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.”
The United States is coming under intense criticism for its policies on a range of issues, including drone strikes and the nationwide epidemic of police violence.
While at first glance, these issues might appear unrelated, in fact they are part and parcel of the U.S. government’s foreign and domestic policy, a generally lawless approach that has been greatly exacerbated by a decade-plus of the war on terror.
The violence perpetrated by the U.S. military on a global scale since 2001 is now increasingly being employed by security forces domestically, and the impunity that high-ranking U.S. officials have long enjoyed is now trickling down to the street level at home.
As a 2007 report prepared for the United Nations Human Rights Committee stated, the war on terror has “created a generalized climate of impunity for law enforcement officers, and contributed to the erosion of what few accountability mechanisms exist for civilian control over law enforcement agencies. As a result, police brutality and abuse persist unabated and undeterred across the country.”
“Systemic abuse of people of color by law enforcement officers has not only continued since 2001,” the report noted, “but has worsened in both practice and severity. According to a representative of the NAACP, ‘the degree to which police brutality occurs…is the worst I’ve seen in 50 years.’”
Even establishment publications such as the Wall Street Journal have noticed the troubling trend of rising police violence and its relationship to the war on terror, dubbing the new breed of U.S. police officers “the warrior cop.” As a feature article in WSJ 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.
As the problem of police brutality and the lack of accountability continues to intensify, so too does popular resistance. A recent film produced by the U.S.-based Liberation News documents the budding grassroots movement against police violence in California and across the country, with heart-wrenching stories of innocent people routinely shot down by rogue cops who rarely if ever face justice for their crimes.
Tuesday, Oct. 22, marked the 18th annual national day of action against police violence, with demonstrators in dozens of cities across the U.S. protesting what they call an “epidemic of police brutality.” While most protests were peaceful, others saw violent clashes with police.
“Police view all blacks and Latinos as criminals that are allowed to be either stopped and frisked here in New York,” a protester in New York City said. “In LA, … three or more black or brown youth standing together are considered a gang with no rights and are allowed to be rounded up.”
“Hundreds every year are killed by the police, and the majority of them are unarmed, not involved in any criminal activity when they were killed. And also the majority of them were young, and either black or Latino,” said Carl Dix, representative for the October 22 Coalition.
At the heart of the issue are the lax standards that U.S. police forces employ in determining whether to use force. Much like the loose “rules of engagement” that govern U.S. military forces abroad, domestic police appear to operate under the belief that they are allowed to harass and even shoot innocent people with impunity, all in violation of international norms.
As Article 3 of the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials puts it, police “may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.”
The commentary on Article 3 further explains:
( a ) This provision emphasizes that the use of force by law enforcement officials should be exceptional; while it implies that law enforcement officials may be authorized to use force as is reasonably necessary under the circumstances for the prevention of crime or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders, no force going beyond that may be used.
( b ) National law ordinarily restricts the use of force by law enforcement officials in accordance with a principle of proportionality. It is to be understood that such national principles of proportionality are to be respected in the interpretation of this provision. In no case should this provision be interpreted to authorize the use of force which is disproportionate to the legitimate objective to be achieved.
( c ) The use of firearms is considered an extreme measure. Every effort should be made to exclude the use of firearms, especially against children. In general, firearms should not be used except when a suspected offender offers armed resistance or otherwise jeopardizes the lives of others and less extreme measures are not sufficient to restrain or apprehend the suspected offender. In every instance in which a firearm is discharged, a report should be made promptly to the competent authorities.
Much as these international obligations on domestic police are ignored in the U.S., so too are international obligations on use of force abroad. On the same day that Americans were marching across the country to protest police violence, two leading human rights groups were issuing major new reports on the use of drone strikes abroad.
In its report on Yemen, Human Rights Watch found that U.S. drone strikes against alleged terrorists have killed civilians in violation of international law and are creating a public backlash that undermines U.S. efforts against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The 102-page report examines six U.S. targeted killings in Yemen, one from 2009 and the rest from 2012-2013. “Two of the attacks killed civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war; the others may have targeted people who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civilian deaths,” said HRW.
