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.
Human Rights Watch issued a damning report yesterday offering new evidence that Saudi Arabia has been using U.S.-made and -supplied cluster munitions on civilians in war-torn Yemen, despite a nearly universal global ban on the weapons. Their use may violate both international and United States law, HRW pointed out.
The report, which includes photographs showing unexploded U.S. cluster bombs in Yemen, is putting new pressure on the United States over support for its close ally Saudi Arabia, at a time when an international campaign is growing for a moratorium on arms transfers to the human rights-abusing dictatorship.
“The Americans have sold arms and furnished training and expertise to a Saudi-led coalition that has faced widespread criticism for what rights groups call an indiscriminate bombing campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels in nearly a year of fighting,” the New York Times reported.
As Human Rights Watch documented:
Recently transferred US-manufactured cluster munitions are being used in civilian areas contrary to US export requirements and also appear to be failing to meet the reliability standard required for US export of the weapons. …
Human Rights Watch believes the Saudi Arabia-led coalition of states operating in Yemen is responsible for all or nearly all of these cluster munition attacks because it is the only entity operating aircraft or multibarrel rocket launchers capable of delivering five of the six types of cluster munitions that have been used in the conflict.
Cluster bombs contain submunitions, or bomblets, that disperse widely and kill indiscriminately, especially when used in civilian areas. Many bomblets can fail to explode, effectively becoming landmines that continue to pose a threat to civilians for years to come.
Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch and chair of the international Cluster Munition Coalition, noted that the use of these weapons violates international norms. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, as well as their US supplier, are blatantly disregarding the global standard that says cluster munitions should never be used under any circumstances,” he said. “The Saudi-led coalition should investigate evidence that civilians are being harmed in these attacks and immediately stop using them.”
John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, said in a statement Sunday night: “We have seen the Human Rights Watch report, and are reviewing it. Obviously we remain deeply concerned by reports of harm to civilians and have encouraged the Saudi-led coalition to investigate reports of civilian harm.”
While HRW points out that any use of any type of cluster munition should be condemned, there are two additional disturbing aspects to the use of the particular model being used in Yemen – CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons – which are notoriously unreliable, leaving unacceptable amounts of unexploded ordinance on the ground to terrorize civilians for years to come.
“First, U.S. export law prohibits recipients of cluster munitions from using them in populated areas, as the Saudi coalition has clearly been doing,” HRW said. “Second, U.S. export law only allows the transfer of cluster munitions with a failure rate of less than 1 percent. But it appears that Sensor Fuzed Weapons used in Yemen are not functioning in ways that meet that reliability standard.”
The Convention on Cluster Munitions was adopted in Dublin on May 30, 2008 by 107 states and signed in Oslo on Dec. 3, 2008. It became binding international law when it entered into force on Aug. 1, 2010. A total of 118 states have joined the Convention, as 98 States parties and 20 Signatories.
In the treaty, states parties have agreed to never use cluster munitions, nor “develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer to anyone, directly or indirectly, cluster munitions,” nor “assist, encourage or induce anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention.”
The U.S. is one of the few remaining holdouts, one of what the international community calls the “dirty dozen of cluster munitions.”
In a Jan. 12 letter to President Obama, Megan Burke, the director of the Cluster Munition Coalition urged him to “demand that Saudi-led coalition members stop using cluster munitions,” and said the United States “should investigate its own role in the recent strikes.”
To add your name to an Avaaz petition calling on world leaders “to stand up and say ‘NO’ to Saudi Arabia and their atrocities,” click here.
Another U.S.-based petition, calling on Washington to “Stop Supporting – and Start Punishing – Saudi Arabia” is available here.
If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged. – Noam Chomsky, 1990
In recent days, numerous commentators have criticized irresponsible discourse within the GOP presidential field over whether to reinstate torture and implement other war crimes – such as carpet bombing – as official U.S. policy. The 2008 Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain, even felt compelled to weigh in this week by calling out the “loose talk” in the Republican race.
McCain took the Senate floor Tuesday to condemn remarks by his Republican colleagues regarding the use of torture, stating that “these statements must not go unanswered because they mislead the American people about the realities of interrogation, how to gather intelligence, what it takes to defend our security and at the most fundamental level, what we are fighting for as a nation and what kind of nation we are.”
Indeed, with presidential frontrunner Donald Trump calling his chief rival Ted Cruz a “pussy” for hinting that he might show some degree of restraint in the use of torture, it’s clear that on the Republican side, the discussion has gone off the rails. This has led respected human rights groups to remind the U.S. of its moral and legal obligations not to engage in sadistic and cruel practices such as waterboarding.
