Speaking to an audience of soldiers at Fort Bragg today, President Obama marked the end of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, declaring the mission a success and saying that the final pullout from Iraq after nearly nine years is an “historic” moment. The country they leave behind, he said, is “an extraordinary achievement.”
The President offered remembrances of some the war’s difficulties and the sacrifices made by American soldiers and their families:
We remember the early days -– the American units that streaked across the sands and skies of Iraq; the battles from Karbala to Baghdad, American troops breaking the back of a brutal dictator in less than a month.
We remember the grind of the insurgency -– the roadside bombs, the sniper fire, the suicide attacks. From the “triangle of death” to the fight for Ramadi; from Mosul in the north to Basra in the south -– your will proved stronger than the terror of those who tried to break it.
We remember the specter of sectarian violence -– al Qaeda’s attacks on mosques and pilgrims, militias that carried out campaigns of intimidation and campaigns of assassination. And in the face of ancient divisions, you stood firm to help those Iraqis who put their faith in the future.
We remember the surge and we remember the Awakening -– when the abyss of chaos turned toward the promise of reconciliation. By battling and building block by block in Baghdad, by bringing tribes into the fold and partnering with the Iraqi army and police, you helped turn the tide toward peace.
And we remember the end of our combat mission and the emergence of a new dawn -– the precision of our efforts against al Qaeda in Iraq, the professionalism of the training of Iraqi security forces, and the steady drawdown of our forces. In handing over responsibility to the Iraqis, you preserved the gains of the last four years and made this day possible. …
We know too well the heavy cost of this war. More than 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq — 1.5 million. Over 30,000 Americans have been wounded, and those are only the wounds that show. Nearly 4,500 Americans made the ultimate sacrifice — including 202 fallen heroes from here at Fort Bragg — 202. So today, we pause to say a prayer for all those families who have lost their loved ones, for they are part of our broader American family. We grieve with them.
What Obama didn’t mention were the other costs of this war, particularly the cost in Iraqi lives at around one million dead, with millions more living as refugees. What he did not “remember” was that it is the Iraqi people who by far paid the highest cost for this war, and that what has been done to their country is a tragedy. In short, the U.S. is leaving behind a “destroyed nation,” as Iraqi-American blogger Raed Jarrar put it on RT America yesterday.
In its 2011 country report on Iraq, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees stated,
Iraq continues to suffer from sporadic violence, a general lack of basic services and high unemployment. Some returnees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) remain in dire circumstances that require urgent humanitarian interventions. An inability to form a Government following the March 2010 elections compounded these challenges and reinforced the vulnerabilities of many Iraqis.
While some 350,000 IDPs and nearly 60,000 refugees returned spontaneously in 2008 and 2009, returns have slowed in the first half of 2010, with only 60,000 IDPs and 16,000 refugees returning. Meanwhile the majority of some 1.5 million IDPs in the country have found no solutions to their plight.
As Al-Jazeera reports today,
the US leaves behind an Iraq visibly scarred and struggling to regain a sense of normalcy, let alone its once-prominent stature in the Arab world.
Traffic jams clog Baghdad’s streets as cars wait to pass through the city’s innumerable checkpoints. Neighbourhoods remain sealed off by concrete walls and mountains of barbed wire. Assassinations, roadside bombings and other outbreaks of violence still continue with chilling regularity.
But beyond the tragic costs that the Iraqi people have paid over the past nine years, we would be remiss if we do not also take account of the cost to basic principles of international justice.
The violations of international law, which began even before the initial shock and awe bombing campaign, continued and intensified throughout the invasion, and the subsequent occupation and counterinsurgency campaign. To this date, no high-ranking officials have ever been held accountable for these actions.
Below is a partial accounting of some of the most blatant violations of international law that took place in the early days of hostilities with Iraq, starting with the threats that were being made in the weeks and months leading up to the attack.
Threats of Force
As early as January 2003 — three months before the U.S. actually launched its attack — the Pentagon was announcing its plans for the “shock and awe” bombing campaign.
“If the Pentagon sticks to its current war plan,” CBS News reported on January 24, “one day in March the Air Force and Navy will launch between 300 and 400 cruise missiles at targets in Iraq. … [T]his is more than number that were launched during the entire 40 days of the first Gulf War. On the second day, the plan calls for launching another 300 to 400 cruise missiles.”
A Pentagon official warned: “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad.”
The intention of announcing these plans so early — before the UN weapons inspectors had finished their job and before diplomacy in the Security Council had been allowed to take its course — appeared to be a form of psychological warfare against the Iraqi people. If that was not the intent, it was certainly the effect.
