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DOJ report on Albuquerque police brutality a halting step towards accountability

Protest in Albuquerque against the March 16 police shooting of homeless man James Boyd

Protest in Albuquerque against the March 16 police shooting of homeless man James Boyd

Following a wide-ranging investigation of the Albuquerque Police Department (APD), the U.S. Justice Department said last Thursday that the APD has for years engaged in a pattern of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law.

The investigation, launched in November 2012, examined whether APD engages in an unconstitutional pattern or practice of excessive force, including deadly force, specifically identifying three general patterns of police abuse:

  • APD officers too frequently use deadly force against people who pose a minimal threat and in situations where the conduct of the officers heightens the danger and contributes to the need to use force;
  • APD officers use less lethal force, including tasers, on people who are passively resisting, non-threatening, observably unable to comply with orders or pose only a minimal threat to the officers; and
  • Encounters between APD officers and persons with mental illness and in crisis too frequently result in a use of force or a higher level of force than necessary.

The DOJ’s findings come on the heels of the recent police murder of a homeless man that has sparked a wave of demonstrations in Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city.

APD officers gunned down 38-year-old James Boyd on March 16 in the Sandia foothills following a standoff and after he allegedly threatened officers with a small knife, authorities said. But a helmet-camera video showed Boyd agreeing to walk down the mountain with them, gathering his things and taking a step toward officers just before they fired.

“It’s a tremendous injustice,” said community leader Ralph Arellanes of the shooting. “This was something that caught the attention of the world.”

Indeed, the world has been taking notice, not just of this particular incident, but in general the ongoing epidemic of police violence and the criminalization of homeless people in the United States.

Just last month, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a scathing report documenting serious human rights abuses in the United States, including the nationwide problem of police brutality, in particular against people of color and the homeless.

In a section called “Criminalization of homelessness,” the Human Rights Committee expressed concern about reports of “criminalization of people living on the street for everyday activities such as eating, sleeping, sitting in particular areas etc.”

The Committee noted that such criminalization raises concerns of discrimination and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment under articles 2, 7, 9, 17,and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and urged the U.S. to “abolish criminalization of homelessness laws and policies at state and local levels.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is one area that is sorely lacking in the United States, with a general climate of impunity across the country for killer cops.

As a 2007 report prepared for the UN 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, 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.

In this context, while the new Justice Department report issued last week is certainly a welcome step towards some accountability, the fact is, much more is needed to bring U.S. police departments in line with international norms on law enforcement. A more comprehensive effort – including federal prosecutions of rogue cops – may be necessary if the United States is to bring itself into compliance with international policing norms.

Welcoming UN observations, civil society urges greater U.S. commitment to human rights

A demonstrator protests against Guantanamo Bay prison during a Stop the War rally in Trafalgar Square, central LondonFollowing last week’s release of the UN Human Rights Committee’s “concluding observations” on the compliance of the United States with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), U.S. civil society groups have urged greater commitment by the U.S. government in meeting its international obligations.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that the “scathing report” called into question the legitimacy of a wide range of current U.S. policies, including counterterrorism operations, immigrants’ rights, voting rights, and the criminal justice system.

“The committee’s recommendations highlight the gaps between U.S. human rights obligations and current laws and practices,” said ACLU Human Rights Program Director Jamil Dakwar.

“The Human Rights Committee rightly called out the United States for setting dangerous examples from counterterrorism operations to an unfair criminal justice system to inhumane treatment of migrants. President Obama now has an opportunity to reverse course and reshape his human rights legacy by taking concrete actions like declassifying the Senate report on CIA torture and ending dragnet surveillance and unlawful targeted killings,” Dakwar said.

Writing at the ACLU’s Blog of Rights, Astrid Reyes noted the extremely serious nature of the U.S.’s ICCPR violations:

The committee condemned the United States’ lack of accountability for disappearance, torture, and unlawful killings of terrorism suspects, and its failure to apply the ICCPR to international operations. In addition, the committee denounced racial disparities in law enforcement that have led to the incarceration of a disproportionate number of minorities (particularly Blacks and Latinos), effectively denying them basic human rights throughout the criminal justice process. This includes severe sentencing such as the death penalty and life without parole for juveniles; improper use of solitary confinement; and denial of civil rights following incarceration (most notably, the right to vote).

While the committee noted several areas where the U.S. record has improved since its last review in 2006, the Concluding Observations include important structural recommendations, such as creating an independent human rights monitoring body and expanding existing mechanisms to monitor the implementation of human rights at federal, state, local and tribal levels – providing them with adequate human and financial resources.

The U.S. Human Rights Network (USHRN), which has long been advocating for full implementation of the ICCPR at the federal, state and local levels, called the UN’s concluding observations “a strong reflection of the important work being done by human rights defenders across the country.”

“We welcome the UN Human Rights Committee’s recommendation that the U.S. ensure effective remedies for violations under the ICCPR and to take steps to bring U.S. domestic law in line with its human rights obligations,” said Ejim Dike, Executive Director of USHRN.

“We urge the Administration to follow up on the recommendations by the Committee which make clear that the US has significant work to do to fully comply with its human rights obligations in a broad range of issues including racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, gun violence, excessive use of force by law enforcement in communities of color and on the border, access to healthcare for immigrants, criminalization of the homeless, and forced psychiatric treatment,” she said.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) “applaud[ed] the UN and the international community for holding the US accountable to its international obligations and shedding a necessary light on areas where it is falling short,” describing the UN report as “highly critical.”

