in Missouri to reform police practices to improve respect for basic rights. “Holder should also support federal reforms that could help address concerns about policing and racial discrimination raised during the Ferguson protests over the last 10 days,” HRW noted.

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 13.  AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 13.
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

“A lot of the poor policing we’re seeing in Ferguson may be going on elsewhere in the United States,” said Alba Morales of Human Rights Watch, who has been monitoring the situation in Ferguson. “Holder should press state and local officials to review their regulations and policies on policing, but he should also look at ways the federal government may be contributing to the problems there.”

Indeed, the issue of the federal government’s responsibility for ensuring a minimum national standard in policing is also one that the United Nations has raised directly with the U.S. government, concerns that have so far apparently fallen on deaf ears.

Earlier this year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a scathing report addressing serious human rights abuses in the United States, including the nationwide problem of police brutality. In a section of the report on “Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials,” the UN found that across the country, there is an unacceptably “high number of fatal shootings by certain police forces … and reports of excessive use of force by certain law enforcement officers including the deadly use of tasers, which have a disparate impact on African Americans.”

In order to bring its practices in line with international norms on law enforcement, the UN recommended that the U.S. government should “step up its efforts to prevent the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers by ensuring compliance with the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers” and “improve reporting of excessive use of force violations and ensure that reported cases of excessive use of force are effectively investigated, alleged perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions, that investigations are re-opened when new evidence becomes available, and that victims or their families are provided with adequate compensation.”

The Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers that the Human Rights Committee referenced contains a number of guidelines that the U.S. must implement in order to meet its international obligations. For example,

Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.

5. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall:

(a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved;

(b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life;

When tragedies do occur and police unnecessarily kill innocent people, the UN Basic Principles call for governments to “ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law.”

Demonstrating the general ignorance (or indifference) of these principles within United States law enforcement agencies, Sunil Dutta of the Los Angeles Police Department recently provided some stunningly frank “practical” advice to civilians on how to avoid being brutalized or killed by cops.

In the context of the ongoing protests in Ferguson, Dutta wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Tuesday, “If you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge.”

Acknowledging that police “field stops” can sometimes amount to unlawful and unconstitutional harassment, Dutta nevertheless advised civilians to never question the police about why they are being hassled, and above all, never contest  cops’ authority in any way. “I know it is scary for people to be stopped by cops,” he wrote. “I also understand the anger and frustration if people believe they have been stopped unjustly or without a reason,” adding that he is well aware that “corrupt and bully cops exist.”

However, “if you believe (or know) that the cop stopping you is violating your rights or is acting like a bully, I guarantee that the situation will not become easier if you show your anger and resentment,” he said. Instead of challenging the cop on the scene Dutta advises that order to avoid being killed you should “Save your anger for later, and channel it appropriately. Do what the officer tells you to and it will end safely for both of you.”

By placing the onus of avoiding being shot on the civilian rather than the police officer, Dutta is demonstrating the very problem with law enforcement in the United States. The mentality that he reveals among American police officers is this: when civilians get shot, it is their fault for mouthing off or being insufficiently deferential to the police’s authority. However, as made clear by the UN’s Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers, it is up to cops to always “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms.”

Police officers “may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result,” not because they get annoyed with civilians who question their authority.

This basic ignorance on the part of police officers is why it may be necessary for the federal government to step in to make sure that there is some sort of national standard for policing across the country. But instead, of course, the federal government is arming police departments to the teeth with military combat gear.

In other words, federal government so far has demonstrated itself to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, so it may be naïve to think that it has any interest in dealing with this issue.

International reaction to U.S. police brutality belies claims of American exceptionalism

Police officers point their weapons at demonstrators protesting against the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 18, 2014.  CREDIT: REUTERS/JOSHUA LOTT

Police officers point their weapons at demonstrators protesting against the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 18, 2014.