Amnesty International’s report finds that many questionable killings in the U.S. drone wars in Pakistan may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes. Based on interviews with 60 survivors and eyewitnesses to these strikes, “Will I be next?” documents potentially unlawful killings, and offers recommendations to the U.S. government for upholding its obligations to protect the right to life and ensure accountability for any war crimes.
In an interview on Democracy Now, the report’s author Mustafa Qadri explained Amnesty International’s determination that at least some of the drone strikes constitute war crimes.
“We’re not saying that the entire program constitutes war crimes,” Qadri said.
What we’re saying is that particularly rescuer attacks may constitute war crimes. We’re talking here, for example, some laborers in a very impoverished village near the Afghanistan border, they get targeted, eight die instantly in a tent; those who come to rescue or to look for survivors are themselves targeted. In great detail, eyewitnesses, victims who survive tell us about, you know, the terror, the panic, as drones hovered overhead. There are other cases, as well, in the report where we talk about people who have been targeted for coming to be—to rescue people also killed. Those cases may constitute war crimes.
He went on to explain that under international law, only those who are actively taking part in hostilities may be legally targeted for killing:
The law is quite technical. But basically, it could be because of a spillover of the conflict in Afghanistan, so that, for example, if you have a military commander of the Afghan Taliban, he’s in hot pursuit from Afghanistan, he slips into the border into North Waziristan, in the right conditions—there’s a whole range of requirements—that might be lawful. Alternatively, Pakistan is itself fighting a non-international armed conflict in its own borders against the local insurgency; the U.S. has killed members of that insurgency, very senior members of that. Now, that might be lawful. But again, there are very strict requirements that have to be satisfied. One of the requirements is not that a person who is a militant is lawfully—can be lawfully killed. It’s not enough that a person is militant to say that it’s OK to kill them. They have to be taking active part in hostilities to be lawfully targeted.
Following the report’s release, Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesman Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry called it very timely and noted that its conclusions were essentially the same as what Pakistan has been saying for years.
Speaking to Geo News, Chaudhry said that it was being internationally recognized that the results of drone attacks have been counterproductive, a point that Malala Yousafzai, the Pakastani girl who was shot in the head on her school bus by Taliban gunmen for criticizing their rule, also made with President Obama during a meeting in the Oval Office on October 11.
“I thanked President Obama for the United States’ work in supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees,” she said after the meeting. “I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.”
Days after Malala’s remarks, a report was issued by United Nations Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns, which warned that the secretive drone program threatens international security due to a “lack of appropriate transparency and accountability.”
The report on ‘Extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions,’ also warns that so-called ‘signature strikes,’ based upon limited information regarding targets’ vague behavior patterns, are “clearly unlawful,” and condemns the practice of follow-up attacks on rescuers (so-called “double taps”) as a “war crime.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif added his voice to the growing international pressure on October 23 by calling on Barack Obama to end all strikes in his country. At the end of a visit to the White House, Sharif told reporters that he had “emphasized the need to end such strikes,” which are estimated to have killed between 2,525 and 3,613 people in Pakistan since 2004.
But even as international pressure grows on the United States to rein in its unlawful drone killings abroad, the U.S. is expanding the use of drone technology at home. In June, FBI Director Robert Mueller acknowledged to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the bureau uses unmanned drones for surveillance on U.S. soil. He added that such drone use is done in a “very, very minimal way, and very seldom.”
The ACLU, however, notes that “U.S. law enforcement is greatly expanding its use of domestic drones for surveillance” and says that “rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a ‘surveillance society’ in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the government.”
Drone manufacturers are also offering police the option of arming these flying robots with weapons like rubber bullets, Tasers, and tear gas, notes the ACLU. The group warns that drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.
Further, “domestic drones should not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons,” says the ACLU.
Considering the growing proclivity of U.S. police forces to engage in lethal force against civilians at home, and the U.S. military’s troubling track record abroad, it could be said that the ACLU’s mild admonitions could be considered understated at best.
The violence and impunity with which security forces operate are a clear danger to society both within the United States and overseas. Adding domestic drones to the arsenal of local police weapons is only inviting further tragedy.