The UN’s main areas of concern, CCR noted, included:

  • the U.S. “targeted killing” program;
  • the lack of progress in the closure of Guantánamo, urging the U.S. to expedite the process of transferring detainees out of the prison, including to Yemen, and reiterating its position that the U.S. must end its practice of indefinite detention without charge or trial;
  • the secrecy and lack of accountability around Bush-era abuses, including the limited number of investigations, prosecutions and convictions of contractors and high ranking U.S. officials for killings and torture of detainees;
  • the imposition of the death penalty in a racially discriminatory manner and the conditions on death row;
  • reports of criminalization of people living on the street for everyday activities such as eating, sleeping, and sitting in particular areas, raising concerns of discrimination and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment;
  • the use of prolonged solitary confinement, particularly for at-risk people and those in pretrial detention, urging the abolition of solitary for people under 18 and for people with serious mental illness, and strict limitations on its use, overall; and
  • the targeting of Muslims by the NYPD, and racial profiling overall (while underlining its support for recent plans to reform the use of stop and frisk).

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said “the United States should heed calls issued on March 27, 2014, by an important UN human rights body to ensure that its surveillance activities are consistent with the right to privacy, both within and outside its borders.”

HRW noted that the UN Human Rights Committee’s “conclusions address a wide range of serious human rights problems in the US, but the findings on surveillance are notable, as they are the committee’s first statement on the extent to which privacy rights are affected by widespread communications surveillance.”

The committee called on the United States to comply with privacy requirements set forth in article 17 of the ICCPR, particularly to respect the right to privacy, regardless of the nationality or location of individuals being monitored. It also criticized the lack of transparency in U.S. laws, urging the United States to reform its system of oversight of surveillance to protect the rights of those affected.

“The US insists it has no international legal obligations to respect the privacy rights of foreigners outside its borders, but one of the UN’s most important human rights bodies has now made clear it disagrees,” said Andrea Prasow, HRW’s senior U.S. national security counsel. “It’s time for the U.S. to recognize that people outside the country have just as much right to have their privacy respected as those inside the US, and that any surveillance must be strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) concurred, with EFF’s International Rights Director, Katitza Rodriguez, welcoming the Committee’s observations on U.S. violations of privacy rights.  “It’s imperative the United States comply with its human rights treaty obligations, specifically Article 17 of the ICCPR, which protect the right of privacy for everyone in the same manner, within or outside US borders, regardless of nationality or place of residence,” Rodriguez said.

According to an EFF statement:

It’s very disappointing that the United States maintain its views that its human rights obligations under the ICCPR do not extend to its actions abroad, a view that defeats the object and purpose of the treaty. The Committee agreed and reiterates that the United States has an extraterritorial duty to protect human rights—including the right to privacy— to its action abroad regardless of the nationality or location of the individuals.

The Committee rightly criticized the current system of oversight for NSA surveillance activities, highlighting concern with the judicial interpretations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and secret rulings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). These secret rulings prevent individuals from knowing the law with sufficient precision. Knowledge of and clarity in the law is a crucial principle that is clearly defined in our 13 Necessary and Proportionate Principles.

The NAACP, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, applauded the concluding observations, noting that the UN report identifies issues of felony disenfranchisement, stand your ground laws, the death penalty and more.

“This report reiterated what those in the civil rights community have known for too long – the United States has more work to do to meet its human rights obligations,” stated Lorraine C. Miller, NAACP Interim President and CEO.

“From felony disenfranchisement and stand your ground laws to voter suppression and the school to prison pipeline, we are pleased the Human Rights Committee has elevated these issues on the international stage. This gives us leverage in the United States to more aggressively address these issues at home,” she said.

While the reaction to the UN report was overwhelmingly positive, the U.S. human rights community was not entirely satisfied with the concluding observations. The Center for Constitutional Rights, for example, regretted that the Human Rights Committee failed to question the U.S. government on the devastation the invasion and occupation of Iraq has brought to both Iraqi civilians and U.S. veterans.

A “shadow report” submitted by CCR to the Human Rights Committee, entitled “US Veterans and Iraqi Organizations Seek Accountability for Human Rights Crisis Resulting from a Decade of US-Led War,” noted “the lack of any recognition whatsoever by the US government of the disastrous and tragic consequences” caused by the war against Iraq.

“Despite having waged an illegal war based on false justifications, no civilian or military official has been investigated or held accountable for their role in fabricating the justification to go to war in Iraq. In fact, the current administration recently argued in a legal case brought by victims of the Iraq war that officials responsible for planning and waging the war in violation of international law should be afforded immunity and shielded from suit,” CCR noted in its shadow report.

The full concluding observations of the UN Human Rights Committee are available here. For more information about U.S. obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, see the ACLU’s FAQ page.

Scathing criticism of U.S. human rights record at UN review

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The United States came under sustained criticism last week during a two-day review by the United Nations Human Rights Committee for its compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a legally binding treaty ratified by the United States in 1992.

Much of the attention that the review has received in the media has focused on the U.S.’s refusal to recognize the ICCPR’s mandate over its actions beyond its own borders, using the “extra-territoriality” claim to justify its actions in Guantánamo and in conflict zones.

Walter Kälin, a Swiss international human rights lawyer who sits on the committee, criticized the U.S. position. “This world is an unsafe place,” Kälin said. “Will it not become even more dangerous if any state would be willing to claim that international law does not prevent them from committing human rights violations abroad?”

