Archive | December 2011

What Obama didn’t say at Fort Bragg

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.

Targeting Civilians

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.”

Cluster Bombs

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.

Authorizing Torture

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.

Ongoing Crimes

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.

The NDAA and the ICCPR: Indefinite detention a violation of international law

As The Hill is reporting, President Obama is getting personally involved pushing for changes to the controversial 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which contains provisions authorizing the U.S. military to pick up and imprison people, including U.S. citizens, without charging them or putting them on trial.

Specifically, the legislation “affirms that the authority of the President to use all necessary and appropriate force pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40) includes the authority for the Armed Forces of the United States to detain covered persons (as defined in subsection (b)) pending disposition under the law of war.”

The bill applies to anyone “who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored those responsible for those attacks,” or anyone “who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy forces.”

It specifically authorizes “Detention under the law of war without trial until the end of the hostilities authorized by the Authorization for Use of Military Force,” referring to the bill passed by Congress more than ten years ago that authorized an endless “war on terror.”

Although the NDAA may appear on its face that it is inapplicable to U.S. citizens, with confusing language which states that “the requirement to detain a person in military custody under this section does not extend to citizens of the United States,” some observers have pointed out that this simply means that while military is not required to hold U.S. citizens, it is still authorized to do so.

As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said when arguing for the legislation on the Senate floor, the purpose of the bill is to make it clear to terrorist suspects – including U.S. citizens – that they should “shut up” if they dare to ask for legal representation:

“To those American citizens,” he said, “thinking about helping al Qaeda please know what will come your way: death, detention and prosecution.”

He added: “And when they say, ‘I want my lawyer,’ you tell them: ‘Shut up. You don’t get a lawyer. You are an enemy combatant, and we are going to talk to you about why you joined al Qaeda.’”

President Obama has threatened to veto the defense bill, which is now being negotiated in conference committee, over provisions mandating military custody of al Qaeda terror suspects. The White House complains mandatory military custody would tie the hands of law enforcement’s counterterrorism efforts.

Its Nov. 17 “Statement of Adminstration Policy” states:

The Administration strongly objects to the military custody provision of section 1032, which would appear to mandate military custody for a certain class of terrorism suspects.  This unnecessary, untested, and legally controversial restriction of the President’s authority to defend the Nation from terrorist threats would tie the hands of our intelligence and law enforcement professionals.  Moreover, applying this military custody requirement to individuals inside the United States, as some Members of Congress have suggested is their intention, would raise serious and unsettled legal questions and would be inconsistent with the fundamental American principle that our military does not patrol our streets.

So, what the White House appears to be objecting to is not necessarily that Congress is authorizing indefinite military detention, but that the legislation would require such detention. “Any bill that challenges or constrains the President’s critical authorities to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists, and protect the Nation would prompt the President’s senior advisers to recommend a veto,” said the White House.

Nevertheless, the human rights community is welcoming the threat of a presidential veto, with Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, saying that “The bill tosses out the most effective tool for countering terrorism — civilian law enforcement — and makes the U.S. military the world’s jailor.”

But as blogger, constitutional lawyer and author Glenn Greenwald points out,

Indefinite, charge-free military detention of people accused — accused – of Terrorism has been fully embraced by both the Bush and Obama administrations (it’s one of the reasons some of us have been so vocally critical). The Obama administration has gone even further and argued that it has the power not merely to detain accused Terrorists (including U.S. citizens) without due process, but to kill them. It is true that the Obama DOJ has chosen to try some accused Terrorists in civilian courts — and this bill may make that more difficult — but the power of military detention already rests with the Executive Branch. And while it would be worse for Congress to formally codify these powers and thus arguably overturn long-standing prohibitions on using the U.S. military on U.S. soil, the real legal objections to such detention are grounded in Constitutional guarantees, and no act of Congress can affect those. In sum, this bill would codify indefinite military detention, but the actual changes when compared to what the Executive Branch is doing now would be modest. That’s not a mitigation of this bill’s radicalism; it’s proof of how radical the Executive Branch under these two Presidents has already become.

Greenwald notes that the NDAA would violate the Constitutional requirement in Art. III, Sec. 3 that “No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.”

“To deny a citizen the right to a lawyer and go to court on the ground that they’ve ‘betrayed their country’ and thus deserve to be imprisoned without a trial (or, worse, to be assassinated without one) is as violent a betrayal of the U.S. Constitution as one can imagine, literally,” Greenwald writes.