Indeed, unless the American people and the world community begin to demand that the U.S. abides by the international norms that it demands of “rogue states” such as Syria or Iran, the United States will likely continue its slide into an authoritarian country in which human rights are cast aside as an irrelevant nuisance.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that the United States is “very pleased” with the progress made so far in destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stocks, but offered no comment on the long-standing non-compliance of the United States’ obligations to destroy its stockpiles.
The Chemical Weapons Convention, which the United States ratified in 1997 with 84% public support according to public opinion surveys, required that the U.S. completely destroy its chemical weapons stockpile by 2007, but an extension moved the deadline to April 2012. Missing that deadline more than a year ago, the U.S. has failed to get another extension and remains in blatant violation of the treaty’s provisions.
The CWC prohibits “the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons,” requiring states parties to “convert in an essentially irreversible way to a form unsuitable for production of chemical weapons, and which in an irreversible manner renders munitions and other devices unusable as such.”
When the treaty went into effect 16 years ago, the U.S. declared a huge domestic chemical arsenal of 27,771 metric tons to the OPCW. Missing two deadlines for these weapons’ destruction, the United States maintains stockpiles of several thousand tons of these banned weapons.
Russia has alleged that the U.S. has inhibited inspections and investigations of U.S. chemical facilities, and has further accused the U.S. of not fully reporting chemical agents removed from Iraq between 2003 and 2008.
Iran has also complained about the U.S. non-compliance, stating that the U.S. decision to retain its stockpiles of chemical weapons is a major threat to peace and security in the world. Iran’s ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said in late 2011 that the U.S. failure to meet its international commitments with regard to the total elimination of chemical weapons is in flagrant violation of the CWC.
The U.S. State Department has glossed over its non-compliance with the treaty which it is now praising Syria for complying with.
In its most recent Report on Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments, the State Department stressed that “The United States continues to work towards meeting its CWC obligations with respect to the destruction of chemical weapons,” and noted that the U.S. “continues to update the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on its destruction efforts.”
A bit more information is available at the Centers for Disease Control website, which reports that with the final mustard munition destroyed at the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility in January 2012, nearly 90% of the declared U.S. stockpile had been eliminated by the extended deadline. With over 30,000 tons originally declared, however, this means that there remains 2,700 tons at two sites in Kentucky and Colorado.
The most recent forecast from the U.S. is that the process of “neutralizing” the chemicals in its Colorado weapons dump will be finished by 2018; the date for Kentucky is 2023, i.e., 11 years after the extended deadline for destroying its chemical weapons stockpiles.
About 2,611 tons of mustard gas remains stockpiled in Pueblo, Colorado. The second stockpile, in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, is smaller – 524 tons – but more complicated to decommission, because it consists of a broader range of lethal gases and nerve agents, many of which are contained within weaponry.
Although the process of constructing neutralization facilities in Colorado and Kentucky is under way, neither plants have begun testing procedures. The nature of the Kentucky stockpile makes it particularly difficult to destroy, the Guardian reported last month.
“They have every agent there and every weapon – rockets, artillery shells, landmines, spray tanks and aerial bombs,” said Paul Walker, a program director at Green Cross International, which has facilitated the destruction of chemical weapons in the U.S. and Russia since the mid-1990s.
While the U.S. skirts its own obligations, it continues to demand high standards from designated “rogue states” like Syria.
Regarding the steps Damascus is taking to eliminate its stockpile of chemical weapons, Kerry said, “I think it is extremely significant that yesterday, Sunday, within a week of the resolution being passed, some chemical weapons were already being destroyed. I think it’s also credit to the Assad regime for complying as rapidly as they are supposed to.”
Let’s just hope that Syria’s commitment to fulfilling its international obligations is stronger than the commitment shown by the United States. Otherwise, we could be still dealing with this issue in the year 2029.
With all the twists and turns that the U.S. push for military action against Syria has taken over the past couple weeks, it’s easy to forget that the threats of missile strikes that have dominated the international discussion this month have all constituted significant breaches of international law, especially the following provision of the United Nations Charter:
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.