“Waterboarding meets the legal definition of torture, and is therefore illegal,” recalled Human Rights First’s Raha Walla. “Torture under U.S. and international law means acts that cause severe mental or physical pain or suffering. There’s no question that waterboarding meets that definition.”
Amnesty International’s Naureen Shah also issued a rebuttal to the debate over waterboarding, which she described as “slow-motion suffocation.” She pointed out the obvious that “the atrocities of the armed group calling itself Islamic State and other armed groups don’t make waterboarding okay.” This was in response to statements by Trump and others that since Islamic State terrorists chop off people’s heads, the U.S. is right to respond with its own forms of brutality.
(“Do we win by being more like [the Islamic State]?” George Stephanopoulos asked Trump last Sunday. “Yes,” Trump responded. “I’m sorry. You have to do it that way.”)
Writing in The Guardian Wednesday, human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith observed:
There was once a consensus that torture was immoral; even today, any sensible person knows torture is of little use if you want accurate information. Yet the current crop of Republican presidential candidates have been trying to outbid one another with promises of barbarism: Senator Ted Cruz confirmed that he favours simulated drowning, which he classifies as an “enhanced interrogation technique” (EIT) that falls short of torture. (The Spanish Inquisition was rather more honest, and called it tortura del agua.) “The Donald” immediately trumped his rival: he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”.
In a similar vein, The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain and Dan Froomkin noted on Tuesday that the GOP is apparently competing over which candidate would commit the worst war crimes, including but not limited to torture and encompassing other atrocities such as carpet bombing. As the journalists pointed out:
In recent months, one candidate or another has promised to waterboard, do a “helluva lot worse than waterboarding,” repopulate Guantánamo, engage in wars of aggression, kill families of suspected terrorists, and “carpet bomb” Middle Eastern countries until we find out if “sand can glow in the dark.”
The over-the-top bombast plays well in front of self-selected Republican audiences — the crowd responded to the description of Cruz Monday night with full-throated chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” But such promises of future criminality from potential presidential nominees have outraged many legal experts.
While it is clearly troubling that the leading contenders for the Republican nomination are so eagerly trying to outdo each other on who would be the worst war criminal, what is perhaps equally troubling is that candidates on the Democratic side also seem committed to policies that could in fact qualify as war crimes.
It should be recalled that while the Republicans are speaking about hypothetical war crimes that they would like to commit if elected, there is a leading Democratic candidate who is already guilty of war crimes committed under her watch.
As Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a major proponent of armed intervention and regime change in Libya, which – despite occasional claims to the contrary – was in no way authorized by the UN Security Council, making it a breach of the UN Charter.
When the Libyan civil war began in mid-February 2011, Clinton stated unequivocally that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi “must go now, without further violence or delay.”
Despite Arab countries’ reservations about regime change, Clinton helped convince Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan that a simple no-fly zone would be insufficient and argued that aerial bombing would also be necessary. Clinton then persuaded Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that his country should abstain on the UN resolution authorizing force against Gaddafi, and she was instrumental in getting the rest of the Security Council members to approve Resolution 1973, which established a “no-fly zone.”
With this resolution secured, the U.S. promptly decided to overstep its authority, “interpreting” the authorization as carte blanche to implement a policy of regime change.
The Arab League, which had tentatively lent support to Resolution 1973, promptly objected to the bombing campaign. “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians,” said Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa on March 20, 2011.
Despite the narrow limitations placed on the U.S. and NATO forces by the Security Council to enforce a no-fly zone in order to protect civilians, the Western powers soon made it clear that their objective was not simply to protect civilians, but to aid the rebels in the their efforts to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.
This initial breach of international law was then compounded by subsequent war crimes, as documented by Amnesty International in the war’s aftermath.
“Scores of Libyan civilians who were not involved in the fighting were killed and many more injured, most in their homes, as a result of NATO airstrikes” in the bombing campaign to depose Gaddafi, Amnesty noted. “Regrettably,” continued Amnesty, “NATO has yet to address these incidents appropriately, including by establishing contact and providing information to the victims and their relatives about any investigation which might have been initiated.”
The war also led to an exacerbation of the security crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, fueling the civil war in nearby Syria and facilitating the rise of the Islamic State, as well as directly contributing to the refugee and migrant crisis that began to destabilize Europe.
