A little more than two weeks into the presidency of Donald J. Trump, it is clear that his administration is shaping up to be one of the most hostile to international norms in recent memory. While George W. Bush once dismissed a reporter’s question about whether his Iraq policies conformed with international law by joking, “International law? I better call my lawyer,” Trump’s attitude toward rule of law principles was summed up by a tweet today disparaging a “so-called judge” who put a nationwide hold on the implementation of his travel ban on nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries.
“The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!” Trump tweeted.
The travel ban has sparked a national and international outcry, with demonstrations taking place at airports across the country and numerous world leaders weighing in on Trump’s controversial executive order to halt entries into the United States by citizens of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
“Discrimination on nationality alone is forbidden under human rights law,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad Al Hussein. “The U.S. ban is also mean-spirited, and wastes resources needed for proper counter-terrorism.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed regret over the U.S. government’s entry ban and explained the U.S.’s international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention in a phone call with Trump, Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.
“The Refugee Convention requires the international community to take in war refugees on humanitarian grounds. All signatory states are obligated to do. The German government explained this policy in their call yesterday,” Seibert said.
The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s human rights and humanitarian committee chair Ignacio Sanchez Amor expressed concerns that the ban on refugees represents a major step backward in the international community’s efforts to develop a cohesive response to the refugee and migrant crisis, and noted that on humanitarian grounds the United States cannot send refugees back to countries where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.
“This is the core principle of non-refoulement that is at the heart of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and is now a widely accepted norm,” he said.
Sanchez Amor also pointed out that the travel ban is contrary to the spirit of the OSCE’s founding document, which the United States signed along with 34 other countries of North America, Europe and Eurasia in 1975.
“To the extent that this travel ban may affect those with dual nationalities or residents of OSCE countries, I note that it may contravene the 1975 Helsinki Final Act’s stipulation that signatories should ease regulations concerning movement of citizens within the OSCE area,” he said.
In this document, the United States agreed:
to facilitate wider travel by their citizens for personal or professional reasons and to this end they intend in particular:
– gradually to simplify and to administer flexibly the procedures for exit and entry;
– to ease regulations concerning movement of citizens from the other participating States in their territory, with due regard to security requirements.
In addition to whipping up a frenzy of international condemnation over the travel ban, the Trump administration is also drawing fire for his nominations to lead the nation’s intelligence services. Yet, despite serious concerns about Trump’s pick to lead the CIA, Mike Pompeo, for his pro-torture statements and lax attitude about the use of mass surveillance, the U.S. Senate confirmed him on Jan. 23 by a vote of 66-32.
“Pompeo’s responses to questions about torture and mass surveillance are dangerously ambiguous about whether he would endorse abusive practices and seek to subvert existing legal protections,” said Human Rights Watch’s Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno. “Pompeo’s failure to unequivocally disavow torture and mass surveillance, coupled with his record of advocacy for surveillance of Americans and past endorsement of the shuttered CIA torture program, make clear that he should not be running the CIA.”
Democratic Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said Pompeo was the “wrong man for the job.”
“He has endorsed extreme policies that would fundamentally erode liberties and freedoms of our people without making us safer,” Wyden said. He said Pompeo’s answers to questions from some senators have been “vague” and “contradictory,” making it impossible to know what Pompeo believes.
Nevertheless, his nomination sailed through the Senate, likely paving the way for a return to torture as U.S. policy, as President Trump has promised to do on numerous occasions. The president recently even defended torture on national television, stating unequivocally that it “works.”
Shortly following Pompeo’s confirmation, his deputy director at the CIA was named as Gina Haspel, who, according to the New York Times “played a direct role in the CIA’s ‘extraordinary rendition program,’ under which captured militants were handed to foreign governments and held at secret facilities, where they were tortured by agency personnel.”
She also ran the CIA’s first black site prison in Thailand and oversaw the brutal interrogations of two detainees, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.
In addition, she played a vital role in the destruction of interrogation videotapes that showed the torture of detainees both at the black site she ran and other secret agency locations. As The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald explains:
The concealment of those interrogation tapes, which violated both multiple court orders as well the demands of the 9/11 Commission and the advice of White House lawyers, was condemned as “obstruction” by Commission Chairs Lee Hamilton and Thomas Keane. A special prosecutor and Grand Jury investigated those actions but ultimately chose not to prosecute.
As if these developments were not bad enough, it also looks as if Trump is going to continue the reckless drone assassination program that was developed by his predecessor, Barack Obama. In one of his first military actions as president, Trump ordered an attack on a village in Yemen on Jan. 29 that killed as many as 23 civilians, including a newborn baby and an eight-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki.