Besides its controversial counter-terrorism tactics, including indefinite detention and the use of drones to kill terrorist suspects far from any battlefield, the U.S. also came under criticism for a litany of human rights abuses that included NSA surveillance, police brutality, the death penalty, rampant gun violence and endemic racial inequality.

The U.S. government was also reprimanded for the treatment of youth in the criminal justice system, with committee members pointing out that the sentence of life without parole for child offenders may raise issues under article 7 of the ICCPR, which prohibits “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” While this matter is left to the states under the U.S. system of federalism, the national government should require that juveniles be separated from adult prisoners, the U.S. was told.

Corporal punishment of children in schools, detention centers and homes was also raised, with the U.S. delegation asked what policy has been adopted to eliminate corporal punishment and treat children as minors rather than adults in the criminal justice system. To this criticism, the U.S. responded that it is still “exceptional” in the U.S. for children to be tried in adult courts.

Concern was also expressed over mandatory deportation of immigrants convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors without regard to individual cases. Further, the U.S. has failed to meet international obligations for freedom of religious belief in relation to indigenous communities, the committee said.

The U.S. was asked for a timeline for closing the Guantanamo detention center, and concern was raised over the fairness of the military commissions set up to try terrorism suspects. The majority of Guantanamo detainees approved for transfer remain in administrative limbo, the U.S. was reminded.

When it comes to mass surveillance being conducted by the National Security Agency, the U.S. delegation was asked if the NSA surveillance is “necessary and proportionate,” and whether the oversight under the FISA court could be considered sufficient.

NSA surveillance raises concerns under articles 17 and 19 of the ICCPR, the U.S. was told. According to article 17,

1. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.

2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 19 guarantees that,

1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

Committee members also highlighted the Obama administration’s failure to prosecute any of the officials responsible for permitting waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques under the previous administration.

The committee weighed in on the ongoing conflict between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee, calling in particular for the U.S. to release a report on a Bush-era interrogation program at the heart of the dispute.

“It would appear that a Senator Dianne Feinstein claims that the computers of the Senate have been hacked into in the context of this investigation,” Victor Manuel Rodriguez-Rescia, a committee member from Costa Rica, told the U.S. delegation.

“In the light of this, we would like hear a commitment that this report will be disclosed, will be made public and therefore be de-classified so that we the committee can really analyze what follow-up you have given to these hearings.”

Committee chair Nigel Rodley, a British law professor and former UN investigator on torture, suggested lawyers in the Bush administration who drew up memorandums justifying the use of harsh interrogation techniques could also be liable to prosecution.

“When evidently seriously flawed legal opinions are issued which then are used as a cover for the committing of serious crimes, one wonders at what point the authors of such opinions may themselves have to be considered part of the criminal plan in the first place?” Rodley said.

“Of course we know that so far there has been impunity.”

This impunity stems in part from the U.S. position that the treaty imposes no human rights obligations on American military and intelligence forces when they operate abroad, rejecting an interpretation by the United Nations and the top State Department lawyer during President Obama’s first term.

“The United States continues to believe that its interpretation — that the covenant applies only to individuals both within its territory and within its jurisdiction — is the most consistent with the covenant’s language and negotiating history,” Mary McLeod, the State Department’s acting legal adviser, said during the session.

This narrow legal reasoning drew criticism from the UN panel, with committee member Yuji Iwasawa, Professor of International Law at the University of Tokyo, pointing out that “No state has made more reservations to the ICCPR than the United States.”

The review last week, held on March 13-14, is a voluntary exercise, repeated every five years, and the U.S. will face no penalties if it ignores the committee’s recommendations, which will appear in a final report in a few weeks’ time.

The Guardian noted however that “the U.S. is clearly sensitive to suggestions that it fails to live up to the human rights obligations enshrined in the convention – as signalled by the large size of its delegation to Geneva this week. And as an act of public shaming, Thursday’s encounter was frequently uncomfortable for the U.S.”

U.S. human rights record under international review this week in Geneva

InternationalCovenantCivilPoliticalRightsAs a country that feels comfortable proudly proclaiming its “exceptional” status to the world and relishing in its perceived global leadership on human rights, the United States might find it somewhat uncomfortable being scrutinized this week on its own human rights record, when it is reviewed March 13-14 by the UN’s Human Rights Committee (HRC) for its compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a legally binding treaty ratified by the United States in 1992.

The review, which takes place every several years, is a rare spotlight on domestic human rights issues within the United States, as well as its prosecution of the “war on terror” abroad. It is one of the few occasions where the U.S. government is compelled to defend its record on a range of human rights concerns, speaking the language of international law rather than the usual language of constitutional rights.

One of the primary issues the United States will be asked to clarify this week is the applicability of the ICCPR to its military engagements overseas, including indefinite detention and the extrajudicial killings carried out by unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.

Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, has just completed an investigation into 37 recent drone strikes, in which he noted a sharp rise in strikes and a “significant number” of civilian casualties since the end of 2013. Emmerson has demanded greater accountability and transparency on drone strikes, including public investigations into allegations of civilian casualties.

In its questionnaire to the U.S. government ahead of this year’s review, the top question of the HRC was for clarification of the government’s position on the applicability of the ICCPR in the war on terror.

Specifically, the HRC requested that the U.S. clarify “the State party’s understanding of the scope of applicability of the Covenant with respect to individuals under its jurisdiction but outside its territory; in times of peace, as well as in times of armed conflict.”