A group of psychologists published a report in January 2003 describing the looming war’s effect on children’s mental health.
”With war looming, Iraqi children are fearful, anxious and depressed,” they found. ”Many have nightmares. And 40 percent do not think that life is worth living.”
The explicit threats being made against Iraq in early 2003 were arguably a violation of the UN Charter, which states that “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.”
Shock and Awe
“Shock and awe” began with limited bombing on March 19, 2003 as U.S. forces unsuccessfully attempted to kill Saddam Hussein. Attacks continued against a small number of targets until March 21, 2003, when the main bombing campaign began. U.S.-led forces launched approximately 1,700 air sorties, with 504 using cruise missiles.
The attack was a violation of the UN Charter, which stipulates that “Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.” The only exception to this is in the case of Security Council authorization, which the U.S. did not have.
Desperate to kill Hussein, Bush ordered the bombing of an Iraqi residential restaurant on April 7. A single B-1B bomber dropped four precision-guided 2,000-pound bombs. The four bunker-penetrating bombs destroyed the target building, the al Saa restaurant block and several surrounding structures, leaving a 60-foot crater and unknown casualties.
Diners, including children, were ripped apart by the bombs. One mother found her daughter’s torso and then her severed head. U.S. intelligence later confirmed that Hussein wasn’t there.
The deliberate attack on a civilian target was in breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention’s protection of non-combatants, which states:
(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons: (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture
Failure to Provide Security
After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime on April 9, the U.S. action in Iraq took on the character of an occupation, and as the occupying power, the U.S. was bound by international law to provide security. But in the post-war chaos, in which looting of Iraq’s national antiquities was rampant, U.S. forces stood by as Iraq’s national museum was looted and countless historical treasures were lost.
Despite the fact that U.S. officials were warned even before the invasion that Iraq’s national museum would be a “prime target for looters” by the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), set up to supervise the reconstruction of postwar Iraq, U.S. forces took no action to secure the building. In protest of the U.S. failure to prevent the resulting looting of historical artefacts dating back 10,000 years, three White House cultural advisers resigned.
“It didn’t have to happen”, Martin Sullivan – who chaired the President’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Property for eight years – told Reuters news agency. The UN’s cultural agency UNESCO called the loss and destruction “a disaster.”
During the course of the war, according to a four-month investigation by USA Today, the U.S. dropped 10,800 cluster bombs on Iraq. “The bomblets packed inside these weapons wiped out Iraqi troop formations and silenced Iraqi artillery,” reported USA Today. “They also killed civilians. These unintentional deaths added to the hostility that has complicated the U.S. occupation.”
U.S. forces fired hundreds of cluster weapons into urban areas from late March to early April, killing dozens and possibly hundreds of Iraqi civilians. The attacks left behind thousands of unexploded bomblets that continued to kill and injure civilians weeks after the fighting stopped.
Because of the indiscriminate effect of these duds that keep killing long after the cessation of hostilities, the use of cluster munitions is banned by the international Convention on Cluster Munitions, which the United States has refused to sign.
Possibly anticipating a long, drawn-out occupation and counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq, in a March 2003 memorandum Bush administration lawyers devised legal doctrines justifying certain torture techniques, offering legal rationales “that could render specific conduct, otherwise criminal, not unlawful.”
They argued that the president or anyone acting on the president’s orders are not bound by U.S. laws or international treaties prohibiting torture, asserting that the need for “obtaining intelligence vital to the protection of untold thousands of American citizens” supersedes any obligations the administration has under domestic or international law. [WSJ, June 7, 2004]
“In order to respect the President’s inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign,” the memo states, U.S. prohibitions against torture “must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his Commander-in-Chief authority.”
Over the course of the next year, disclosures emerged that torture had been used extensively in Iraq for “intelligence gathering.” Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh disclosed in The New Yorker in May 2004 that a 53-page classified Army report written by Gen. Antonio Taguba concluded that Abu Ghraib prison’s military police were urged on by intelligence officers seeking to break down the Iraqis before interrogation.
“Numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees,” wrote Taguba.
These actions, authorized at the highest levels, constituted serious breaches of international and domestic law, including the Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of Prisoners of War, as well as the U.S. War Crimes Act and the Torture Statute.
These are just a few of the more obvious examples U.S. violations of international law from the earliest days of the invasion of Iraq, for which no one has been held to account. Of course, sadly, the crimes against the Iraqi people have continued and intensified over the years.