Besides that disastrous foreign policy blunder, Clinton was also a primary supporter of the 21st century’s first major war of aggression, the 2003 unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq.
For years, Clinton was a vocal supporter of this war despite its numerous documented atrocities, defending her 2002 vote as senator to authorize the invasion as necessary to counter Saddam Hussein’s alleged (but ultimately nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction program. It wasn’t until last year – 13 years after the U.S. invasion – that she finally acknowledged that her support for that war had been a “mistake.”
The other Democratic presidential contender, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, has been much more consistent in his opposition to both the Iraq war and the Libya intervention, but unfortunately has embraced other policies with questionable status under international law. He has said, for example, that as president, he would be willing to use drone strikes as liberally as President Obama has, despite serious questions about this policy’s legality.
In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press last October, host Chuck Todd asked Sanders if drones or special forces would play a role in his counter-terror plans.
“All of that and more,” Sanders said. “Look, a drone is a weapon. When it works badly, it is terrible and it is counterproductive. When you blow up a facility or a building which kills women and children, you know what? … It’s terrible.”
Collateral damage by drones is not only terrible, but the very use of drones has been shown to lower the threshold for use of force, as demonstrated by a recent study by two U.S. academics.
In ‘The Ethics of Drone Strikes: Does Reducing the Cost of Conflict Encourage War?’ James Walsh and Marcus Schulzke report on how public attitudes towards the use of armed force change when unmanned drones are used in comparison to the deployment of other types of force. Analysis of the results show, write Walsh and Schulzke, “that participants are more willing to support the use of force when it involves drone strikes.”
This in turn makes U.S. military intervention more likely, as it does the inevitable collateral damage and war crimes that go along with it.
Besides drone strikes, it also appears that Sanders is committed to a Middle East policy that would empower one of the world’s worst human rights abusers to take a leading role in the region.
Saudi Arabia, despite its record as an egregious violator of human rights both at home and in neighboring countries such as Bahrain and Yemen, has long relied on the United States as its leading arms supplier.
As explained in a Congressional Research Service background paper published earlier this month:
Obama Administration officials have referred to the Saudi government as an important regional partner, and U.S. arms sales and related security cooperation programs have continued with congressional oversight. Since October 2010, Congress has been notified of proposed sales to Saudi Arabia of fighter aircraft, helicopters, naval vessels, missile defense systems, missiles, bombs, armored vehicles, and related equipment and services, with a potential value of more than $100 billion.
Since March 2015, the U.S.-trained Saudi military has used U.S.-origin weaponry, U.S. logistical assistance, and shared intelligence to carry out strikes in Yemen. Some Members of Congress have expressed skepticism about Saudi leaders’ commitment to combating extremism and the extent to which they share U.S. policy priorities. Nevertheless, U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism ties reportedly remain close, and Saudi forces have participated in some coalition strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria since 2014.
Thousands of civilians have been killed by coalition airstrikes since March of last year, according to the UN, and Human Rights Watch field investigations have uncovered evidence that many airstrikes were unlawfully indiscriminate, hitting residential homes, markets, healthcare facilities, and schools where there was no military target.
To make matters worse, Saudi Arabia has been dropping cluster bombs on residential neighborhoods, which HRW describes as “serious violations of the laws of war” due to “the inherently indiscriminate nature of cluster munitions.”
“The deliberate or reckless use of cluster munitions in populated areas amounts to a war crime,” HRW said in a statement last month.
Despite these violations, Sanders has urged Saudi Arabia to become more involved in the fight against ISIS, specifically stating that the brutal dictators of Riyadh should “get their hands dirty” – prompting peace activist David Swanson to ask, “Who has dirtier hands than Saudi Arabia?”
While Sanders is still probably the least likely of the U.S. presidential contenders to embrace war crimes should he win the election this November – and certainly deserves points for calling out Hillary Clinton’s friendly relationship with Henry Kissinger, one of the most notorious American war criminals of the 20th century – he should keep in mind that even enabling atrocities of a third party such as Saudi Arabia can make a president culpable for these crimes.
According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,
A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State” (Article 16 of the International Law Commission, “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts,” (2001) which were commended by the General Assembly, A/RES/56/83).
Further, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and the Arms Export Control Act authorizes the supply of U.S. military equipment and training only for lawful purposes of internal security, “legitimate self-defense,” or participation in UN peacekeeping operations or other operations consistent with the UN Charter.