Nawar was the daughter of the al-Qaida propagandist and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a September 2011 US drone strike in Yemen. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman was killed in a second drone strike soon afterwards.
Following the tragic killing of this young girl, The Guardian pointed out that Trump has previously endorsed killing relatives of terrorist suspects, which is a war crime. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” he told Fox News in December 2015.
The human rights organization Reprieve pointed out:
Secret US strikes, in countries where the US is not at war, are widely considered to violate international law. Previous research by Reprieve has found that, in attempts to kill 41 named individuals in Yemen and Pakistan, US strikes killed some 1,147 unknown men, women and children.
It looks as though this is one policy area that we should expect some continuity between Obama and Trump. It also looks as if Trump will be moving rapidly to reinstate the torture regime that was halted by Obama in 2009. It should be noted, however, that the use of torture – although illegal – was never prosecuted by the Obama administration, and this lack of law enforcement ensured that it would remain a “policy option” for a fascist president like Donald Trump to pull off the shelf.
There are many things unprecedented about the incoming Trump presidency, not the least of which being the fact that the United States has never before been led by a billionaire with business interests spanning the globe. Only time will tell how Donald Trump ultimately ends up balancing his global business empire with running the U.S. government – but so far it is not looking promising.
In fact, as Richard Painter, former ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, has pointed out, he may be in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clause on day one of his presidency. This clause is one of the most critical conflict of interest provisions for all U.S. government officials. Basically, it is intended to ensure that nobody holding a position of trust with the United States government can receive payments from foreign governments, whether gifts or a salary or profits.
As Painter explained recently on Democracy Now:
If you have somebody who’s making profits from dealing with foreign governments or companies controlled by foreign governments, that person must dispense with those profits, cannot receive that money, while holding any position of trust with the United States government. That applies to every U.S. government employee, including the president. And so, what this means is that, for Donald Trump, if he’s going to hold onto these business enterprises, which present a whole range of other conflict of interest problems, to satisfy the Constitution, at a bare minimum, what he’s going to have to do is get the foreign government money and money from foreign government-controlled corporations out of his business enterprise. And this includes foreign diplomats staying at the hotels at government expense, foreign governments having big parties in his hotels and canceling reservations at the Four Seasons, going over to the Trump Hotel, to curry favor. All of that is unconstitutional.
Trump has responded to these criticisms by assuring the public that he would donate hotel profits from foreign governments to the United States Treasury and let his children manage all operations. This however isn’t enough to keep him on the right side of the Constitution, as law professor Erwin Chemerinsky explains:
In a word, Trump’s proposed solutions are laughable. So what if he donates “profits” from foreign governments to the United States Treasury? All he has to do is accept money from a foreign government and he’s already in violation of the emoluments clause – it doesn’t matter whether it constitutes a profit, or where the money ultimately ends up.
Focusing on profits, moreover, ignores the countless ways that his businesses can benefit from foreign governments that would never show up on a balance sheet. For example, it was widely reported that Trump lobbied a British political ally to oppose a wind farm project because it might ruin the view from his golf course in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Besides, Trump on Wednesday again refused to reveal his tax returns and declared that the American people do not care about them. A pledge to turn over profits is meaningless without detailed accounting.
While his global business holdings may render his conduct as president unconstitutional, his incoming administration’s nepotism and conflicts of interests also pose serious challenges to international norms, and may render the United States in violation of the United Nations Convention against Corruption. As a state party to this convention, the United States has agreed to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption – including through “revolving-door practices,” such as placing corporate chieftains in charge of government regulatory agencies.
In particular, according to the convention:
Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.
Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials. …
Preventing conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.
The United States has long flouted these international obligations by allowing the corporate-government revolving door to swing freely and lucratively, but the violations of international norms will likely reach extraordinary new levels under Trump.
The advocacy group Transparency International, for one, is raising concerns that the practices that Trump is pursuing are exactly what “leaders in highly corrupt countries do.” As the organization recently tweeted out, “#Trump appointing his son-in-law as senior adviser looks a lot like #NEPOTISM to us!”
The group produced a video driving the point home in dramatic fashion:
Another Transparency International video outlines the conflicts of interest of his top cabinet picks and the likely corruption that will ensue:
While there is nothing new about conflicts of interest and corruption in the U.S. government (as reported by Compliance Campaign among others for years) the graft will likely dramatically worsen under Trump. In the past, the corruption has always been obscured by a veneer of legitimacy that masks the profiteering by the oligarchy running the government, but that mask is about to be removed.
But with the sleaze, fraud and vice about to be unleashed on the world, the United States may become more internationally isolated, possibly hastening the end of U.S. hegemony around the world. This might not ultimately be such a bad thing, as opening the global system to a more multilateral balance of power could end up being a net positive for the world, and U.S. isolation could help bring this about.