There was the 2004 assault on Fallujah in which white phosphorus – banned under international law – was used against civilians. There was the 2005 Haditha massacre, in which 24 unarmed civilians were systematically murdered by U.S. marines. And of course, there was the 2007 “Collateral Murder” massacre revealed by WikiLeaks last year. (To name just a few.)
While each of the above-mentioned crimes should be dealt with in its own way, it is important not to lose sight of the forest through the trees. In this respect, it is worth remembering the words of American prosecutor Robert Jackson, who led the prosecutions of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. In his opening statement before the international military tribunal on Nazi war crimes, Jackson denounced aggressive war as “the greatest menace of our time.”
Jackson noted that “to start an aggressive war has the moral qualities of the worst of crimes.” The tribunal, he said, had decided that “to initiate a war of aggression … is not only an international crime: it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of whole.”
As the war is finally drawn to a close after nearly nine years, it is worth keeping those words in mind.
A public outcry has followed the broadcast of a CBS “60 Minutes” segment detailing the common practice on Capitol Hill of using insider knowledge to play the stock market. Since this sort of activity is illegal in the private sector, many Americans may have assumed that it would be against the law for elected officials as well. But that is not the case.
According to ProCon.org, the US Senate and the US Supreme Court are the only two out of 975 federal entities that have no rules or laws prohibiting them from trading stocks based on nonpublic information they gain on the job. The US House of Representatives Ethics Manual states that its members should “never use any information coming to him confidentially in the performance of governmental duties as a means for making private profit,” but the rule is not legally binding.
The CBS report documented that members of Congress bought stock in companies during debates on legislation that might affect the businesses, a clear conflict of interest that may be unethical, but in the United States, is not illegal.
And it appears that the insider knowledge that members of Congress possess (being that they are the ones who make the laws which affect industries and individual businesses) pays off handsomely.
A 2004 Georgia State University study revealed that US Senators’ stock trades performed 12.3% better than the market average. A 2011 study showed that US House members’ stock trades performed 6% better than the market average.
This is the very essence of corruption, defined by global watchdog Transparency International as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.”
Introduced three times in Congress, the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act intended to close this loophole for members of Congress, but it has received only a handful of cosponsors for predictable reasons.
Now, members of the House Financial Services Committee are advocating new restrictions on insider trading to help lift waning public trust in Congress. With a congressional approval rating of just 9 percent – lower than the public support for porn, polygamy and communism – members feel that the legislation is necessary to appease an angry public.
“This is about restoring faith,” said Representative Tim Walz (D-Minn), who is sponsoring legislation to explicitly ban insider trading. “If you think a 9 percent approval rating is bad, don’t do anything, drag it out and watch what happens,” he said.
While curbing this corruption in Congress may be necessary to placate the public, it is also an obligation that the United States has as a state party to the UN Convention against Corruption, which states:
Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest …
Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials …
These international obligations have been legally binding on the United States since its ratification of the treaty in 2006.
As the Obama administration criticizes governments around the world for failing to respect the rights of gays, lesbians and transgendered people, the U.S. government itself is coming under growing criticism for the treatment of journalists, demonstrators and whistleblowers.
In response to police harassment of reporters covering Occupy Wall Street protests across the country, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, on Nov. 11 reminded U.S. authorities of international commitments the United States has subscribed to regarding freedom of the media.
“There is no question that reporters and photographers have the right to observe, record and report on events that are in plain view,” Mijatović said. “Media coverage of public events is the backbone of citizen oversight of government activities, and to detain reporters covering these events jeopardizes freedom of the media.”
Numerous police encounters have led to at least eight reporters and photographers being detained while covering the protests, including journalists who were clearly identified as members of the working press.
“Journalists should not have to defend their right to report on matters of public importance,” Mijatović said. “Violating one reporter’s right affects all citizens. It is time for local officials to demand that their law enforcement agencies respect the rights and duties of media in covering public issues.”
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression has also weighed in on the violation of fundamental freedoms at Occupy protests across the country.
Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue, who was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in August 2008, told the Huffington Post that the crackdowns against Occupy protesters appear to be violating their human rights.
“I believe in city ordinances and I believe in maintaining urban order,” he said last Thursday. “But on the other hand I also believe that the state — in this case the federal state — has an obligation to protect and promote human rights.”
“If I were going to pit a city ordinance against human rights, I would always take human rights,” he added.
La Rue said that the protesters have a right to occupy public spaces “as long as that doesn’t severely affect the rights of others.”