If Sanders wants to truly distinguish himself from Clinton – not to mention the blood-thirsty would-be war criminals on the Republican side – he should make clear that he would not only refrain from torture and wars of aggression, but also the enabling of war crimes by dubious allies such as Saudi Arabia, or for that matter Israel.
To add your name to a petition calling on the United States and other governments of the world to stop providing Saudi Arabia with weaponry until the Saudi government ends its military aggression and abuse of human rights, click here.
In the clown show known as the Republican presidential primary race, candidates are providing a clear – if, albeit, unintentional – case as to why prosecutions of the Bush-era CIA torture program are absolutely essential, and why it is so damaging that the Obama administration has shirked its responsibilities in this regard for more than seven years.
As human rights groups have long maintained, prosecuting Bush administration and CIA officials involved with the torture of terrorism suspects in the post-9/11 period is necessary so that torture is not repeated in the future by subsequent administrations who – because of previous decisions not to prosecute – may consider themselves above the law.
Indeed, this is precisely why there is a requirement under international law for allegations of torture to be investigated and prosecuted – so that torture does not become a “policy option” to be utilized or shelved depending on the political whims of the day.
This is a point that Amnesty International, for one, drove home following the release in late 2014 of a portion of the U.S. Senate’s report on the use of torture by the CIA during the Bush administration. In a statement entitled “Senate summary report on CIA detention programme must not be end of story,” Amnesty lamented that limited Justice Department investigations into CIA interrogations were ended in 2012 with no charges.
Human Rights Watch concurred, noting that unless the release of the Senate report leads to prosecutions, torture will remain a “policy option” for future presidents.
Needless to say, these exhortations have largely fallen on deaf ears, with no prosecutions launched whatsoever. Instead, the U.S. Congress responded with a largely meaningless and toothless “reaffirmation” of the ban on the torture – a totally redundant and unnecessary piece of legislation since torture has long been unambiguously banned under international law, the United States Constitution and U.S. statutory law.
Now, just as HRW, Amnesty and others have warned, this lack of law enforcement is having the predictable effects: contenders for the Republican nomination – including very possibly the next president of the United States – are making clear their plans to bring back waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques, and to once again make torture the official policy of the United States government.
In the presidential debate on Jan. 28, for example, Sen. Marco Rubio insinuated that under his administration, indefinite detention and torture would be most welcome. “If we capture terrorists,” he said, “they’re going to Guantánamo, and we will find out everything they know.” Despite this rather oblique allusion to bringing back the policy of torture which officially ended in 2006, none of the other candidates, or the debate moderators, even raised an eyebrow.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the debate on Feb. 6 included a virtual competition among candidates Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump to see who would be the most brutal and lawless in the treatment of suspected terrorists. All three candidates voiced support for waterboarding, with Trump pledging to reintroduce the technique – and introduce even more draconian and lawless techniques – if elected: “I would bring back waterboarding, and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” he said.
As the Huffington Post explained, “Trump was out-brutalizing Cruz, who said he would only use waterboarding sparingly, in emergency scenarios.”
Rubio also reiterated his support for waterboarding, saying that terrorism cases should not be held to the same humane legal standards of traditional law enforcement. In fact, he explicitly stated that interrogating suspected terrorists is not a law enforcement function:
Well, when people talk about interrogating terrorists, they’re acting like this is some sort of law enforcement function. Law enforcement is about gathering evidence to take someone to trial, and convict them. Anti-terrorism is about finding out information to prevent a future attack so the same tactics do not apply.
And, it is true, we should not be discussing in a widespread way the exact tactics that we’re going to use because that allows terrorist to know to practice how to evade us.
He also made it clear that the travesty of justice of Guantanamo should be kept open indefinitely:
But, here’s the bigger problem with all this, we’re not interrogating anybody right now. Guantanamo’s being emptied by this president. We should be putting people into Guantanamo, not emptying it out, and we shouldn’t be releasing these killers who are rejoining the battlefield against the United States.
As for Trump, when pressed this weekend on his statements about bringing back waterboarding and devising even more brutal torture methods, he decided to double down rather than backtrack.
On Sunday, the real-estate-mogul-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-presidential-contender appeared on “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos. The appearance included this remarkable exchange on torture:
STEPHANOPOULOS: As president, you would authorize torture?
TRUMP: I would absolutely authorize something beyond waterboarding. And believe me, it will be effective. If we need information, George, you have our enemy cutting heads off of Christians and plenty of others, by the hundreds, by the thousands.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Do we win by being more like them?