U.S. President Barack Obama has skirted this issue by appealing to the international community’s sense of moral outrage over the chemical weapons attack allegedly carried out by the Syrian regime last month. Underlying the debate is the argument that the U.S. and broader international community must maintain “credibility” in order to uphold “international norms,” especially the ban on chemical weapons (even though Syria has denied using the weapons and furthermore has not acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention which prohibits their use).
The legal justification for such an attack would presumably be the relatively new international concept of “responsibility to protect,” which does not carry the weight of law but does provide a framework for using tools that already exist, including mediation, economic sanctions, and the UN Charter’s chapter VII powers, which detail criteria the UN Security Council can invoke to authorize military action.
The bottom line though is that the threat or the use of force without Security Council authorization is strictly prohibited under international law, so every time that President Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry have issued threats over the past two weeks, they have been violating the UN Charter. The irony of course is that in violating this international law they have been claiming the moral high ground, insisting that military action is necessary in order to defend international norms.
Nowhere in any international law however does it state that the U.S. is designated as the world’s policeman tasked with enforcing international norms. Indeed, as this blog has documented for two and a half years, there are few countries in the world that violate international norms as routinely and comprehensively as the United States.
On issues ranging from fair elections and corruption to the rights of women and children to police brutality and prison conditions to arms control and military interventions, it is difficult to find a single country with as troubling a track record as the U.S. While other nations might have more problems adhering to certain aspects of international norms — such as North Korea’s slave labor camps or Syria’s attacks on civilians — one would be hard-pressed to find another country in the world that flouts international obligations as routinely and comprehensively as the United States.
What other nation on earth for example has recently traveled half-way across the planet to invade another country based on utter fabrications, as the U.S. did a decade ago in Iraq? What other country sends unmanned aerial drones across the borders of sovereign nations against their stated wishes and kills countless innocent civilians? No one.
One of the many ironies regarding the U.S. push to war with Syria is that the entire pretext for the war has been based on the allegation (so far unproven) that Syria violated the Chemical Weapons Convention, despite the fact that Syria has never signed or ratified this treaty. The U.S. has repeatedly claimed however that because the vast majority of the world’s countries have agreed to the ban on chemical weapons, it has essentially become a binding international norm.
If the same principle were applied to the United States, the international community (or a self-appointed global policeman such as China) would be within its rights to shoot cruise missiles into American cities every time the U.S. allegedly violates a treaty it has not subscribed to, such as the Cluster Munitions Convention or the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women or the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
All of these treaties have been agreed to by the vast majority of the world’s nations, making them customary international law by the standards the U.S. has been applying to its case for war against Syria. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, has been ratified by every country on earth except for the United States and Somalia.
Even when it comes to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the Obama administration has been citing when arguing for missile strikes against Syria, the U.S. itself is in violation of its core provisions.
The CWC prohibits “the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons,” yet the United States maintains stockpiles of several thousand tons of these banned weapons (despite having subscribed to the treaty in 1997).
Although it looks for now that the U.S. drive to war against Syria has been halted thanks to the diplomacy of Russia, the hypocrisy and double standards that formed the basis of that drive to war remain at the core of U.S. foreign policy.
If we are ever to have the sort of international system that can appropriately respond to crimes against humanity such as chemical weapons attacks against civilians, significant reform is needed of the UN system as well as general respect being shown for international norms by the world’s powers – especially the United States as the self-appointed global policeman.
The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth. — George Orwell’s 1984
With increasing bellicosity, U.S. officials are accusing the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons in an incident in the suburbs of Damascus last week that killed hundreds of civilians. While few dispute that the attack took place, there are conflicting allegations over who carried it out, with the Syrian regime blaming armed rebels, and Syrian allies such as Russia leaving open the possibility that a third party may have been responsible.
The United States however unequivocally places the blame at the feet of the Bashar al-Assad regime. A senior Obama administration official said Sunday that there was “very little doubt” that Assad’s military forces had used the chemical weapons and that a Syrian promise to allow United Nations inspectors access to the site was “too late to be credible.”
The official, in a written statement, said that “based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, witness accounts and other facts gathered by open sources, the U.S. intelligence community, and international partners, there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident.”