Another issue of concern to the international community is the ongoing mistreatment of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army intelligence analyst accused of leaking a huge trove of diplomatic cables and military reports indicating U.S. war crimes to WikiLeaks. After 17 months of imprisonment – much of it in solitary confinement – Manning is finally expected to have his first day in court next week.
In an open letter to President Obama, members of Congress and top officials at the Pentagon, more than 50 members of the European Parliament expressed concern “that the US army has charged Bradley Manning with ‘aiding the enemy,’ a capital offence that is punishable by death,” and that the United States government has refused to allow the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture to meet privately with the imprisoned veteran.
The letter states:
We are troubled by reports that Mr Manning has been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement and other abusive treatment tantamount to torture. And we are disappointed that the US government has denied the request of the United Nations special rapporteur on torture to meet privately with Mr Manning in order to conduct an investigation of his treatment by US military authorities.
We call upon the United States government to allow Juan Méndez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, to conduct a private meeting with Bradley Manning, the accused WikiLeaks whistle-blower. Mr Méndez has made repeated requests to American officials to meet privately with Mr Manning in response to evidence that he was subjected to abusive confinement conditions while he was detained at a facility in Quantico, Virginia. Mr Manning was held in solitary confinement for 23 hours per day during the eight months he was incarcerated at that location. It appears that he was at times forced to sleep and stand at attention without any clothing. His legal counsel has documented additional incidents which indicate the possibility of other rights violations.
Hundreds of US legal scholars have signed an open letter to the Obama administration, arguing that the conditions of confinement endured by Mr Manning at Quantico may have amounted to torture. Following worldwide calls for an end to the abusive treatment, Manning was moved to a facility in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where his conditions are said to have improved. The US military conducted an internal investigation into the allegations of mistreatment at Quantico. The preliminary results of this investigation found that Mr Manning was improperly placed on “prevention of injury” status, against the recommendations of qualified medical personnel. However, these findings were ultimately overturned by a military prison official who was implicated by the report. Therefore, the US military’s internal investigation has been compromised by clear conflicts of interest. This so-called “prevention of injury” status was the justification for a number of extraordinary measures, such as denying Mr Manning comfortable bedding and not allowing him to exercise.
By preventing UN officials from carrying out their duties, the United States government risks undermining support for the work of the United Nations elsewhere, particularly its mandate to investigate allegations of torture and human rights abuses. In order to uphold the rights guaranteed to Bradley Manning under international human rights law and the US constitution, it is imperative that the United Nations special rapporteur be allowed to properly investigate evidence of rights abuses. PFC Manning has a right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. People accused of crimes must not be subjected to any form of punishment before being brought to trial.
Finally, we in the European Union are totally opposed to the death penalty. And we certainly do not understand why an alleged whistleblower is being threatened with the death penalty, or the possibility of life in prison. We also question whether Bradley Manning’s right to due process has been upheld, as he has now spent over 17 months in pre-trial confinement.
Furthermore, Bradley Manning should not be forced to waive his right against self-incrimination in order to speak with anyone who seeks to investigate evidence of abuse in their official capacity.
Consistent with these internationally recognised standards, as well as the rules governing his mandate, United Nations special rapporteur on torture Juan Méndez must be allowed to conduct an unmonitored meeting with Bradley Manning, without any further delay.
In addition to the breaches of international norms articulated by the European MPs, Bradley Manning’s legal defense is raising a constitutional issue in his defense, arguing that by declaring Manning’s guilt during a political fundraiser in San Francisco in April, President Obama had dispensed “unlawful command influence” since the president acts as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
“Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), a superior officer in the chain of command is prohibited from saying or doing anything that could influence any decision by a subordinate in how to handle a military justice matter,” says Manning’s defense team.
Obama “made improper comments on 21 April 2011 when he decided to comment on PFC Manning and his case. On that date, he responded to questions regarding PFC Manning’s alleged actions by concluding that ‘We’re a nation of laws. We don’t let individuals make their own decisions about how the laws operate. He [PFC Manning] broke the law.'”
The president made the comments while greeting supporters at a fundraiser where someone questioned Manning’s treatment. The president’s back and forth about Manning was captured on a mobile phone camera.
Manning’s lawyer says he wants to question Obama about the “nature of his discussions with members of the military regarding this case and whether he has made any other statements that would either influence the prosecution of this case or PFC Manning’s right to obtain a fair trial.”
It remains to be seen whether Obama administration officials respond to requests from Manning’s legal defense, much less the concerns of the international community.