President Barack Obama’s human rights record is under criticism once again as he prepares to step down after eight years leading the United States government. His record has been a major disappointment to many in the human rights community, who now genuinely worry how much worse U.S. policies will become under President Donald J. Trump.
As this blog has documented since 2011, the U.S. government’s human rights record has been dismal under Obama, with troubling policies including his lack of prosecutions of torturers – effectively institutionalizing a system of legal impunity for war crimes – his utter failure to follow through on closing the travesty of justice known as Guantanamo Bay, waging a “war on whistleblowers” and suppressing freedom of information, codifying illegal policies of extrajudicial assassinations, expanding mass surveillance programs in violation of individual privacy, and failing to take effective action to ensure accountability for a nationwide epidemic of police brutality.
In terms of promoting fundamental freedoms abroad, his administration has “treated human rights as a secondary interest – nice to support when the cost was not too high, but nothing like a top priority,” according to Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth.
In a recent article for Foreign Policy, Roth writes:
Obama took office with great promise, announcing on his second day that he would stop CIA torture immediately and close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. By all accounts, the torture did stop. But Obama has steadfastly refused to prosecute those responsible or even to allow the release of much more than the summary of a comprehensive Senate Intelligence Committee report that documented it. As a result, rather than reaffirming the criminality of torture, Obama leaves office sending the lingering message that, should future policymakers resort to it, prosecution is unlikely. Given Trump’s campaign rhetoric about reinstating waterboarding (“or worse”), this is hardly an academic point, even considering the opposition of his nominee for defense secretary.
With respect to surveillance, Roth notes that “Obama seems to have continued and expanded programs begun by George W. Bush that lead to massive invasions of privacy.” When whistleblower Edward Snowden alerted the public to these programs, Obama supported legislation to limit the National Security Agency’s ability to collect phone records in bulk under one program, but “most of the mass privacy violations that Snowden disclosed remain unaddressed,” Roth notes.
When it comes to closing Guantanamo, Roth says the president’s efforts have been halfhearted:
Early in his tenure, he moved slowly, enabling Congress to adopt legislation — which he refused to veto — imposing various obstacles to transferring detainees overseas and barring their transfer to the United States even for trial. Facing political resistance, he reversed early plans to try the accused 9/11 plotters in a federal district court in New York, where their trials would long ago have been completed. Instead, the suspects were placed before Guantánamo’s military commissions — made-from-scratch tribunals replete with procedural problems. Seemingly designed to avoid public revelation of the details of the suspects’ torture, the commissions have made virtually no progress toward actual trials, which will not begin until long after Obama leaves office, if ever.
Roth notes that Obama has slowly reduced the number of prisoners held at Guantanamo by transferring many abroad, but “his insistence on holding some two dozen detainees indefinitely without charge makes it easier for Trump to repopulate Guantánamo, as he has threatened.”
When it comes to Guantanamo, Amnesty International is imploring Obama to do whatever he can in his last days in office to close the legal abomination before Trump – who has threatened to repopulate the prison and reinstate a torture regime – takes over as president on January 20. In an open letter to Obama, Amnesty International USA Executive Director Margaret Huang begs the president, “Don’t Leave Guantánamo to Trump.”
“Dear President Obama,” she writes:
On behalf of Amnesty International’s 1.2 million supporters in the United States, I write to make a final plea that you use all the powers of your office to close the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay. We are gravely concerned that if you fail to do so, President-elect Trump may attempt to bring dozens or even hundreds of people there, to be held in unlawful detention for decades and possibly subjected to torture and other forms of cruel treatment.
Despite your positive actions to date, your legacy will include failing to cure this corruption of our country’s ideals of justice and fairness. You will leave behind Guantánamo as a system of injustice that—having survived for 15 years, two political parties and four presidential terms of office—may remain open for the foreseeable future.
Our concern is heightened by the sharp rise in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric during the election. Proposals for large-scale detention without charge, which once seemed inconceivable, are now on the table as options your successor may pursue. Guantánamo, with its shameful tradition of secrecy and insularity from legal process, would be all too convenient a location for mass imprisonment without charge, returning the United States to one of its grimmest chapters.
“It is past time to shut down the detention facility at Guantánamo,” you said recently at MacDill Air Base, and not for the first time. You emphasized that Congress would be “judged harshly by history” due to restrictions it placed on your ability to transfer detainees. However, despite your concerted efforts, it is your presidency that will be judged harshly — by history, the international community and human rights supporters across the United States and the rest of the world — if you fail to take all possible measures to transfer those remaining out of Guantánamo.