Since the August 9 police murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth in Ferguson, Mo., the world has responded with a mixture of dismay and disgust as the U.S. has mobilized thoroughly militarized state security forces to crush demonstrations calling for police accountability.

The international reaction to the repression has called into question the United States’ frequent claims of “American exceptionalism,” the absurd notion that due to its “exceptional” history and unique culture, the U.S. is in some privileged position to provide moral leadership to the entire world.

In fact, the violence playing out on the streets of Ferguson is an all-too familiar sight to much of the world, which has for too long been on the receiving end of U.S.-sponsored violence and brutality. This includes, of course, the Palestinian people who have been suffering from U.S.-backed war crimes and atrocities carried out by the Israeli Defense Forces with a particular ferocity this summer.

Recognizing the repression that demonstrators in Ferguson are experiencing as similar to their own oppression at the hands of the Israelis, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been inspired to express their solidarity through social media, posting photos on Twitter such as these:



Others have begun offering advice on how to effectively deal with tear gas:

twitter advice

While activists take to social media, international diplomats are expressing concern through more traditional channels.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on U.S. authorities on Monday to ensure the protection of the rights of protesters in Ferguson. “The Secretary-General calls on the authorities to ensure that the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression are protected,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

“He calls on all to exercise restraint, for law enforcement officials to abide by U.S. and international standards in dealing with demonstrators,” he added.

At last week’s periodic review of the United States by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), a body of “independent experts that monitors [the] implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination by its State parties,” the U.S. was questioned on a wide array of topics, with the situation in Ferguson casting a long shadow over the proceedings.

Noureddine Amir headed the CERD’s review, which cited racial profiling by U.S. law enforcement officers, as well as high levels of gun violence that have a disparate impact on minorities. African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 50 percent of homicide victims, Amir pointed out.

“African American males are reportedly seven times more likely to die by firearm homicide than their white counterparts,” he said, pointing to factors such as “subconscious racial bias in shootings, the proliferation of Stand Your Ground laws and the existence of predominantly African American and economically depressed neighborhoods with escalated levels of violence.”

According to the UN’s readout of the hearing, other topics of discussion were excessive use of force by law enforcement and racial disparities in the criminal justice system:

Issues raised during the discussion included the high levels of gun violence in the United States, and its disparate impact on minorities.  Millions of United States citizens who held a gun licence also believed they had a licence to kill because of Stand Your Ground laws, Experts said.  The excessive use of force by law enforcement agents against racial minorities, racial disparities in the criminal justice system and in education, particularly that racial segregation in public schools was reportedly worse today than in the 1970s, were also discussed.  Discrimination against indigenous peoples, and violence against women, particularly indigenous women, as well as discrimination against non-citizens, particularly migrants from the southern border, were highlighted, as was the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.  The delegation was also asked about racial hate speech, racial profiling, obstacles to voting, child labour, racial biases within the child welfare system, environmental pollution and racial disparities in access to healthcare and housing.

Delegations of American civil rights officials who participated in the UN conference on racial equality in Geneva said that the murder of Michael Brown and the police repression of demonstrations in Ferguson were obviously reverberating internationally.

“Clearly this issue is resonating here … and they knew about it before we got here,” said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau. The story “continues to run in circulation over and over again (on Geneva television). The world is watching what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri.”

“At times,” UN Watch reported, “it felt as if the Committee members were placing the U.S. delegates, and the United States in turn, on trial.” CERD expert Yong‘an Huang, a former Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China, commented on how “the U.S. likes to play the role of world’s police but never to talk about the human rights situation in the country.”

China has also taken to its state-run media to express its views on the ongoing racial turmoil and police violence in America. As Think Progress reported yesterday:

After years of being critiqued for its own crackdowns against dissidents, China has begun to use the ongoing clashes between police and protesters and police in Ferguson, MO as a way to lambaste the United States for hypocrisy, joining other repressive regimes in expressing no small amount of schadenfreude at the current situation.