Independent experts, however, point out that there is no way to be able to decisively assign blame simply based on the visual evidence provided by YouTube videos without forensic data. “It’s very difficult from a visual context to ascertain what’s going on,” said Federation of American Scientists fellow Charles Blair.
In fact, it’s impossible to draw any sort of definitive conclusion. Some governments have relied entirely on visual confirmation to assert that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons but essentially what you need to do is you need to get people from the UN, for the prohibition of chemical weapons to go to these sites and conduct highly rigorous scientific investigations, and they determine only if an agent has been used or not used. But what they don’t tell us, which is the most important story, I think, that’s not being captured, is even if the UN team were to go into the area that got struck today, they could not verify nor are they charged with determining who was responsible for the act. So they can tell if you an act has occurred but we will never have this conclusive evidence of who was responsible for it.
What the UN team might be able to determine however is precisely what sort of chemical weapon was used, which could indicate who was responsible. The level of sophistication of the weapon could provide a clue as to whether it was manufactured by state or non-state actors, for example.
But the U.S. has already declared that any UN inspection now would be ineffective. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “the White House and Pentagon signaled the U.S. wasn’t backing away from a possible showdown despite apparent efforts by the Syrian government to ease tensions by letting U.N. inspectors visit areas near the capital where hundreds were killed, allegedly by chemical weapons.”
The Obama administration dismissed as too late the regime’s offer to let UN inspectors visit areas where chemical weapons were used. The U.S. concluded that evidence at the scene has likely been compromised due to continued Syrian shelling and the resulting dissipation of any poison gases.
With Obama having previously stated that the use of chemical weapons by Syria in the two-year old civil war would be a “red line” for the United States which could necessitate military action, the White House has said in recent days that the U.S. could launch an attack with or without UN Security Council backing.
“We’ll consult with the UN. They’re an important avenue. But they’re not the only avenue,” a senior administration official said.
The nonchalant attitude of the White House towards the UN is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s approach to the international body when the U.S. was gearing up for war against Iraq a decade ago. “If we need to act, we will act, and we really don’t need United Nations approval to do so,” George W. Bush said in March 2003. “We really don’t need anybody’s permission.”
Similarly, White House officials now say that Obama might prefer to work instead with international partners such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the Arab League, rather than the UN.
The legal basis for an attack on Syria, presumably, would be the crimes against humanity – including the alleged chemical weapons attack last week – for which the Assad regime is purportedly responsible. The use of chemical weapons in Syria would constitute a “crime against humanity” that would reap “serious consequences,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Friday.
“Any use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anybody, under any circumstances, would violate international law. Such a crime against humanity should result in serious consequences for the perpetrator,” Ban said.
But the U.S. has its own checkered past when it comes to compliance with international law in this regard, as evidenced by numerous war crimes carried out by U.S. forces in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. political system has also shown an inability to bring the committers of war crimes to justice, instead sending whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning to prison for decades simply for providing documentary evidence of these crimes.
Even when it comes to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the U.S. ratified in 1997, the U.S. record of compliance is spotty at best. The U.S. declared a huge domestic chemical arsenal of 27,771 metric tons to the OPCW after the CWC came into force in 1997 and despite efforts made toward destroying this arsenal still stockpiles several thousand metric tons of these weapons.
Russia has alleged that the U.S. has inhibited inspections and investigations of U.S. chemical facilities, and has accused the U.S.of not fully reporting chemical agents removed from Iraq between 2003 and 2008.
Further, WikiLeaks revealed in 2007 that the U.S. had at least 2,386 “non-lethal” chemical weapons deployed in Iraq. Appearing in a 2,000 page battle planning leak, the items are labeled under the military’s own NATO supply classification as “chemical weapons and equipment.”
As WikiLeaks explains,
In the weeks prior to the March 19, 2003 commencement of the Iraq war, the United States received a widely reported rebuke from its primary coalition partner, the United Kingdom, over statements by the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggesting that the US would use CS gas for “flush out” operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Subsequently Washington has been quiet about whether it has deployed CS gas and other chemical weapons or not.
The use of chemical weapons such as CS gas for military operations is illegal. The Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997, drafted by the United Kingdom and ratified by the United States, declares “Each State Party undertakes not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare”. Permissible uses are restricted to “law enforcement including domestic riot control.”