Your actions now will impact this country’s decisions on detention without charge, torture and human rights for decades to come by informing the way young people understand the injustice of Guantánamo. People under the age of 25 have spent all or much of their lives with Guantánamo open. Most are too young to remember the photos of torture at Abu Ghraib, or of men at Camp X-Ray kneeling next to their cages. They do not know the collective shock and moral outrage that millions of Americans felt then, which led political figures from Colin Powell to John McCain to call for the closure of Guantánamo. Through your actions now, you can ensure new generations learn this history—and do not repeat it.
We also urge your administration, in closing Guantánamo, to abandon the military commissions. These ill-conceived tribunals simultaneously fail to respect human rights principles or achieve justice. To be sure, anyone responsible for the crimes against humanity committed on September 11, 2001 should be brought to justice in fair trials. Guantánamo and the military commissions have not—and cannot—provide that justice. The 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks recently passed, and those who lost loved ones in the attacks have a right to see justice in their lifetime. However, not only do the military commission trials seem unlikely to begin—much less conclude—for years to come, when they do take place they will fail to meet international fair trial standards.
You began your presidency with an executive order to end the Guantánamo detentions and to close the detention camp there. We urge you to end it with bold action to realize your promise.
The human rights group urges supporters to send messages to Obama urging him to close this travesty of justice once and for all, and to prioritize other human rights matters in the waning days of his presidency.
It is not clear, however, how much stock Obama places in the concerns of the human rights community. He spoke rather dismissively of “activist organizations” in a recent interview with The Atlantic, in which he defended his drone assassination program, which has killed hundreds of innocent people including U.S. citizens.
“I think right now we probably have the balance about right,” he told The Atlantic, referring to the ratio of killed terrorists and innocent civilians. “Now, you wouldn’t know that if you talked to Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or some of the international activist organizations.”
He further asserted that “the internal reforms we put in place had less to do with what the left or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or other organizations were saying and had more to do with me looking at sort of the way in which the number of drone strikes was going up and the routineness with which, early in my presidency, you were seeing both DOD and CIA and our intelligence teams think about this.”
It troubled him, he said, because the drone strikes could enable “a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate.” Of course, this is exactly what Obama has done, as has been repeatedly pointed out.
As Naureen Shah of Amnesty International told The Intercept last year, “What’s so interesting is that President Obama acknowledges this problem – that future presidents will be empowered to kill globally, and in secret. What he doesn’t acknowledge is how much of a role his administration had in making that a bizarre normal.”
Another legacy that Obama is leaving behind is torture impunity, which he has instituted by failing to launch prosecutions of gross human rights violations during the Bush administration. By shielding torturers from criminal justice, Obama has done more than any other president in history in establishing torture as little more than a “policy option” for presidents to utilize or not depending on the political whims of the day.
To prevent torture from being reinstituted by the incoming Trump administration, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture is calling on Obama to release in full the Senate’s torture report and force “appropriate officials” to read it in order to ensure that they “learn from the past.” Although White House Counsel Neil Eggleston recently announced that Obama will archive one copy of the torture report, it will remain classified for at least 12 years. “At this time, we are not pursuing declassification of the full Study,” he wrote recently in a letter to Sen. Feinstein.
In an action alert, the online advocacy group Roots Action is urging supporters to sign a petition to President Obama urging him to release the full report.
Obama is also being urged by a range of organizations to free the U.S. government’s political prisoners, including Chelsea Manning, Jeffrey Sterling and Leonard Peltier. For more on those cases, click here.
Human rights advocates are urging Barack Obama to release the U.S. government’s political prisoners before he steps down as president on January 20, 2017.
Among the cases highlighted by human rights defenders include imprisoned U.S. whistleblowers and activists such as Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond, Jeffrey Sterling, and Leonard Peltier. Campaigners are also pressing Obama to pardon NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has been living in exile in Russia since exposing serious abuses and crimes by the intelligence community in 2013.
As one of its priority actions, Amnesty International is highlighting Peltier’s case as a clear-cut case of government overreach and misconduct, in which the government itself has acknowledged that it lacks any evidence. The Native American activist is currently serving two life sentences for the deaths of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams.
“Amnesty International has studied [Peltier’s] case extensively over many years and remains seriously concerned about the fairness of proceedings leading to his trial and conviction,” the human rights organization says in an action alert. “Amnesty believes that political factors may have influenced the way in which the case was prosecuted.”
Amnesty points out that the U.S. Parole Commission has acknowledged that, “the prosecution has conceded the lack of any direct evidence that [Peltier] personally participated in the executions of two FBI agents.”