In an op-ed published Monday  by the official Chinese Xinhua news agency, commentator Li Li takes the United States to task, noting that “despite the progress, racial divide still remains a deeply-rooted chronic disease that keeps tearing U.S. society apart, just as manifested by the latest racial riot in Missouri.”

“It is undeniable,” Li writes, “that racial discrimination against African Americans or other ethnic minorities, though not as obvious as in the past, still persists in every aspect of U.S. social lives, including employment, housing, education, and particularly, justice.”

Li draws a connection in his piece between rampant violence within the United States and the violence perpetrated abroad by the U.S. military, urging America to focus on its own issues rather than citing “American exceptionalism” in criticizing other countries:

Uncle Sam has witnessed numerous shooting sprees on its own land and launched incessant drone attacks on foreign soil, resulting in heavy civilian casualties. Each country has its own national conditions that might lead to different social problems. Obviously, what the United States needs to do is to concentrate on solving its own problems rather than always pointing fingers at others.

Russian and Iranian media have also printed scathing judgments about the police response to protests in Missouri. As Al Jazeera reports:

One Russian site, Svobodnaya Pressa, coined the term “Afromaidan,” implying that the U.S. is getting a dose of its own medicine for backing anti-Russian Euromaidan rallies in Kiev, Ukraine. The article poked fun at the notion of a land of opportunity, signaling that America’s “race war” proves Washington’s hypocrisy.

PressTV in Iran led with the Ferguson story on its website Monday. A news feature quoted an African-American historian referring to “institutionalized racism” in the U.S. and calling the country a “human rights failed state.” And Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Facebook page read Sunday: “Look at what they do to the black community in their own country … . The police may beat them to death over the crime of having dark skins!”

Other concerns raised by the international community in recent days include the police crackdown on freedom of the press, as evidenced by the assaults and arrests of journalists covering the social unrest in Ferguson.

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović said on August 14 that the arrest of two reporters in Ferguson was unacceptable and a clear violation of the right of media to cover news.

Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan J. Reilly were taken into custody by local police on August 13 while filing reports on demonstrations, the OSCE noted. They were released without charges filed.

“Summarily rounding up journalists while they are doing their jobs sends a dangerous precedent and must never be condoned,” Mijatović said. “Journalists have the right to report on public demonstrations without being intimated by the police.”

In response to the deteriorating human rights crisis in Ferguson, Amnesty International USA has taken the unprecedented step of sending a 13-person delegation to monitor the situation. It is the first time Amnesty International has deployed observers inside the United States.

Speaking on Democracy Now, Steven Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA, explained the decision:

Amnesty saw a human rights crisis in Ferguson, and it’s a human rights crisis that is escalating. We sent observers down because there was a need for human rights observers. Clearly there are violations of international human rights law and standards, in terms of how the policing is being done on protests. So, for example, we’ve issued reports on, for example, Israel and the Occupied Territories, how tear gas is supposed to be administered—never in an indiscriminate way where children and the elderly could be subject to very harmful effects, even death, from tear gas. So, we sent down observers to be on the ground. We have been thwarted in our efforts to be able to go out on curfew with the police, which would be a clear standard in these circumstances, as well as the opportunity for the press to be able to be in the space. So, we also went down to make sure that the citizens in Ferguson understood that the eyes of the world were watching, that Amnesty is deeply supportive, and we will be continuing to monitor the situation.

Watch the interview here:

As the international community continues to speak out on U.S. racism and state-sponsored violence, the United States’ claims of “exceptionalism” – the claimed basis for much of its military interventionism around the world – will continue to be undermined. And until the U.S. deals with its own deteriorating human rights crisis, its claims to be a “moral leader” in the world will likely be rejected with a combination of ridicule and revulsion.