The U.S. use of depleted uranium in Iraq is another cause for concern. In Fallujah – which was targeted 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.
As the Huffington Post reported in March, “ten years after the start of the U.S. invasion in Iraq, doctors in some of the Middle Eastern nation’s cities are witnessing an abnormally high number of cases of cancer and birth defects.”
A 2002 UN working paper on depleted uranium argued that its use may breach one or more of the following treaties: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Charter of the United Nations, the Genocide Convention, the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Conventions including Protocol I, the Convention on Conventional Weapons of 1980, and the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Yeung Sik Yuen writes in Paragraph 133 under the title “Legal compliance of weapons containing DU as a new weapon”:
Annex II to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material 1980 (which became operative on 8 February 1997) classifies DU as a category II nuclear material. Storage and transport rules are set down for that category which indicates that DU is considered sufficiently “hot” and dangerous to warrant these protections. But since weapons containing DU are relatively new weapons no treaty exists yet to regulate, limit or prohibit its use. The legality or illegality of DU weapons must therefore be tested by recourse to the general rules governing the use of weapons under humanitarian and human rights law which have already been analysed in Part I of this paper, and more particularly at paragraph 35 which states that parties to Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 have an obligation to ascertain that new weapons do not violate the laws and customs of war or any other international law.
Despite the U.S.’s own record in using these legally questionable weapons, it is taking a hard line against Syria and appears to be moving towards armed conflict. Officials say that a list of possible targets for a military strike has been circulating in the White House since late last week. The list includes both chemical-weapons sites and broader military and government targets, depending on the type of action the president orders.
The Wall Street Journal reports:
In recent days, the Pentagon has moved more warships into place in the eastern Mediterranean and U.S. war planners have updated military options that include cruise-missile strikes on regime targets, officials said. The White House held high-level meetings over the weekend, but officials said late Sunday that Mr. Obama had yet to decide how to proceed. …
Administration lawyers have been crafting legal justifications for an intervention without U.N. approval that could be based on findings that Mr. Assad used chemical weapons and created a major humanitarian crisis.
Whether a U.S. attack would quell or exacerbate this humanitarian crisis is an open question. There are indications that a military assault could spiral out of control, with Syrian allies reluctant to allow Western forces free reign to intervene in order to topple the regime. According to an analysis by BBC:
Any military action would immediately bracket the West with Israel, whose air and missile strikes on Syria this year have been held up by the regime as evidence that its internal troubles are part of a Western-Zionist-Salafist plot to destroy a citadel of resistance to Israel. …
The signs have always been that the regime would pull the whole house down around it before capitulating, and also that its strategic allies, especially Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, would not allow that to happen.
Further, as happened in Iraq, Western intervention risks fragmenting the country further, creating an uncontrollable situation and handing large parts of it to forces it regards as its enemies.
“The West faces the reality that the moderate opposition elements it has been trying to boost have proven neither cohesive, credible nor effective on the ground,” the BBC points out.
The opposition has largely consisted of Islamist factions, many linked to al-Qaeda. Intervening on their behalf could lead to a host of unintended consequences, including the possibility of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal falling into the hands of terrorist groups.
With nothing but bad options, the best hope would likely involve an immediate ceasefire by all sides to the conflict. This, however, is a remote possibility that would be further set back by an armed intervention by the United States.
Any U.S. intervention would also likely lead to more civilian casualties and refugees, exacerbating what is already a grave humanitarian crisis.
Whistleblower Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison today, despite the government’s failure to provide a single example of any real harm to have come from his leaking of thousands of classified documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
In handing down the sentence, Judge Col. Denise Lind said that “Manning had reason to believe the information could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation,” but no evidence was ever produced demonstrating how the information had actually done so.
Although Brig. Gen. Robert Carr, who had headed a special task force assessing the damage caused by the leaks, testified last month that an Afghan national was killed as a result of the disclosure of battlefield reports from Afghanistan, Judge Lind ruled that the testimony was inadmissible because Carr could not identify the individual by name.