The group recently produced a video on his case to draw attention to the injustice endured by this 71-year-old diabetic who is in dire need of medical care that is unavailable in prison:
Regarding political prisoner Chelsea Manning, who is serving a draconian 35-year sentence for exposing U.S. war crimes and other embarrassing state secrets, a coalition of human rights organizations has written to Obama urging the outgoing president to do the right thing and release this courageous whistleblower by commuting her sentence to time served.
In a Dec. 5 letter to the president, groups including the ACLU, Lambda Legal, League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Organization for Women, and the Transgender Law Center wrote:
We support commuting her court-martial sentence to time served. Ms. Manning is currently in the seventh year of a thirty-five year sentence for disclosing classified information to the media with the intention of raising public awareness about issues she found concerning, including the impact of war on innocent civilians. Our organizations may be of differing opinions concerning Ms. Manning’s actions; however, we stand united in our support for her clemency petition.
As Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight for the Future, pointed out,
Transparency activist Chelsea Manning has already spent more time behind bars than any other whistleblower in U.S. history. She’s been systematically mistreated, subjected to torture, and denied access to desperately needed health care while serving a 35 year sentence in an all-male military prison. … If President Obama does not grant Chelsea’s clemency request before he leaves office, he is condemning her to a nightmarish fate.
Earlier this month, a petition asking President Obama to commute Manning’s prison sentence reached the 100,000-signature threshold to receive a response from the White House.
The international advocacy group Index on Censorship provides details on other U.S. political prisoners that Obama is being urged to pardon:
Considered to be a whistleblower by some, Jeffrey Sterling, who worked for the CIA from 1993 to 2002, was charged under the Espionage Act with mishandling national defense information in 2010. Sterling was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for his contributions to New York Times journalist James Risen’s book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, which detailed the failed CIA Operation Merlin that may have inadvertently aided the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Risen was subpoenaed twice to testify in the case United States v Sterling but refused, resulting in a seven-year legal battle.
On 11 May 2015, at Sterling’s sentencing, judge Leonie Brinkema stated that although she was moved by his professional history, she wanted to send a message to other whistleblowers of the “price to be paid” when revealing government secrets. …
Although the most famous whistleblower on this list has not been tried and sentenced, Edward Snowden could face up to 30 years in prison for his multiple felony charges under the World War I-era Espionage Act. Snowden was charged on 14 June 2013 for his role in leaking classified information from the National Security Agency, notably a global surveillance initiative.
Snowden has expressed a willingness to go to prison for his actions but refuses to be used as a “deterrent to people trying to do the right thing in difficult situations” as so many whistleblowers often are.
The political climate in the US has become so hostile towards leaks that even journalists can face repercussions for their involvement with whistleblowers. American journalist and essayist Barrett Brown’s case became well-known after he was arrested for copying and pasting a hyperlink to millions of leaked emails from Stratfor, an American private intelligence company, from one chat room to another. The leak itself had been orchestrated by Jeremy Hammond, who is serving 10 years in prison for his participation, and did not involve Brown. Brown faced a sentence of up to 102 years in prison, once again for sharing a hyperlink, before the 12 counts of aggravated identity theft and trafficking in stolen data charges were dropped in 2013.
Although the dismissal of these charges was heralded as a victory for press freedom, Brown was still convicted of two counts of being an accessory after the fact and obstructing the execution of a search warrant. On 22 January 2015, Brown was sentenced to 63 months in prison and ordered to pay $890,250 in fines and restitution to Stratfor.
Barrett Brown was released from prison last month, after serving four years under harsh and punitive conditions.
While incarcerated, Brown wrote award-winning columns about an endless stream of abuses he endured in prison, including misconduct by prison officials seeking to silence him and violate his rights and the rights of other inmates. This included multiple stints in solitary and restrictions on his access to the press and use of email.
While there is no single internationally agreed upon designation of what constitutes a political prisoner, the intergovernmental organization Council of Europe in 2012 agreed upon one of the most useful and balanced definitions ever put forward.
The resolution adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe includes the following criteria: a person is considered a political prisoner “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,” or “if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons.”
Amnesty International’s definition is a bit broader, and it is clear that under its criteria all of these cases would qualify as political prisoners. As Amnesty has previously explained its use of the term “political prisoner,”
In AI’s usage, the term includes any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner’s acts, the acts in themselves, or the motivation of the authorities. “Political” is used by AI to refer to aspects of human relations related to “politics”: the mechanisms of society and civil order, the principles, organization, or conduct of government or public affairs, and the relation of all these to questions of language, ethnic origin, sex or religion, status or influence (among other factors). The category of political prisoners embraces the category of prisoners of conscience, the only prisoners who AI demands should be immediately and unconditionally released, as well as people who resort to criminal violence for a political motive. In AI’s use of the term, here are some examples of political prisoners:
a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime carried out for political motives, such as murder or robbery carried out to support the objectives of an opposition group;
a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime committed in a political context, such as at a demonstration by a trade union or a peasants’ organization;
a member or suspected member of an armed opposition group who has been charged with treason or “subversion”.