Ferguson police violence the latest indication of United States’ deteriorating human rights situation

A protester throws back a smoke bomb while clashing with police in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

A protester throws back a smoke bomb while clashing with police in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result. – UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers

For the fourth straight night, demonstrations rocked the St. Louis, MO, suburb of Ferguson on Wednesday in protest of the police murder of an 18-year-old unarmed black man named Mike Brown. The youth was gunned down last Saturday as he raised his hands to demonstrate compliance with police orders, according to witnesses, raising serious questions of adherence to international norms as they pertain to the use of force by law enforcement.  

The killing of Brown was the latest in an epidemic of police murders across the United States, including at least 18 people killed so far in the month of August, and an estimated 130 throughout 2014.

As the demonstrations continued in Ferguson this week, the police repression has intensified. The over-the-top police response has included the use of armored vehicles, tear gas, rubber and wooden bullets, and the deployment of officers wearing combat fatigues, making them virtually indistinguishable from armed forces in countries under U.S. military occupation such as Afghanistan.


In an article at Business Insider on Tuesday, Paul Szoldra, an Afghanistan veteran, wrote:

While serving as a U.S. Marine on patrol in Afghanistan, we wore desert camouflage to blend in with our surroundings, carried rifles to shoot back when under enemy attack, and drove around in armored vehicles to ward off roadside bombs.

We looked intimidating, but all of our vehicles and equipment had a clear purpose for combat against enemy forces. So why is this same gear being used on our city streets?

The police confronting demonstrators in Ferguson are armed with short-barreled 5.56-mm rifles based on the military M4 carbine, “with scopes that can accurately hit a target out to 500 meters,” Szoldra points out. “On their side they carry pistols. On their front, over their body armor, they carry at least four to six extra magazines, loaded with 30 rounds each.”


On Wednesday, these heavily armed police officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets to force hundreds of protesters out of the city center.

“Dozens of officers,” The Guardian reported, “some carrying assault rifles, advanced with a pair of armoured trucks on the young and predominantly African American crowd, after two glass bottles were thrown at their lines from a largely peaceful protest against the shooting of Michael Brown by a city policeman.”

The police viciously attacked both demonstrators and journalists covering the demonstrations, including by firing tear gas directly at TV camera crews, such as these unfortunate reporters from the Al Jazeera network who were attacked Wednesday night:

After the reporters fled, their equipment was dismantled by police.


The systematic police repression of the freedom of the media on Wednesday also included arresting individual reporters, including one from the Washington Post and one from the Huffington Post.

The Washington Post condemned the detention of its journalist, Wesley Lowery, as “illegal” and an “assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news.” The Huffington Post criticized the arrest of its reporter, Ryan Reilly, as “militant aggression.” Reilly said that the “police resembled soldiers more than officers.”

The assaults on press freedom by the police in Ferguson – not to mention the murder of the unarmed black youth that set the protests off in the first place – are just the latest of a long list of escalating violations of rights committed by rogue police forces across the country, including the systematic militarization of police and what is being called a nationwide epidemic of police brutality.

Even establishment publications such as the Wall Street Journal have noticed the troubling trend of rising police violence, which is widely understood as inextricably linked to the war on terror. The Wall Street Journal dubbed the new breed of U.S. police officers “the warrior cop.” As a feature article put it in August 2013,

Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop—armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.

This rapidly deteriorating human rights situation is depicted well in this short film released last October called “Release Us”:

Earlier this year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a scathing report documenting serious human rights abuses in the United States, with a particular focus on police violence.

In a section on “Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials,” the Human Rights Committee found that across the United States, there is an unacceptably “high number of fatal shootings by certain police forces, including, for instance, in Chicago, and reports of excessive use of force by certain law enforcement officers including the deadly use of tasers, which have a disparate impact on African Americans.”

In order to bring its practices in line with international norms on law enforcement, the UN recommended that the U.S. government should:

(a) step up its efforts to prevent the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers by ensuring compliance with the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers; (b) ensure that the new CBP directive on use of deadly force is applied and enforced in practice; and (c) improve reporting of excessive use of force violations and ensure that reported cases of excessive use of force are effectively investigated, alleged perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions, that investigations are re-opened when new evidence becomes available, and that victims or their families are provided with adequate compensation.

The Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers that the Human Rights Committee referenced contains a number of guidelines that the U.S. would do well to implement in the interest of avoiding the unnecessary killings of civilians by police. For example,

Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.

5. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall:

(a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved;

(b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life;

(c) Ensure that assistance and medical aid are rendered to any injured or affected persons at the earliest possible moment;

(d) Ensure that relatives or close friends of the injured or affected person are notified at the earliest possible moment.

When tragedies do occur and police unnecessarily kill innocent people, the UN Basic Principles call for governments to “ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law.”

This is one area that is sorely lacking in the United States, with a general climate of impunity across the country for killer cops. This climate has led the hacktivist collective Anonymous to call on congressional representatives of Missouri to introduce legislation called “Mike Brown’s Law.”

“Anonymous demands that the Congressional Representatives and Senators from Missouri introduce legislation entitled ‘Mike Brown’s Law’ that will set strict national standards for police conduct in the USA,” the collective announced in a press release on Sunday. “We further demand that this new law include specific language to grant the victims of police violence the same rights and prerogatives that are already enjoyed nationwide by the victims of other violent criminals.”

As the police repression has intensified since Sunday, the Anonymous collective is now calling for an escalation of tactics in response to the ongoing human rights violations, including by holding nationwide demonstrations in solidarity with Ferguson.

As outraged citizens in the United States stand up bravely against out-of-control police forces, it is also imperative for the international community to step up in demanding that the U.S. begin implementing minimal standards for police conduct as called for in the UN Basic Principles and other human rights documents such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

U.S. support for Israeli war crimes violates international and domestic law

Fire raging in Gaza's main power plant following an overnight Israeli airstrike, south of Gaza City. Photograph: Oliver Weiken/EPA

Fire raging in Gaza’s main power plant following an overnight Israeli airstrike, south of Gaza City. Photograph: Oliver Weiken/EPA

As the world watches in shock and revulsion at Israel’s latest onslaught of death and destruction in the Gaza Strip – killing more than 1,200 Palestinians in the past three weeks, including more than 200 children – the United States government is offering its full diplomatic, political and financial support for the carnage, making it culpable under international law for the ongoing war crimes.

Among the targets of the Israeli military in the past few days have been the Shati refugee camp and the Shifa hospital, as well as Gaza’s sole power plant, leaving civilians in a dire humanitarian situation from which there appears to be nowhere to take refuge.

The UN estimates that 78 percent of those killed in Gaza have been civilians and that 21 percent of them have been children. More than 3,000 homes in Gaza have been completely destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by Israeli attacks, leaving tens of thousands of Gazan residents homeless. Now the displaced and the injured are not even safe in hospitals and refugee camps.

Sharif Abdul Kouddous reported on the recent attacks for the Nation yesterday,

Shifa Hospital is again a scene of chaos. Wails of grief and shouts of anger fill the halls. People crouch on the floor staring out with bloodshot eyes; others rush by with bloodied clothes. Stretchers are wheeled back and forth, nearly all of them with bandaged children lying on top, eyes wide with fright or shock. Men and women weep, their hands on their mouths as they try to hold back the grief pouring out.

Nearly all the eyewitnesses say the same thing: children were playing on the street in the Al-Shati (Beach) refugee camp north of Gaza City. They scurried between a swing set on the sidewalk and a small grocery shop selling sweets and chips. At around 4:30 pm there was a loud explosion. Then many of the children lay still, some of them in pieces.

“I saw a massacre,” says Khaled al-Sirhi. The 22-year-old was sitting in the street with friends when the attack happened. “There were heads off bodies, shoulders half torn, hands gone, chests opened.” There is blood on al-Sirhi’s shirt and hands. Al-Sirhi carried two of the wounded to ambulances, his niece and a boy who died by the time he arrived at hospital. “There were no militants, no resistance members, just children,” he says.