Following the last review of the United States, in July 2006, the  U.S. government 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 HRC 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.

It does not appear, however, that the U.S. will be changing its legal position regarding the treaty’s extraterritorial applicability. As the New York Times reported on March 6,

The United Nations panel in Geneva that monitors compliance with the rights treaty disagrees with the American interpretation, and human rights advocates have urged the United States to reverse its position when it sends a delegation to answer the panel’s questions next week. But the Obama administration is unlikely to do that, according to interviews, rejecting a strong push by two high-ranking State Department officials from President Obama’s first term.

Caitlin Hayden, a National Security Council spokeswoman, declined to discuss deliberations but defended the existing interpretation of the accord as applying only within American borders. Called the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it bars such things as unfair trials, arbitrary killings and the imprisonment of people without judicial review.

However, in a 56-page internal memo, the State Department’s former top lawyer, Harold Koh, concluded in October 2010 that the “best reading” of the accord is that it does “impose certain obligations on a State Party’s extraterritorial conduct.”

Despite Koh’s opinions, the Obama administration has reportedly decided not to reverse the previous U.S. position due to fears that accepting that everything from extraterritorial drone strikes to NSA surveillance could fall within the purview of the ICCPR.

The ACLU’s Jamil Dakwar pointed out in a blog post on Sunday that “the review will cast light on a dark underbelly of American exceptionalism — our refusal to acknowledge that human rights treaties have effect overseas.” The only other country in the world that claims that human rights treaties don’t apply to extraterritorial action is Israel, Dakwar noted.

Perhaps anticipating a difficult review, the United States is sending a huge delegation of government lawyers and military officials to defend the U.S. position. The HRC apparently had to reserve a bigger hall to accommodate the sizable U.S. government delegation and more than 70 human rights advocates and observers who will be in attendance at the six-hour session.

In addition to issues related to the global war on terror, the HRC will review U.S. compliance with its ICCPR obligations on matters such as the rights of indigenous peoples, the death penalty, solitary confinement, voting rights, migrant and women’s rights, and NSA surveillance.

The ACLU submitted a shadow report to the committee highlighting examples of accountability gaps between U.S. human rights obligations and current law, policy, and practice. “U.S. laws and policies remain out of step with international human rights law in many areas,” notes the ACLU.

In addition, the ACLU provided an update to the issues covered in its September submission to the committee, which addresses serious rights violations that have emerged in recent months. The report covers:

The U.S. Human Rights Network has also submitted 30 shadow reports and currently has a delegation in Geneva, conducting activities over the course of the week to ensure that UN and U.S. officials understand the human rights realities of communities across the country.

USHRN’s shadow reports cover a wide range of issues including indigenous rights, equal protection of men and women, prisoners’ rights, freedom of association, political participation, and access to justice. The Center for Constitutional Rights has submitted shadow reports on issues including police departments’ stop-and-frisk policies, deportations of immigrants, and arbitrary detention at Guantanamo Bay.

As the ACLU’s Jamil Dakwar wrote on Sunday,

More than ever, the U.S. is facing an uphill battle to prove its bona fides on human rights issues. The United States is not only seen as a hypocrite, resisting demands to practice at home what it preaches abroad, it is now increasingly seen as a violator of human rights that is setting a dangerous precedent for other governments to justify and legitimize their own rights’ violations.

Despite this fact, the U.S. continues to ruffle feathers around the world with its increasingly hypocritical criticisms of other countries. On February 27, the State Department released its annual human rights report on the global human rights situation. As Secretary of State John Kerry said in releasing the report:

Even as we come together today to issue a report on other nations, we hold ourselves to a high standard, and we expect accountability here at home too. And we know that we’re not perfect. We don’t speak with any arrogance whatsoever, but with a concern for the human condition.

Our own journey has not been without great difficulty, and at times, contradiction. But even as we remain humble about the challenges of our own history, we are proud that no country has more opportunity to advance the cause of democracy and no country is as committed to the cause of human rights as we are.

Kerry’s comments not only likely infuriated the frequent targets of U.S. criticism, but also were offensive to every other country on earth that takes the cause of human rights seriously. By saying that “no country is as committed to the cause of human rights as” the U.S., what he’s really saying is that even countries such as Iceland or Denmark which have made human rights core pillars of their foreign policy don’t come close to the U.S. standard.

Not unexpectedly, China and Russia immediately denounced the U.S. human rights report, saying the United States is hardly a bastion of human rights standards and is on poor footing to judge other nations.

“The United States always wants to gossip and remark about other countries’ situations, but ignores its own issues. This is a classic double standard,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang.

The combination of the U.S. drone assassination programs, a National Security Agency under increasing global scrutiny for its dragnet surveillance practices, rampant gun violence, poor labor standards, and use of solitary confinement in jails shows that the U.S. is hardly without its own human rights abuses, noted China in its own report, “The Human Rights Record of the United States in 2013.”

Moscow concurred, with Russian Foreign Ministry’s commissioner for human rights, democracy and supremacy of law Konstantin Dolgov saying on March 4 that the U.S. human rights report “has the same flaws that were typical for previous similar reports.”

“The document is cramped with selective and stereotype assessments with the use of double standards, for instance, regarding tragic events in Ukraine,” Dolgov noted.