That was the one and only case in which the government concretely alleged that Manning’s leaks had brought harm to someone, and the military judge ruled it inadmissible. In contrast, hundreds of thousands of innocent people have been killed in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, senseless deaths for which no policymakers or generals have ever apologized or been held accountable.
Even outright war crimes such as the Haditha massacre or the “Collateral Murder” incident that Manning exposed have by and large gone unpunished. Indeed, with Manning’s sentence today, it seems clear that the only people who can expect to go to prison are those who expose crimes, not those who commit them.
The government itself has essentially acknowledged that its persecution of Manning has less to do with the actual harm to have come from his actions than it does with fact that they want to make an example of him. In arguing for a 60-year prison sentence for the Army private on Monday, military lawyers said a stiff sentence was necessary to send a message to other conscientious soldiers or government employees who might be considering exposing government wrongdoing.
“This court must send a message to those who release confidential information,” prosecutor Army Capt. Joe Morrow said to Judge Lind. “There is value in deterrence, Your Honor. This court must send a message to any soldier contemplating stealing classified information.”
As Nathan Fuller of the Bradley Manning Support Network explained,
The prosecution insisted there has to be deterrence and we need to set an example out of Bradley Manning. They made it clear that anyone else thinking of releasing classified info should look at Manning. They want to go above and beyond what would be considered a reasonable sentence.
The harsh sentence handed down today solidifies Manning’s status as a political prisoner of the United States government. While there is no single internationally agreed upon designation of what constitutes a political prisoner, the intergovernmental organization Council of Europe last year agreed upon one of the most useful and balanced definitions ever put forward. The resolution adopted last year by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe includes the following criteria:
a. if the detention has been imposed in violation of one of the fundamental guarantees set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols (ECHR), in particular freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and information, freedom of assembly and association;
b. if the detention has been imposed for purely political reasons without connection to any offence;
c. if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of;
d. if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons; or,
e. if the detention is the result of proceedings which were clearly unfair and this appears to be connected with political motives of the authorities.” (SG/Inf(2001)34, paragraph 10).
It’s clear that Manning meets most if not all of these criteria, especially points “C” and “E”. Considering the fact that even the government acknowledges that the damage done to “national security” by his leaks was more theoretical than concrete and that not a single individual was harmed by the information he released, it is difficult to comprehend how a 35-year sentence is truly justified.
In other words, the length is clearly out of proportion to the offenses he was convicted of.
Further, the proceedings were unfair from the beginning, as Manning’s rights were violated every step of the way and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, President Barack Obama, declared his guilt long before the trial even began.
In short, Bradley Manning is a political prisoner and he should be recognized as such by leading human rights organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch, as well as international organizations such as the EU and the Organization of American States.
Emergency demonstrations in support of Manning and calling on President Obama to issue a presidential pardon are taking place today, including one this evening at the White House.
“Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.”
– Universal Declaration of Human Rights
With a sentence expected to be handed down in Bradley Manning’s court-martial this week, the presiding judge, Col. Denise Lind, is coming under criticism for possible lack of judicial independence, calling into question the fairness of the trial and any sentence that he receives.
Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said that throughout the trial, it has been “disappointing to see that almost every ruling, whether they’re major or minor, seems to go against the defense.” Others have noted that despite spending three years in pretrial confinement, Lind ruled that the delays had been “reasonable.”
Before the trial even began, President Barack Obama declared Manning’s guilt by flatly stating, “He broke the law.” The president’s declaration was widely picked up by the media, likely having significant influence over the public perception of Manning’s case, as well as potentially sending a message to the judge, a direct subordinate of Obama as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces.
As Glenn Greenwald noted at the time, “The impropriety of Obama’s public pre-trial declaration of Manning’s guilt (‘He broke the law’) is both gross and manifest. How can Manning possibly expect to receive a fair hearing from military officers when their Commander-in-Chief has already decreed his guilt?”
He called it “reckless in the extreme for him to go around decreeing people guilty who have not been tried: especially members of the military who are under his command and who will be adjudged by other members of the military under his command.”