Ten people were killed in the attack, including eight children, and forty were injured, thirty-two of them children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. Israel claimed a misfired militant rocket caused the carnage, but several eyewitnesses blamed the explosion on an airstrike. …

At the site of the Shati Camp attack, children’s sandals lie on the street next to pools of blood. Water gushes out of a broken pipe, turning red as it flows down the street. Leaves, blown off the trees by the force of the blast, blanket the ground. Shrapnel holes are everywhere, tearing holes in walls and cars. Young men gather in clusters. The sound of an outgoing rocket hisses out, its trail visible high in the sky. Chants of “Allah Akbar” echo in the street.

“We were playing on the swings and the missile hit and everyone started running,” says 6-year-old Anas Abu Shaafa. Two of his brothers were wounded in the attack, and two cousins were killed.

Although Israel attempted to blame Hamas for the attack on the refugee camp and hospital, the Guardian reported yesterday,

Witnesses in Gaza said missiles had been fired from Israeli F-16 jets. A spokesman for the interior ministry in Gaza, Iyad al-Buzm, said explosives experts from the Gaza police had examined “the targeted places and the remnants of shells there” as well as the wounds on the bodies, determining them to be from an Israeli strike.

These recent war crimes continue a pattern of wanton atrocities committed by the Israeli Defense Forces, which have targeted civilians – including women and children – mercilessly this month. As Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer reported on Democracy Now yesterday,

I used to tell people, “Well, try to avoid areas where Hamas residents or Hamas people are living,” but nowadays I changed my theory, and I started to tell people to try to avoid places where children are located. Israel is targeting children in the Gaza Strip. Most of the airstrikes, most of the bombs, most of the artillery shelling that targets people is mostly children in all parts of the Gaza Strip.

Despite the horrific human toll of Israel’s brutal actions in the Gaza Strip, as well as a growing international chorus demanding a ceasefire, the U.S. continues to make clear its unconditional support for any crimes that the Israeli government commits, no matter how heinous.

In New York on Monday an estimated 10,000 Zionists demonstrated their support for the attack on Gaza, at which members of New York’s congressional delegation rallied the supporters with speeches near the United Nations. U.S. Democratic Rep. Steve Israel spoke at the rally, saying he is sending the UN a letter signed by more than 100 U.S. lawmakers to demand it not investigate Israel for war crimes.

President Obama has reportedly told Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu by phone of his concern over civilian casualties and apparently urged an immediate ceasefire, but publicly has voiced support for the Israeli attacks. Other U.S. officials persist in offering the unqualified backing of the United States government, expressing support in particular for “Israel’s right to defend itself.”

susan rice

Standing in front of a banner reading #IsraelSolidarity, President Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice this week said, “Here is one thing you never have to worry about: America’s support for the state of Israel.”

As The Guardian reports:

[Rice] singled out the vote by the UN human rights council last week in favour of an independent inquiry into alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by Israel. Seventeen countries abstained during the vote, and only one country – the US – voted against.

Rice called the the UN inquiry “one-sided” and said it would “have no positive impact and should never have been created”. “The United States stood with Israel, and said ‘no’. We were the lone vote in the human rights council. Even our closest friends on the council abstained. It was 29 to one. But the one, as usual, was America. That is what we mean when we say: you are not alone.”

While this diplomatic support is perhaps not surprising considering the fact that Israel has long been the world’s number one recipient of U.S. military aid and fits in a longstanding pattern of unequivocal U.S. backing for Israel, the support for the ongoing war crimes and atrocities in the Gaza Strip could place the United States in violation of international law, and possibly domestic 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.

As the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation points out,

Because Israel misuses U.S. weapons to commit human rights abuses of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, including, but not limited to:  the injuring and killing of civilians, the destruction of Palestinian civilian infrastructure, the severe restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement, and the expropriation of Palestinian land and resources for Israeli settlements, it is pertinent to investigate whether Israel is violating U.S. laws aimed at ensuring that U.S. military aid and weapons are appropriately and legally used.