He pointed out that the U.S. has “acute problems with equal suffrage rights in the US and their equal access to justice.” Further, the U.S. leads the world with the number of incarcerated citizens, with with 2.2 million prisoners, Dolgov said.

As the U.S. is forced to answer for its own human rights record this week, it will be interesting to see how forthcoming it is on these problems, or if it will continue to tout its claimed status as the human rights champion of the world.

The entire U.S. ICCPR review, taking place March 13 and 14, will be broadcast live on UN TV. To follow on Twitter, use the hashtag #ICCPRforAll.

For Compliance Campaign’s archive of ICCPR related articles, see here.

When the World Wide Web fought back against the National Security Agency

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The Internet fought back yesterday against the ever-encroaching mass-surveillance state being imposed by the NSA and associated government agencies in the U.S. and its international partners. Members of Congress were bombarded with emails and phone calls as part of a coordinated day of action, billed as “The Day We Fight Back,” involving more than 6,000 websites and countless more individuals.

According to Inagist.com, the day of action resulted in at least 80,741 phone calls, 163,859 emails, 220,182 petition signatures, and more than 700,000 visitors to the website.

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The online protest began at midnight on Feb. 11 and continued throughout the day. Participating websites included major online platforms such as Reddit and Tumblr and a number of advocacy groups, including Upworthy, Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, and Demand Progress.

In addition to protesting the widespread government surveillance made public by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the event was timed to commemorate the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, an Internet pioneer and freedom of information activist who was found dead of an apparent suicide in January 2013 amid an overzealous government prosecution that threatened to send him away for 35 years to a U.S. federal prison.

Swartz was a victim of the U.S. “war on whistleblowers,” an ongoing government campaign to clamp down on the free flow of information which has caused the United States to lose its once-touted status as a global champion for freedom of the press. In Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index released today, the U.S. fell 13 places from its position last year, being ranked now just 46th out of 180 surveyed countries worldwide.

As Reporters Without Borders explains on its website,

Countries that pride themselves on being democracies and respecting the rule of law have not set an example [for press freedom], far from it. Freedom of information is too often sacrificed to an overly broad and abusive interpretation of national security needs, marking a disturbing retreat from democratic practices. Investigative journalism often suffers as a result.

This has been the case in the United States (46th), which fell 13 places, one of the most significant declines, amid increased efforts to track down whistleblowers and the sources of leaks. The trial and conviction of Private Bradley Manning and the pursuit of NSA analyst Edward Snowden were warnings to all those thinking of assisting in the disclosure of sensitive information that would clearly be in the public interest.

While obsessively persecuting conscientious leakers of state secrets, the U.S. government has simultaneously waged a war against individual privacy that violates a host of international norms, including as Privacy International has pointed out: Article 12 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which specifically protects territorial and communications privacy; Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966; Article 14 of the United Nations Convention on Migrant Workers, and Article 16 of the UN Convention of the Protection of the Child.

Other international conventions that recognize the right to privacy include Article 10 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Article 11 of the American Convention on Human Rights, Article 4 of the African Union Principles on Freedom of Expression, Article 5 of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, Article 21 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, and Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

In an attempt to counter this assault on international norms and U.S. constitutional rights, websites participating in The Day We Fight Back embedded a large black banner that allowed visitors to input their email address and location and send a letter to their representatives in Congress asking them to oppose the FISA Improvements Act, an Orwellian piece of legislation that would retroactively legalize the government’s unlawful mass spying program.

The ACLU called the proposed act “a dream come true for the NSA” that would “codify the NSA’s unconstitutional call-records program and allow bulk collection of location data from mobile phone users.”

Following up on the U.S.-oriented Day We Fight Back, today several groups launched a European-based campaign to protest, in particular, the activities of the NSA’s junior partner in mass surveillance, Britain’s GCHQ. Privacy International, Article 19, Big Brother Watch, English PEN, Liberty, and Open Rights Group initiated the Don’t Spy On Us campaign. In an announcement at the Privacy International blog, Gus Hosein notes,

In almost every week since last summer, a new Snowden document has been released which details the growing surveillance powers and practices of intelligence agencies, each one astonishing in its own right. The documents have exposed the illegal activities and intrusive capabilities of the UK’s intelligence agency, GCHQ, which has secretly sought to exploit and control every aspect of our global communications systems.

For far too long, mass and intrusive government surveillance programs have operated in the shadows, outside of the rule of law, and without democratic accountability. Now our governments are even defending this state of affairs. This should not be, and certainly cannot continue.

We must fight back.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch recently warned that the NSA is “setting trends” and that there will soon there will be “no safe haven” from the worldwide surveillance practices being pioneered by the United States government.

“As the world’s information moves into cyberspace, surveillance capabilities have grown commensurately,” says HRW in its 2014 World Report. “The U.S. now leads in ability for global data capture, but other nations and actors are likely to catch up, and some already insist that more data be kept within their reach.”

Hopefully the international grassroots movement to counter this trend is able to keep up.

For more information, please see:

American Civil Liberties Union

Bill of Rights Defense Committee

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Demand Progress

Privacy International

Police brutality, drone wars and international norms

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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.”

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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.

drones police brutality

Bradley Manning, political prisoner

bradley manning george orwell

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.

Did Manning’s court-martial meet international fair trial standards?

bradley manning jail cell

“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.

free bradley manning

NSA surveillance routinely violating U.S. and international law

nsa-listening-408The Washington Post is reporting that the National Security Agency has broken its own privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since 2008, citing top-secret documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Most of the infractions involved illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, ranging from significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of U.S. emails and telephone calls, according to the Post.