Steven Aftergood, a classified information expert at the Federation of American Scientists, told Politico.com, “The comment was not appropriate because it assumes that Manning is guilty. The president got carried away and misspoke. No one should mistake a charge for a conviction — especially the nation’s highest official.”
Beyond simply inappropriate, the president’s comment may have breached the United States’ commitments to international fair trial standards. According to Article 14(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “Everyone charged with a criminal offense shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.”
As the Lawyers Committee on Human Rights explains this provision of the ICCPR, “The presumption of innocence must … be maintained not only during a criminal trial vis á vis the defendant, but also in relation to a suspect or accused throughout the pre-trial phase. It is the duty of both the officials involved in a case as well as all public authorities to maintain the presumption of innocence by ‘refrain[ing] from prejudging the outcome of a trial.’”
Obama’s declaration may have had an undue command influence over the proceedings, a possibility that has been compounded by the fact that Judge Lind was given a promotion while the trial was underway. As the Washington Post reported last month, “Lind has already been informed that she will take up a new position, as a judge on the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals, when the Manning trial ends.”
Attorney Michael Ratner said that he found the promotion “pretty extraordinary” considering the context of the case and the possible conflicts of interest involved.
“I don’t know whether it’s—I don’t think it’s necessarily illegal,” he said, “but it does—it’s interesting to me that she’s going upstairs during the very trial that’s going on, and given that promotion.”
Lind’s promotion raises the possibility of whether there may have been a quid pro quo. Is it possible that she was promised the appellate court job contingent upon her decisions in the Manning case? This, of course, speaks to the question of judicial impartiality and independence, key components of international fair trial standards. As the Lawyers Committee explains,
Independence presupposes a separation of powers in which the judiciary is institutionally protected from undue influence by, or interference from, the executive branch and, to a lesser degree, from the legislative branch. …
While independence primarily rests on mechanisms aimed at ensuring a court’s position externally, impartiality refers to its conduct of, and bearing on, the final outcome of a specific case. Bias (or a lack thereof) is the overriding criterion for ascertaining a court’s impartiality. It can, thus, be prima facie called into question when a judge has taken part in the proceedings in some prior capacity, or when s/he is related to the parties, or when s/he has a personal stake in the proceedings. It is also open to suspicion when the judge has an evidently preformed opinion that could weigh in on the decision-making or when there are other reasons giving rise to concern about his/her impartiality.
Another key component of international fair trial standards is the right to a speedy trial as outlined in Article 9 (3) of the ICCPR, which states:
Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release. It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial, at any other stage of the judicial proceedings, and, should occasion arise, for execution of the judgement.
Despite this requirement, Manning spent his entire pre-trial period of three years in jail. This, despite the fact that the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations has held that confinement of more than six months is incompatible with the ICCPR.
Manning’s mistreatment during that unlawful pre-trial detention was also a cause for concern, with his prolonged solitary confinement regime “constitut[ing] at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture,” according to Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.
The treatment, which included prolonged solitary confinement, forced nudity and denial of meaningful exercise or work opportunities, also constituted a breach of the ICCPR, which states that “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”
Another issue that arose during Manning’s court-martial, raising questions of whether it abided by international standards, was the lack of transparency that surrounded many aspects of the case.
Article 14 of the ICCPR provides for the right to a fair and public hearing, but Manning’s court martial was surrounded by secrecy and security, with Judge Lind and the military declining to even release official transcripts of the proceedings.
Many other documents were withheld or heavily redacted and significant portions of the sentencing testimony against Manning were closed to the public. Because of this, it remains unknown what damage the government claims that he caused by sending classified material to WikiLeaks.
His supporters maintain that Manning was acting in the public interest, but the court secrecy means that there is little public evidence about whether his leaks on balance helped or hurt the world.
“The public’s ability to understand the sentence is going to be permanently impaired by that fact that, unfortunately, there are large pieces of this that are going to be off the public record,” said Eugene Fidell, a visiting professor in military law at Yale Law School. “There are going to be missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle.”
With a potential 90-year prison sentence being handed down by Judge Lind this week and the possibility of a long-term campaign for his freedom, it’s worth remembering that Manning’s rights have been violated every step of the way and that the U.S. has systematically abrogated fundamental components of international fair trial standards.