It is also worth pointing out that giving the military the authority to hold anyone – U.S. citizen or not – indefinitely without a trial is a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states in Art. 9,

1. Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law.

2. Anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him.

3. 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.

4. Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that that court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful.

5. Anyone who has been the victim of unlawful arrest or detention shall have an enforceable right to compensation.

Ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1992, the ICCPR is legally binding on the United States. As a party to the Covenant, the U.S. is required to submit a report to the UN Human Rights Committee every five years on its compliance with the Covenant’s provisions.

The last report submitted by the United States – in 2005 – was seven years overdue. Regarding the matter of indefinite detention, the 2005 report pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court has stated “that the United States is entitled to detain enemy combatants, even American citizens, until the end of hostilities, in order to prevent the enemy combatants from returning to the field of battle and again taking up arms.”

The U.S. asserted that “the detention of such individuals is such a fundamental and accepted incident of war that it is part of the ‘necessary and appropriate’ force that Congress authorized the President to use against nations, organizations, or persons associated with the September 11 terrorist attacks.”

The U.S. further articulated “its firmly held legal view on the territorial scope of application of the Covenant,” namely that the ICCPR does not apply to U.S. actions with respect to individuals under its jurisdiction but outside its territory, nor in time of war. The Human Rights Committee objected to this “restrictive interpretation made by the State party of its obligations under the Covenant,” and urged the U.S. to “review its approach and interpret the Covenant in good faith, in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to its terms in their context, including subsequent practice, and in the light of its object and purpose.”

Specifically, in its response to the U.S. report, the HRC urged the United States to:

(a) acknowledge the applicability of the Covenant with respect to individuals under its jurisdiction but outside its territory, as well as its applicability in time of war;

(b) take positive steps, when necessary, to ensure the full implementation of all rights prescribed by the Covenant; and

(c) consider in good faith the interpretation of the Covenant provided by the Committee pursuant to its mandate.

The Committee also had particularly harsh words for the U.S. regarding its prosecution of the war on terror, including its indefinite detention policies: “The State party [the U.S.] should ensure that its counter-terrorism measures are in full conformity with the Covenant and in particular that the legislation adopted in this context is limited to crimes that would justify being assimilated to terrorism, and the grave consequences associated with it,” said the Committee.

Further,

The State party should immediately cease its practice of secret detention and close all secret detention facilities.  It should also grant the International Committee of the Red Cross prompt access to any person detained in connection with an armed conflict.  The State party should also ensure that detainees, regardless of their place of detention, always benefit from the full protection of the law.

The State party should ensure, in accordance with article 9 (4) of the Covenant, that persons detained in Guantanamo Bay are entitled to proceedings before a court to decide, without delay, on the lawfulness of their detention or order their release.  Due process, independence of the reviewing courts from the executive branch and the army, access of detainees to counsel of their choice and to all proceedings and evidence, should be guaranteed in this regard.

As the U.S. now moves to not only legitimize indefinite detention, but mandate it under law, consideration should be given to international obligations under the ICCPR, and the previous recommendations from the UN Human Rights Committee.

U.S. hypocrisy on Russian elections, freedom of assembly

With Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accusing the United States of promoting unrest in Moscow and St. Petersburg following parliamentary elections that fell short of international standards, the U.S. government is continuing its outspoken criticism of the Russian authorities for the election abuses and the response to anti-government demonstrations.

“We hope in particular that the Russian authorities will take action on the recommendations that come forward from observer missions like the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] in its final report and their own electoral observers, who are making recommendations about how to improve the process,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday.

What Clinton left unsaid was that the U.S. itself is in violation of a number of OSCE commitments on democratic elections and has ignored recommendations from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights on improving the U.S. electoral system. As an OSCE participating state, the U.S. has agreed to the same political commitments on democratic elections as has Russia. These commitments are spelled out in the 1990 Copenhagen Document.

Issues identified by international observers from the OSCE in previous U.S. elections include the lack uniform electoral standards, which “creat[es] vulnerabilities in the system, particularly with regards to the integrity and complexity of voter registration, voter identification, and electronic voting machines.”

In the 2004 election, the OSCE concluded that “the way in which election administrators are appointed may raise questions of possible conflict of interest, in particular when election officials run for office or act as campaign managers.”

In addition, the OSCE took notice of the fact that “only a small proportion of the elections” for the 435 Congressional districts were perceived to be competitive. “This was attributed largely to the way in which Congressional district boundaries are drawn so as to favour the incumbent party,” the OSCE observed.