In one instance, the NSA decided it would not report the unintended surveillance of Americans to the FISA court. A notable example in 2008 was the interception of a “large number” of calls placed from Washington when a “programming error” confused U.S. area code 202 for 20, the international dialing code for Egypt.

The NSA audit that Snowden provided to the Post, dated May 2012, counted 2,776 incidents in the preceding 12 months of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications.

In other words, the NSA – which was granted greatly expanded legal authority in 2008 by Congress in the FISA Amendments Act – has been routinely flouting Americans’ legal protections with impunity for years.

“The number of ‘compliance incidents’ is jaw-dropping,” said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director. “The rules around government surveillance are so permissive that it is difficult to comprehend how the intelligence community could possibly have managed to violate them so often.”

He pointed out that “at least some of these incidents seem to have implicated the privacy of thousands or millions of innocent people.”

The incidents are not only infractions of of U.S. law, but also international law.

As Privacy International has pointed out:

Human rights conventions and national constitutions almost universally call for the protection of the right to privacy – the challenge is ensuring that governments comply with this requirement, particularly with respect to new technologies and in countries that lack the rule of law.

The modern privacy benchmark at an international level can be found in Article 12 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which specifically protects territorial and communications privacy. Numerous other international human rights treaties recognize privacy as a right: 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. Regional conventions that recognize the right to privacy includes Article 10 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Article 11 of the American Convention on Human Rights, Article 4 of the African Union Principles on Freedom of Expression, Article 5 of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, Article 21 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, and Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

An April 2013 report issued by the United Nations about the threat that government surveillance poses to the enjoyment of basic human rights found that state surveillance of communications is ubiquitous and such surveillance severely undermines citizens’ ability to enjoy a private life, to express themselves freely and enjoy other fundamental freedoms.

UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue noted that in the current era, “the State now has a greater capability to conduct simultaneous, invasive, targeted and broad-scale surveillance than ever before.”

The report touched on various problems in the use of surveillance, including the lack of judicial oversight, unregulated access to communications data and extra-legal surveillance. In addressing these concerns the UN “underlines the urgent need to further study new modalities of surveillance and to revise national laws regulating these practices in line with human rights standards.”

Toward this end, civil society groups, industry and international experts in communications surveillance law, policy and technology have developed the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, formally launched last month.

According to the Preamble of the International Principles,

Privacy is a fundamental human right, and is central to the maintenance of democratic societies. It is essential to human dignity and it reinforces other rights, such as freedom of expression and information, and freedom of association, and is recognised under international human rights law. Activities that restrict the right to privacy, including communications surveillance, can only be justified when they are prescribed by law, they are necessary to achieve a legitimate aim, and are proportionate to the aim pursued.

Before public adoption of the Internet, well-established legal principles and logistical burdens inherent in monitoring communications created limits to State communications surveillance. In recent decades, those logistical barriers to surveillance have decreased and the application of legal principles in new technological contexts has become unclear. The explosion of digital communications content and information about communications, or “communications metadata” — information about an individual’s communications or use of electronic devices — the falling cost of storing and mining large sets of data, and the provision of personal content through third party service providers make State surveillance possible at an unprecedented scale. Meanwhile, conceptualisations of existing human rights law have not kept up with the modern and changing communications surveillance capabilities of the State, the ability of the State to combine and organize information gained from different surveillance techniques, or the increased sensitivity of the information available to be accessed.

The frequency with which States are seeking access to both communications content and communications metadata is rising dramatically, without adequate scrutiny. When accessed and analysed, communications metadata may create a profile of an individual’s life, including medical conditions, political and religious viewpoints, associations, interactions and interests, disclosing as much detail as, or even greater detail than would be discernible from the content of communications. Despite the vast potential for intrusion into an individual’s life and the chilling effect on political and other associations, legislative and policy instruments often afford communications metadata a lower level of protection and do not place sufficient restrictions on how they can be subsequently used by agencies, including how they are data-mined, shared, and retained.

In order for States to actually meet their international human rights obligations in relation to communications surveillance, they must comply with the principles set out below. These principles apply to surveillance conducted within a State or extraterritorially. The principles also apply regardless of the purpose for the surveillance — law enforcement, national security or any other regulatory purpose. They also apply both to the State’s obligation to respect and fulfil individuals’ rights, and also to the obligation to protect individuals’ rights from abuse by non-State actors, including corporate entities. The private sector bears equal responsibility for respecting human rights, particularly given the key role it plays in designing, developing and disseminating technologies; enabling and providing communications; and – where required – cooperating with State surveillance activities. Nevertheless, the scope of the present Principles is limited to the obligations of the State.

The Principles include 13 key points, summarized here:

Legality: Any limitation on the right to privacy must be prescribed by law.

Legitimate Aim: Laws should only permit communications surveillance by specified State authorities to achieve a legitimate aim that corresponds to a predominantly important legal interest that is necessary in a democratic society.

Necessity: Laws permitting communications surveillance by the State must limit surveillance to that which is strictly and demonstrably necessary to achieve a legitimate aim.

Adequacy: Any instance of communications surveillance authorised by law must be appropriate to fulfill the specific legitimate aim identified.

Proportionality: Decisions about communications surveillance must be made by weighing the benefit sought to be achieved against the harm that would be caused to users’ rights and to other competing interests.