TRUMP: Yes. I’m sorry. You have to do it that way. And I’m not sure everybody agrees with me. I guess a lot of people don’t. We are living in a time that’s as evil as any time that there has ever been. You know, when I was a young man, I studied Medieval times. That’s what they did, they chopped off heads. That’s what we have …
STEPHANOPOULOS: So we’re going to chop off heads …
TRUMP: We’re going to do things beyond waterboarding perhaps, if that happens to come.
Interestingly, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – the only two remaining candidates for the Democratic Party – appeared on the same programs as Trump on Sunday, and while they commented freely on other aspects of the Republican debate, neither said anything about Trump’s call for torture.
Although it is only a matter of speculation, perhaps they were a bit reticent to comment on the torture question because they know that the only reason that this is even up for debate in the year 2016 is because for nearly eight years under Obama, the torture question has been systematically swept under the rug.
While Democrats may like to claim the moral high ground in “opposing torture,” they have in fact actively enabled torture by preventing prosecutions of torturers to take place. This is why the international community has been so adamant on the matter of prosecutions and has issued such rare public denunciations of the United States on this issue.
Following the release of the Senate torture report’s executive summary over a year ago, there was a veritable cacophony of demands for prosecutions, with some of the strongest words coming from the United Nations.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism Ben Emmerson stated unequivocally that senior officials from the Bush administration who sanctioned crimes, as well as the CIA and U.S. government officials who carried them out, must be investigated and prosecuted:
It is now time to take action. The individuals responsible for the criminal conspiracy revealed in today’s report must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes. The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorised at a high level within the US Government provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability.
International law prohibits the granting of immunities to public officials who have engaged in acts of torture. This applies not only to the actual perpetrators but also to those senior officials within the US Government who devised, planned and authorised these crimes.
He further emphasized the United States’ international obligation to criminally prosecute the architects and perpetrators of the draconian torture methods described in the report:
As a matter of international law, the US is legally obliged to bring those responsible to justice. The UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances require States to prosecute acts of torture and enforced disappearance where there is sufficient evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction. States are not free to maintain or permit impunity for these grave crimes.
It is no defence for a public official to claim that they were acting on superior orders. CIA officers who physically committed acts of torture therefore bear individual criminal responsibility for their conduct, and cannot hide behind the authorisation they were given by their superiors.
In particular, he added, “The U.S. attorney general is under a legal duty to bring criminal charges against those responsible.”
Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that it’s “crystal clear” under international law that the United States has an obligation under the UN Convention against Torture to ensure accountability.
“In all countries, if someone commits murder, they are prosecuted and jailed. If they commit rape or armed robbery, they are prosecuted and jailed. If they order, enable or commit torture — recognized as a serious international crime — they cannot simply be granted impunity because of political expediency,” he said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed hope that the partial release of the torture report is the “start of a process” toward prosecutions, because the “prohibition against torture is absolute,” Ban’s spokesman said.
Well, a year has passed and it is all too clear that there was no process being started with the release of the Senate torture report — and in fact, it was probably hoped by official Washington that this would be the end of the story.
But following the one-year anniversary of the Senate torture report being released, Human Rights Watch reiterated its calls for prosecutions in a 153-page report, “No More Excuses: A Roadmap to Justice for CIA Torture.” The HRW report, released Dec. 1, 2015, challenges claims that prosecutions are not legally possible and outlines U.S. legal obligations to provide redress to victims of torture. It also details actions that other countries should take to pursue criminal investigations into CIA torture.
Of course, this report, like virtually all other calls for justice on the torture question over the past seven years, has been studiously ignored by the Obama administration and official Washington. And with the Republicans now falling over each other to pledge their allegiance to illegal policies of torture and brutality, we are seeing the fruits of Obama’s refusal to uphold the laws of the land.
The numbers are in, and it is now confirmed that 2015 was the deadliest year for civilians interacting with police since records have been kept. Of course, this is not saying all that much since last year was the first year in which records were kept in any comprehensive fashion.
Filling a notable gap in record-keeping by the United States government, which doesn’t bother to gather data on how many civilians are slain by police in a given year, news organizations including The Washington Post and The Guardian last year determined that between 965 and 1,134 civilians were killed by police, depending on what counting standards are used. (The Washington Post only tracked fatal police shootings, not killings by other forms of force, while the Guardian employed a more comprehensive methodology.)
While much of the focus of the police deaths has been on the racial component of the nationwide police brutality epidemic, fueled in large part by the agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement and the media’s tendency to devote more attention to cases following an easily digestible racial narrative, the numbers confirm in fact that the rampant police violence impacts communities of all colors and creeds across the United States.