“Allegations of electoral fraud and voter suppression, primarily among minorities, were widely reported and presented to the EOM in the pre-election period,” the OSCE also noted. “The observers expressed concern that the widespread nature of these allegations may undermine confidence in the electoral process.”

As the OSCE stated in its Needs Assessment Mission Report prior to the 2008 general elections, “several issues raised in previous OSCE/ODIHR reports, and those highlighted by OSCE/ODIHR NAM interlocutors, merit further attention.”

Following the 2008 election, Audrey Glover, the Head of the OSCE/ODIHR Limited Election Observation Mission, stated, “the controversies during the campaign over persisting allegations of election irregularities showed that electoral reform efforts must continue to address remaining shortcomings and allow voters to fully regain confidence in the election system.”

Allegations relating to fraudulent voter registration, disenfranchisement of voters, and the malfunctioning of voting systems featured prominently in the public debate, the OSCE noted. Further, the decentralized legal framework and widely varying state election laws have created a lack of uniformity among states in the way the elections were organized. “The interpretation and implementation of federal laws lacked consistency,” said the OSCE.

A significant number of OSCE recommendations from 2008 on how to improve the flawed electoral system have remained unaddressed by U.S. lawmakers. Some of the most prominent examples include:

  • decreasing the number of required signatures for nomination of independent or third-party candidates
  • lifting the restriction of voting rights for felons and ex-felons
  • providing full representation rights in Congress for all US citizens, including those of Washington DC and US territories
  • establishing minimum standards for access of international observers invited by the US authorities
  • creating transparent voter registration database maintenance procedures that ensure voter enfranchisement while maintaining an accurate voter list
  • establishing legal safeguards against possible partisan conduct of election officials strengthened
  • promoting voter registration, including through civil education programs, and considering possibilities for ‘automatic’ voter registration based on other interactions of citizens with the state
  • enhancing transparency and the integrity of electronic voting equipment
  • reviewing the campaign finance system

Following the 2010 congressional midterm elections, the OSCE criticized the U.S. method of drawing congressional districts which limit genuine competition (known as “gerrymandering”). “With a view to ensuring genuine electoral competition in congressional districts,” the OSCE recommended, “consideration could be given to introducing procedures for drawing district boundaries that will be based on criteria other than voters’ voting histories and perceived future voting intentions.”

While these worthwhile recommendations remain unaddressed, the United States continues to criticize Russia for its flawed elections.

“The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted,” said Clinton following Sunday’s election. “And that means they deserve free, fair, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them. And we believe that that’s in the best interests of Russia and we’re going to continue to speak out about it.”

Putin is alleging that Clinton is seizing on allegations of election fraud to deliberately encourage his political opponents to take to the streets.

“She sent a signal to some activists inside the country,” said Putin. “They got the message and started active work with the support of the U.S. State Department.”

With protesters taking to the streets and Russian authorities responding with mass arrests, the U.S. is now complaining that demonstrators are being mistreated.

“We are deeply troubled over reports of the mistreatment of hundreds of demonstrators who have recently been arrested and are now in pre-trial detention facilities complaining of the lack of access to counsel, medical help, and basic foodstuffs,” said a statement from the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

“We call on the Russian government to comply with international norms and commitments to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law and urge authorities to respect the people’s right to demonstrate and demand that their voices are heard and that election violations are promptly and credibly addressed.”

Again, however, it seems that the U.S. is throwing stones from a glass house.

In relation to heavy-handed policing of Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and the treatment of journalists covering the protests, the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, has reminded U.S. authorities of international commitments the United States has subscribed to regarding 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.”

Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has said said 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 week. “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.”

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.”

Around 5,000 Occupy protesters have been arrested in 76 cities since the demonstrations against corporate greed and political corruption began in September. One of the most recent crackdowns was in Los Angeles, where authorites arrested 300 individuals and set their bail at $5,000.

In response to the LA crackdown, members of an interfaith group of clergy objected to what they call a distressing “level of violence and brutality” used by the 1,400 Los Angeles Police Department officers who cleared the encampment in the early morning hours of Nov. 30.

“Occupiers were pushed and hit and corralled and hunted down by police in a military fashion,” the Occupy L.A. Interfaith Leaders Support Network wrote in a letter delivered to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Dec. 1.

“People were knocked over, pushed around, pushed with batons, chased down, corralled,” said Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, citing reports about police violence. “It was kind of a ‘shock and awe’ operation, designed to terrorize the people that were there — and it worked. In that way, it worked.”