Competent judicial authority: Determinations related to communications surveillance must be made by a competent judicial authority that is impartial and independent.

Due process: States must respect and guarantee individuals’ human rights by ensuring that lawful procedures that govern any interference with human rights are properly enumerated in law, consistently practiced, and available to the general public.

User notification: Individuals should be notified of a decision authorising communications surveillance with enough time and information to enable them to appeal the decision, and should have access to the materials presented in support of the application for authorisation.

Transparency: States should be transparent about the use and scope of communications surveillance techniques and powers.

Public oversight: States should establish independent oversight mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability of communications surveillance.

Integrity of communications and systems: States should not compel service providers, or hardware or software vendors to build surveillance or monitoring capabilities into their systems, or to collect or retain information.

Safeguards for international cooperation: Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLATs) entered into by States should ensure that, where the laws of more than one State could apply to communications surveillance, the available standard with the higher level of protection for users should apply.

Safeguards against illegitimate access: States should enact legislation criminalising illegal communications surveillance by public and private actors.

With the new revelations exposed by the Post along with all the other Snowden leaks from recent months, it is clear that many – if not all – of these 13 principles are being violated routinely by the NSA’s surveillance activities.

To sign on to the International Principles, click here.

Click here to tell Congress to end the U.S. surveillance state.

Bluster on Russia reveals U.S. double standards on extradition, human rights

obama babushkaAnnouncing President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel a planned bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, White House press secretary Jay Carney yesterday offered several justifications for the diplomatic snub.

“Given our lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last twelve months, we have informed the Russian Government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda,” the press secretary said.

Almost as an afterthought, Carney added: “Russia’s disappointing decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum was also a factor that we considered in assessing the current state of our bilateral relationship.”

While the bilateral U.S.-Russian relationship has been strained for some time and there are real concerns regarding Moscow’s recent crackdown on civil society, the timing of the announcement – just a week after Russia granted the NSA whistleblower one year of asylum – appeared to be a thinly veiled rebuke intended to punish Moscow for failing to bend to Washington’s dictates. After all, the other areas constituting a “lack of progress” were apparent long before the summit was even scheduled, and the only new factor in the strained relationship is the Snowden affair.

The Kremlin said it was “disappointed” by the U.S. decision, with Putin’s foreign affairs adviser saying the move showed the U.S. could not develop ties with Russia on an “equal basis.”

Russian foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov added that Russia was not to blame over the Snowden affair.

“This decision is clearly linked to the situation with former agent of U.S. special services Snowden, which hasn’t been created by us,” he said.

He pointed out that there is not even an extradition agreement in place between Russia and the United States, largely due to the intransigence of Washington, and therefore there is no legal basis for the U.S. to demand extradition from Moscow in the first place.

“For many years, the Americans have avoided signing an extradition agreement,” Ushakov said, “And they have invariably responded negatively to our requests for extradition of people who committed crimes on the territory of Russia, pointing at the absence of such agreement.”

Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has broken many of the recent stories regarding the NSA’s dragnet surveillance, noted that the U.S. in fact has a long record of refusing to extradite individuals accused of very serious crimes to a whole range of countries, many of which actually have formal extradition treaties in place with Washington.

In a February 28, 2007 article, for example, the New York Times reported:

A senior U.S. official said Wednesday that the United States would refuse any Italian extradition request for CIA agents indicted in the alleged abduction of an Egyptian cleric in Milan, a case investigated by the European Parliament.

“We’ve not got an extradition request from Italy,” John Bellinger, a legal adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, told reporters after meeting in Brussels with legal advisers to EU governments.

“If we got an extradition request from Italy, we would not extradite U.S. officials to Italy.”

Or, as the Washington Post reported on July 19, 2013:

A former CIA operative detained in Panama this week at the request of Italian authorities over his conviction in the 2003 kidnapping of a Muslim cleric in Milan was released Friday and had boarded a flight to the United States, U.S. officials said.

Robert Seldon Lady’s release from Panama appeared to avert the possibility that he would be extradited to Italy, where he faces a sentence of up to nine years in prison for his role in the CIA capture of a terrorism suspect who was secretly snatched off a street in Milan and transported to Egypt.

Lady, who left Panama on Friday morning, was “either en route or back in the United States,” Marie Harf, State Department deputy spokeswoman, told reporters at a midday briefing.

Bolivia has also faced difficulty in extraditing fugitives from the United States, as The Guardian reported on September 9, 2012:

The view that Sánchez de Lozada must be extradited from the US to stand trial is a political consensus in Bolivia, shared by the government and the main opposition party alike. But on Friday night, the Bolivian government revealed that it had just been notified by the Obama administration that the US government has refused Bolivia’s extradition request:

“‘Yesterday (Thursday), a document arrived from the United States, rejecting the extradition of people who have done a lot of damage to Bolivia,’ leftist [President Evo] Morales, an outspoken critic of US foreign policy in Latin America, said in a speech.

“Calling the United States a ‘paradise of impunity’ and a ‘refuge for criminals,’ Morales said Washington turned down the extradition request on the grounds that a civilian leader cannot be tried for crimes committed by the military …

Then of course, there is the long-running case of former CIA employee and terrorist mastermind Luis Posada Carriles, a criminal who is being harbored by the United States despite requests from Venezuela for his extradition to face trial on 73 counts of murder.

The United States has refused to extradite him to Venezuela because he allegedly faces possible torture by the authorities there, according to his lawyers.