Given that U.S. military aid to Israel “directly contributes to Israel’s systematic human rights violations against Palestinians,” both Congress and the President “must utilize the investigative and reporting mechanisms found in these laws and hold Israel accountable for any and all violations of these laws as required,” concludes the U.S. Campaign.

The Center for Constitutional Rights also backs this view, calling for the State Department to enforce the Leahy Law. “The Leahy Law bars the U.S. from funding foreign military units and individuals where there is credible evidence that they took part in gross human rights violations,” explains CCR.

In a recent statement issued by the National Lawyers Guild, the group explained the international legal principles of distinction and proportionality:

The NLG believes that international humanitarian law must be adhered to. The principle of distinction requires all parties to distinguish between civilians and combatants, as well as between civilian objects and military objectives. The principle of proportionality prohibits launching an attack, which may be expected to cause loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, or damage to civilian objects, which would be excessive compared to the concrete military advantage anticipated. In addition, Palestinian civilians are protected under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which obliges Israel, as the Occupying Power, to ensure the well-being and safety of the occupied population and respect Palestinians’ right to life and dignity.

Israel has admitted intentionally targeting Palestinian civilians and homes. On July 8, the Israeli military announced that it had deliberately bombed the homes of four persons it called senior Hamas activists. According to international customary law, a permissible military objective is “limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action […or] or offers a definite military advantage.” The punitive targeting of the homes of people who may have links with armed groups, but are not taking active part in hostilities, is impermissible.

NLG concluded that “Israel’s framing of its military actions in Gaza as ‘self-defense’ is part of a long-standing effort to weaken and change international law. The US must end its complicity in this effort.”

This position has also been endorsed by a coalition of nearly 150 international law experts who issued a resolution on Monday calling for an immediate end to the “collective punishment” of the people of the Gaza Strip. The resolution asks the “international community” to intervene on behalf of those living in Gaza and directly challenges the Israeli government’s continued assertion that its attack on Gaza is legal under international law.

The opening paragraph of the document states:

As international and criminal law scholars, human rights defenders, legal experts and individuals who firmly believe in the rule of law and in the necessity for its respect in times of peace and more so in times of war, we feel the intellectual and moral duty to denounce the grave violations, mystification and disrespect of the most basic principles of the laws of armed conflict and of the fundamental human rights of the entire Palestinian population committed during the ongoing Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip. We also condemn the launch of rockets from the Gaza Strip, as every indiscriminate attack against civilians, regardless of the identity of the perpetrators, is not only illegal under international law but also morally intolerable. However, as also implicitly noted by the UN Human Rights Council in its Resolution of the 23th July 2014, the two parties to the conflict cannot be considered equal, and their actions – once again – appear to be of incomparable magnitude.

Its call to action states:

We call upon the United Nations, the Arab League, the European Union, individual States, in particular the United States of America, and the international community in its entirety and with its collective power to take action in the spirit of the utmost urgency to put an end to the escalation of violence against the civilian population of the Gaza Strip, and to activate procedures to hold accountable all those responsible for violations of international law, including political leaders and military commanders. In particular:

All regional and international actors should support the immediate conclusion of a durable, comprehensive, and mutually agreed ceasefire agreement, which must secure the rapid facilitation and access of humanitarian aid and the opening of borders to and from Gaza.

For its part, Amnesty International is organizing a petition to be presented to Secretary of State John Kerry, which reads, “The Israeli military has used a wide variety of conventional weapons such as guns, bullets, missiles, drones, jet fighters, artillery, tanks, armoured vehicles and naval vessels to commit serious human rights abuses in Gaza. It is time for the U.S. government to urgently suspend arms transfers to Israel and to push for a UN arms embargo on all parties to the conflict.”

To add your name to the petition, click here.

The ANSWER Coalition is also organizing a national march on Washington to stop the massacre in Gaza on Saturday, Aug. 2. For more information, click here.


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