Sixteen complaints have been filed with the LAPD regarding their operation, yet, on these domestic concerns, U.S. leaders are silent. Human rights and democratic elections apparently only matter when they can be used as leverage against geopolitical rivals such as Russia.

Legislation to curb insider trading in Congress required under international law

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.

International community expressing growing concerns about deteriorating human rights in the USA

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.

Ron Paul’s lack of media access a violation of U.S. commitments on democratic elections

Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney at the Nov. 22 CNN presidential debate on national security

To ensure that the will of the people serves as the basis of the authority of government, the participating States will hold free elections at reasonable intervals, as established by law … [and] provide that no legal or administrative obstacle stands in the way of unimpeded access to the media on a non-discriminatory basis for all political groupings and individuals wishing to participate in the electoral process …

OSCE Copenhagen Document, signed by the United States, June 1990

With the unorthodox candidacy of Texas congressman Ron Paul doing better than expected in the Republican primary race, the media, together with the GOP establishment, is resorting to equally unorthodox measures to sideline his campaign.

Having endured a near blackout in the early days of his campaign, Ron Paul has received some grudging respect from the media lately, but while the antiwar libertarian has been granted some access to the media of late, it is frequently hostile and disingenuous — as seen in this Nov. 20 exchange on CBS’s Face the Nation:

In the Republican primary debates, Paul has sometimes been given just the bare minimum of time to make his points. In the first hour of the GOP debate in South Carolina on Nov. 13, for example, he had just 89 seconds to share his views on television. After numerous public complaints from Paul’s presidential campaign and his supporters, he received a higher percentage of speaking time at CNN’s debate on Nov. 22, having a total of 600 seconds to make his points.

Now, however, Ron Paul is being excluded from the debates altogether.

The Republican Jewish Coalition has declined to invite Paul to its presidential candidates forum this Wednesday in Washington, citing his “misguided and extreme views.”

RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks said Paul was not invited because the organization objects to his positions that run contrary to Republican Party orthodoxy. “He’s just so far outside of the mainstream of the Republican Party and this organization,” he told Washington Jewish Week.

In an opinion piece published on RJC’s website on Friday, Jonathan Tobin writes, “Just as no one would consider a demand the GOP group provide a platform for a Democrat, there is no reason for it to allow Paul to pretend he is anything but an extremist who is far outside of the mainstream, especially when it comes to issues concerning the U.S.-Israel alliance.”

“Paul claims his opposition to aid to Israel ought not to disqualify him for pro-Israel voters,” Tobin declares. “He says aid is bad for the Jewish state and that he respects its sovereignty more than many of its friends who seek to impose American solutions to the peace process that it rejects. But this is not a serious argument.”

Apparently the RJC – which calls itself “the sole voice of Jewish Republicans to Republican decision makers and the Jewish community” – doesn’t feel compelled to allow a frontrunner in the Republican primaries to present his “not serious” arguments in his own voice.

It seems likely that the RJC and the Republican establishment as a whole are taking the advice of Republican strategist and former senior staffer in the Bush administration Bradley Blakeman, who explained to Fox Business News in September, “Ron Paul is neither selectable by the party to be nominated or electable by the people.”

“Let’s get real,” said Blakeman. “He’s a gadfly and nothing more than that. If I were [Mitt] Romney and [Rick] Perry, I would be thinking of a way to get Ron Paul off the stage because he is a distraction.”

By prohibiting Paul from participating in its presidential debate, the Republican Jewish Coalition has seemingly taken Blakeman’s advice “to get Ron Paul off the stage” to heart.

It is not only the height of hypocrisy for a Jewish organization which claims to “respect the differences of opinion among our membership” on “abortion, gay rights, gun control, global warming” and “other topics” to silence the voice of Paul on the issue of the U.S.-Israeli alliance. It is also arguably a violation of the United States’ international commitments on democratic elections.

As the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) explains in its handbook for election observation,

Equal conditions should be ensured for all participants in the election process so that they compete on a level playing field. … Candidates and political parties should have unimpeded access to the media on a non-discriminatory basis, and state or public media should meet their special responsibility for providing sufficient, balanced and impartial information to enable the electorate to make well-informed choices.

As an OSCE participating State and signatory to the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document, the U.S. is as bound to those obligations as any other participating State, including frequent targets of U.S. criticism such as Belarus and Russia.

If the Republican candidates who were invited to RJC’s forum have any integrity at all, they will decline the invitation unless and until all GOP candidates are permitted to debate.

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