Ironically, the torture issue is also one of the concerns that Russia has expressed regarding the case of whistleblower Edward Snowden, prompting U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to awkwardly assure Moscow that the U.S. government will not torture or kill Snowden upon his return to the United States.

“We…understand from press reports that Mr. Snowden has filed papers seeking temporary asylum in Russia on the grounds that if he were returned to the United States, he would be tortured and would face the death penalty,” Holder wrote in a letter to his Russian counterpart. “These claims are entirely without merit,” he wrote, adding that “torture is unlawful in the United States.”

Of course, what Holder left unsaid is that although torture is unlawful in the United States, it has still been a widespread policy and those who torture others or high-level officials who authorize torture in violation of the law are granted official impunity by the U.S. Justice Department.

As Human Rights Watch pointed out in a 2011 report, “Getting Away with Torture: The Bush Administration and Mistreatment of Detainees,” although substantial information exists warranting criminal investigations of Bush and senior administration officials, the U.S. Justice Department has failed to initiate a single investigation of these crimes.

“There are solid grounds to investigate Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Tenet for authorizing torture and war crimes,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.  “President Obama has treated torture as an unfortunate policy choice rather than a crime. His decision to end abusive interrogation practices will remain easily reversible unless the legal prohibition against torture is clearly reestablished.”

More recently, the United States was accused of torture in its treatment of political prisoner Bradley Manning, who is awaiting his sentence upon his conviction for exposing embarrassing state secrets of the United States government.

Manning’s solitary confinement regime during his first year of incarceration “constitute[d] at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture,” said Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. “If the effects in regards to pain and suffering inflicted on Manning were more severe, they could constitute torture,” he told the Guardian in 2012.

Regarding Manning’s conviction last week, Russian Commissioner for Human Rights Konstantin Dolgov said that the United States is applying double standards in Manning’s case “without paying attention to the observance of human rights.”

“This double standard that we see in the U.S. authorities’ assessment of approaches to this situation [around Manning] raises questions,” said Dolgov. “If you demand full observance of freedom of speech from others, in principle, you should apply this position to yourself. If the applied standard is different, this cannot help but cause complaints on the part of both other governments and human rights institutions.”

Disregarding these apparent double standards, human rights groups have praised the U.S. decision to cancel the Obama-Putin summit, focusing nearly entirely on the premise that the decision was prompted by American concerns over the human rights situation in Russia. U.S.-based NGO Freedom House welcomed yesterday’s announcement, stating in an email,

According to the White House statement announcing the cancelation, the “lack of progress” in U.S.-Russia bilateral relations includes the human rights and civil society situation in Russia in the past 12 months. Indeed, it was during this period that the most serious crackdown against civil society and Russia’s opposition since the break-up of the Soviet Union has occurred.

A series of restrictive laws passed by the Russian Duma are meant to silence dissent against the regime and cripple civil society. In addition, we have seen the prosecution of opposition leaders, including Aleksei Navalny; the disgraceful posthumous conviction of lawyer and whistleblower Sergey Magnitsky; the aggressive campaign against non-governmental organizations; the banning of adoptions of Russian orphans by American citizens; the expulsion of the US Agency for International Development; and the outrageous campaign targeting the LGBT community. Together these actions and policies represent a full-bore and utterly deplorable campaign against human rights and democratic standards engineered by the Putin regime.  Enormous differences over Syria and the Snowden case are further reason for canceling the visit.

“I applaud the President’s decision to cancel his bilateral meeting with Putin and hope that when he goes to St. Petersburg for the G20 summit that he’ll meet with Russian civil society activists,” said Freedom House President David J. Kramer.  “Obama’s decision to cancel his Moscow visit should signal to Putin that there are costs to his bullying, unrestrained drive to silence critics and eliminate serious opposition.”

Of course, what Freedom House has overlooked is the distinct possibility that the cancellation in fact has very little to do with human rights concerns, and nearly everything to do with Moscow’s refusal to hand over Snowden to the U.S. justice system where he will almost certainly find himself suffering the same fate as imprisoned whistleblower Bradley Manning.

Similarly, Amnesty International cited human rights concerns in Russia in its statement regarding the cancelation of the summit. Rather than discussing the merits of Snowden’s asylum in Russia or the U.S. obligation to respect Moscow’s decision regarding his extradition, Amnesty focused its criticism on the White House for not condemning Russia’s human rights record more forcefully. Frank Jannuzi, Amnesty International USA deputy executive director, issued the following statement:

President Obama said he canceled his summit with President Putin because there has been a lack of progress on human rights and civil society in Russia. That is an understatement. Russia continues to backslide on human rights. The United States should press Russia to respect freedom of expression and not allow backroom discussions on other priorities to override the urgent task of protecting the Russian peoples’ basic rights and dignity.

Curiously, just a month earlier, Amnesty was among Snowden’s most vocal supporters in his efforts to seek political asylum, harshly condemning the U.S. government for its ruthless persecution of the whistleblower.

“The U.S. authorities’ relentless campaign to hunt down and block whistleblower Edward Snowden’s attempts to seek asylum is deplorable and amounts to a gross violation of his human rights,” Amnesty International said in a press release on July 2.

“The U.S. attempts to pressure governments to block Snowden’s attempts to seek asylum are deplorable,” said Michael Bochenek, Director of Law and Policy at Amnesty International. “It is his unassailable right, enshrined in international law, to claim asylum and this should not be impeded.”

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