Although the United States would never acknowledge that it holds political prisoners, it is clear that under commonly used definitions of the term, many cases in the U.S. certainly apply. Chelsea Manning is a political prisoner, as her harsh sentence was applied for purely political motives, as was made clear during her sentencing.
“This court must send a message to those who release confidential information,” prosecutor Army Capt. Joe Morrow said to Judge Denise Lind during the sentencing phase of the trial. “There is value in deterrence, Your Honor. This court must send a message to any soldier contemplating stealing classified information.”
So, Manning, just like Sterling and others, is rotting in prison simply to send a “message” to other would-be whistleblowers. It is long past time for Obama to show some integrity and let these prisoners go.
Although the past year brought a glimmer of hope that there might be some accounting for the eight years of lawlessness and criminality that reigned while George W. Bush was in the White House, with the former president reportedly canceling a planned trip to speak at the Switzerland-based United Israel Appeal last December amid calls by several human rights groups for Swiss authorities to arrest him for authorizing torture, one of the greatest crimes of the 21st century remained unpunished, with not a single prosecution of the architects of the Iraq war, which was launched March 19-20, 2003.
For 13 years, the Iraq war aggressors have walked free despite being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents, the absolute destruction of a nation, and facilitating the rise of ISIS, the most brutal terrorist group on the planet. The lack of prosecutions continues to confirm that the concept of “international justice” remains an illusion, to paraphrase Bob Marley, to be pursued but never attained. The lack of prosecutions is especially glaring considering the fact that Chelsea Manning is serving a grossly disproportionate 35-year prison sentence for revealing evidence of U.S. war crimes in Iraq and other state secrets.
It is not Chelsea Manning who should be in prison, but the Iraq war’s chief architects, including Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and the chief war criminal George W. Bush. They are the ones who launched an aggressive war, what Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Jackson once denounced as “the greatest menace of our time.”
Jackson noted in 1945 that “to start an aggressive war has the moral qualities of the worst of crimes.” The Nuremberg tribunal, he said, had decided that “to initiate a war of aggression … is not only an international crime: it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of whole.”
When it comes to Iraq, the accumulated evil of the whole is difficult to fully comprehend. In 2003, Iraq was a country that had already been devastated by a U.S.-led war a decade earlier and crippling economic sanctions that caused the deaths of 1.5 million Iraqis (leading to the resignation of two UN humanitarian coordinators who called the sanctions genocidal). Following the U.S. invasion and occupation, another million or so were killed, and by 2014, a former CIA director conceded that Iraq no longer existed.
“I think Iraq has pretty much ceased to exist,” said Michael Hayden. “It’s divided into three parts. … I don’t see them getting back together and we need to deal with that reality.”
In other words, the United States completely destroyed a sovereign nation. It is therefore no exaggeration to call the 2003 invasion of Iraq one of the great crimes of history, and it does not reflect well on the international community that it has allowed the architects to escape any meaningful punishment for 13 years.
What follows is a partial accounting of some of the more brazen violations of international law related to the U.S. war on Iraq, which prosecutors may feel free to use as the basis for a criminal probe.
Although the invasion didn’t officially begin until March 20, 2003 (still the 19th in Washington), the United States had been threatening to attack the country as early as January 2003, with the Pentagon publicizing plans for a so-called “shock and awe” bombing campaign in what appeared to be a form of psychological warfare against Iraq in violation of the UN Charter.
“If the Pentagon sticks to its current war plan,” CBS News reported on January 24, “one day in March the Air Force and Navy will launch between 300 and 400 cruise missiles at targets in Iraq. … [T]his is more than number that were launched during the entire 40 days of the first Gulf War. On the second day, the plan calls for launching another 300 to 400 cruise missiles.”
A Pentagon official warned: “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad.”
The effect of these threats particularly on Iraqi youth was profound. A group of psychologists published a report in January 2003 describing the looming war’s effect on children’s mental health.
“With war looming, Iraqi children are fearful, anxious and depressed,” they found. ”Many have nightmares. And 40 percent do not think that life is worth living.”
The Pentagon’s vaunted “shock and awe” attack began with limited bombing on March 19-20, as U.S. forces unsuccessfully attempted to kill Saddam Hussein. Attacks continued against a small number of targets until March 21, 2003, when the main bombing campaign began. U.S.-led forces launched approximately 1,700 air sorties, with 504 using cruise missiles.
The attack was a clear violation of the UN Charter, which stipulates that “Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.” The only exception to this is in the case of Security Council authorization, which the U.S. did not have.
Desperate to kill Hussein, Bush ordered the bombing of an Iraqi residential restaurant on April 7. A single B-1B bomber dropped four precision-guided 2,000-pound bombs. The four bunker-penetrating bombs destroyed the target building, the al Saa restaurant block and several surrounding structures, leaving a 60-foot crater and unknown casualties.
Diners, including children, were ripped apart by the bombs. One mother found her daughter’s torso and then her severed head. U.S. intelligence later confirmed that Hussein wasn’t there.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime on April 9, the U.S. action in Iraq took on the character of an occupation, and as the occupying power, the U.S. was bound by international law to provide security. But in the post-war chaos, in which looting of Iraq’s national antiquities was rampant, U.S. forces stood by as Iraq’s national museum was looted and countless historical treasures were lost.
Despite the fact that U.S. officials were warned even before the invasion that Iraq’s national museum would be a “prime target for looters” by the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, set up to supervise the reconstruction of postwar Iraq, U.S. forces took no action to secure the building. In protest of the U.S. failure to prevent the resulting looting of historical artefacts dating back 10,000 years, three White House cultural advisers resigned.
“It didn’t have to happen”, Martin Sullivan – who chaired the President’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Property for eight years – told Reuters news agency. The UN’s cultural agency UNESCO called the loss and destruction “a disaster.”
During the course of the war, according to a four-month investigation by USA Today, the U.S. dropped 10,800 cluster bombs on Iraq. “The bomblets packed inside these weapons wiped out Iraqi troop formations and silenced Iraqi artillery,” reported USA Today. “They also killed civilians. These unintentional deaths added to the hostility that has complicated the U.S. occupation.”
U.S. forces fired hundreds of cluster munitions into urban areas from late March to early April, killing dozens and possibly hundreds of Iraqi civilians. The attacks left behind thousands of unexploded bomblets that continued to kill and injure civilians weeks after the fighting stopped.
(Because of the indiscriminate effect of these duds that keep killing long after the cessation of hostilities, the use of cluster munitions is banned by the international Convention on Cluster Munitions, which the United States has refused to sign.)
Possibly anticipating a long, drawn-out occupation and counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq, in a March 2003 memorandum Bush administration lawyers devised legal doctrines justifying certain torture techniques, offering legal rationales “that could render specific conduct, otherwise criminal, not unlawful.”
They argued that the president or anyone acting on the president’s orders are not bound by U.S. laws or international treaties prohibiting torture, asserting that the need for “obtaining intelligence vital to the protection of untold thousands of American citizens” supersedes any obligations the administration has under domestic or international law.
“In order to respect the President’s inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign,” the memo stated, U.S. prohibitions against torture “must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his Commander-in-Chief authority.”
Over the course of the next year, disclosures emerged that torture had been used extensively in Iraq for “intelligence gathering.” Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh disclosed in The New Yorker in May 2004 that a 53-page classified Army report written by Gen. Antonio Taguba concluded that Abu Ghraib prison’s military police were urged on by intelligence officers seeking to break down the Iraqis before interrogation.
“Numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees,” wrote Taguba.
These actions, authorized at the highest levels, constituted serious breaches of international and domestic law, including the Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of Prisoners of War, as well as the U.S. War Crimes Act and the Torture Statute.
While these are some of the more obvious examples U.S. violations of international law from the earliest days of the invasion of Iraq, for which no one has been held to account, the crimes against the Iraqi people only continued and intensified over the years.
There was the 2004 assault on Fallujah in which white phosphorus – banned under international law – was used against civilians. There was the 2005 Haditha massacre, in which 24 unarmed civilians were systematically murdered by U.S. marines. There was the 2007 “Collateral Murder” massacre revealed by WikiLeaks in 2010.
All of these crimes are calling out for punishment and the passage of time does not diminish their severity in any way, shape or form. Indeed, with Iraq still reeling from an ongoing civil war and with President Obama joining his predecessors as the fourth consecutive American president to bomb that poor country, it is clear that accountability is still needed for these disastrous policies and war crimes.
A good place to start would be arresting George W. Bush and putting him on trial in The Hague.
It’s been less than three years since the adoption of the historic Arms Trade Treaty, and already the United States is leading the way in flouting this landmark accord, violating the letter and spirit of the international agreement by pumping the world full of weapons – fueling global conflict and undermining efforts to uphold human rights and stem the flow of refugees.
As the most recent data confirms, the U.S. remains the world’s largest supplier of weapons systems, with the monetary value of its arms agreements increasing steadily in recent years, despite the global security situation slipping further into chaos and a major refugee crisis destabilizing the entire European continent.
According to arms researcher Jeff Abramson, citing figures from the Congressional Research Service and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute:
The United States concluded $36.2 billion in arms transfer agreements worldwide in 2014, the most recent year detailed in the report. That total was up nearly $10 billion from the 2013 total and constituted just more than half of all global 2014 agreements, which were valued at $71.8 billion, slighly above the 2013 total of $70.2 billion. Nearly $30 billion of U.S. agreements in 2014 were with developing countries, including large-value pacts with Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea.
As a recent article by William Hartung further explains, the ballooning U.S. arms sales appear to be a coordinated strategy to wage proxy wars in the Middle East, based on a desire to shape events while avoiding more direct U.S. engagement (and meanwhile make billions of dollars in profits for U.S. arms manufacturers):
The Obama administration has made arms sales a central tool of its foreign policy, in part as a way of exerting military influence without having to put “boots on the ground” in large numbers, as the Bush administration did in Iraq—with disastrous consequences.
The Obama administration’s push for more Mideast arms sales has been a bonanza for U.S. weapons contractors, who have made increased exports a primary goal as Pentagon spending levels off. Not only do foreign sales boost company profits, but they also help keep open production lines that would otherwise have to close due to declining orders from the Pentagon.
When it comes to the individual companies profiting off of the global arms bazaar, the following list drives home the point that U.S. arms manufacturers shoulder a disproportionate share of the responsibility for so much of the world’s death and suffering. In fact, six of the ten largest arms-producing companies are U.S.-based, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute:
|1||Lockheed Martin (US)|
|3||BAE Systems (UK)|
|5||Northrop Grumman (US)|
|6||General Dynamics (US)|
|8||United Technologies (US)|
While all of these arms sales are having a destabilizing effect across the world, human rights and arms control advocates are raising particular concerns over the flow of the U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia, which is carrying out a brutal and indiscriminate military operation against civilians in neighboring Yemen.
As a major new report by the Control Arms Coalition explains,
The transfer of arms and ammunition to Saudi Arabia in particular is fuelling the conflict. Saudi Arabia was among the biggest markets for arms exporters during the past decade, and in 2014 became the largest importer of defence equipment worldwide. Many exporters to Saudi Arabia are States Parties or Signatories to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). …
The ATT now applies in full to all States Parties to the Treaty for whom it has entered into force. For those countries, the serious violations of IHL and IHRL in Yemen, and continuing transfers to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners in that context, represent a major test of their willingness to implement their legal obligations.
The United States signed the ATT in September 2013, and although the treaty has not been ratified by the Senate, with 130 signatories and 82 full states parties it is well on its way to becoming a peremptory norm of international law, also known as jus cogens, as defined by Oxford as “principles which form the norms of international law that cannot be set aside.”
Nevertheless, according to the Control Arms Coalition,
The US remains a significant supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia. Licensing data for 2015 has not yet been made available, but during the year, the State Department approved six major arms sales to the country, collectively worth US$20.8bn. They include the proposed transfer of 10 MH-60R and nine UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters,62 600 Patriot missiles, 63 battleships and missiles,64 and tank and artillery ammunition for the Royal Saudi Land Forces. In November the State Department notified Congress of plans to sell 18,440 aircraft bombs (both guided and general purpose) to Saudi Arabia, in a deal worth US$1.29bn. The package also included 1,500 warheads, as well as thousands of parts for these bombs such as fuses and tail kits to modify guidance systems.
The intransigence of the United States and its closest allies on the issue of arms transfers to Saudi Arabia compelled the Control Arms Coalition to issue a stinging rebuke today, criticizing the lack of progress this week at the Extraordinary Meeting of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, which as Control Arms pointed out was only extraordinary because of the “refusal of States to actually discuss arms transfers.”
In a press release entitled “ATT Extraordinary Meeting Unfortunately Far Too Ordinary,” the coalition pointed out:
Despite irrefutable evidence of serious violations of international law in a conflict that has killed more than 35,000 people, several States Parties and Signatories to the ATT have continued sending weapons to Saudi Arabia, in violation of the Treaty’s obligations. Control Arms therefore made a request to the meeting for an Agenda item to discus the issue. This request was rejected by the President on the grounds that it would be “fraught with danger” to discuss the topic without sufficient time.
Prompted by the intolerable human suffering taking place in Yemen, campaigners are calling on governments “to set their hypocrisy aside and stop selling billions of dollars’ worth of deadly weapons to Saudi Arabia being used to attack Yemeni civilians.”
In a broader sense, the United States should also rethink its entire policy of flooding the planet with weapons – as this is obviously a destabilizing factor across the world, and a major contributor to both human rights violations and the ongoing refugee crisis.