Indeed, despite the disproportionate attention paid to cases involving a white cop and black victim, more whites were killed by police than any other race in 2015. According to the Guardian’s tally, the total numbers of police victims are as follows:
- 577 White
- 300 Black
- 193 Hispanic/Latino
- 27 Other/Unknown
- 24 Asian/Pacific Islander
- 13 Native American
Of course, while the raw numbers appear to demonstrate an equal-opportunity problem that cuts across racial lines, when analyzed a bit more closely, it is clear that in fact the tendency of police to kill civilians is a much greater threat to African Americans than it is to any other group. Nearly seven out of a million black people were killed by police in America last year, while white victims accounted for 2.86 per million. In other words, African Americans were nearly 2.5 times as likely to be killed by police as their white counterparts.
Age and gender also play a factor in being killed by police, with young black men being nine times more likely than other Americans to die at the hands of a cop in 2015, according to the Guardian study. As the UK-based paper further explained:
Despite making up only 2% of the total US population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of all deaths logged this year by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police. Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age.
Paired with official government mortality data, this new finding indicates that about one in every 65 deaths of a young African American man in the US is a killing by police.
But even setting aside the racial factor, it is clear that far too many people of all races and ages are killed by their police forces in America, a trend of police brutality not seen in other “advanced democracies.” Even looking at just the white victims of police violence, the U.S. is in a league of its own. According to the Guardian,
[L]ooking at our data for the US against admittedly less reliable information on police killings elsewhere paints a dramatic portrait, and one that resonates with protests that have gone global since a killing last year in Ferguson, Missouri: the US is not just some outlier in terms of police violence when compared with countries of similar economic and political standing.
America is the outlier – and this is what a crisis looks like.
The Independent, another British paper, illustrated the issue this way:
Taking a broad view of the situation, it seems clear that the problem is deeper than just a matter of racial discrimination, and in fact reflects a fundamental lack of respect for human life by U.S. police, regardless of race.
Take for example the recent case of a white drunk driver who was gunned down by a cop after having flipped his vehicle in Paradise, California. The driver attempted to crawl out of the car after surviving the accident, only to be inexplicably shot by a police officer on the scene for no apparent reason.
In that particular case, the police officer claimed that his firearm went off by “accident” but anyone watching the video can see that all indications point to an intentional shooting. This would fit in a pattern of senseless police violence that was described in a report issued last year by Amnesty International as a possible violation of international norms.
The report, “Deadly Force,” pointed out:
The use of lethal force by law enforcement officers raises serious human rights concerns, including in regard to the right to life, the right to security of the person, the right to freedom from discrimination and the right to equal protection of the law. The United States has a legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfill these human rights and has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which explicitly protects these rights.
One of a state’s most fundamental duties which police officers, as agents of the state, must comply with in carrying out their law enforcement duties, is to protect life. In pursuing ordinary law enforcement operations, using force that may cost the life of a person cannot be justified. International law only allows police officers to use lethal force as a last resort in order to protect themselves or others from death or serious injury. The United Nations (UN) Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or the defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, and that, in any event, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
Furthermore, international law enforcement standards require that force of any kind may be used only when there are no other means available that are likely to achieve the legitimate objective. If the force is unavoidable it must be no more than is necessary and proportionate to achieve the objective, and law enforcement must use it in a manner designed to minimise damage or injury, must respect and preserve human life and ensure medical aid are provided as soon as possible to those injured or affected.
The problem of police violence also caught the attention of the United Nations last year. At the U.S.’s Universal Periodic Review for compliance on human rights norms at the United Nations Human Rights Council in May, the United States heard criticism of its policies ranging from Guantanamo to the death penalty to police brutality.
The representative from Nambia, for example, said U.S. officials must “collaborate closely with marginalized communities to fix the broken justice system that continues to discriminate against them, despite recent waves of protest over racial profiling and police killings of unarmed black men.”
“Chad considers the United States of America to be a country of freedom, but recent events targeting black sectors of society have tarnished its image,” said Awada Angui, the delegate from that country.
The barrage of criticism led James Cadogan, senior counselor in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, to concede that the United States has a problem with police violence.
“We must rededicate ourselves to ensuring that our civil rights laws live up to their promise,” he said at the review. “The tragic deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Ohio, and Walter Scott in South Carolina have… challenged us to do better and to work harder for progress.”
The review “was a demonstration of the no confidence vote that world opinion has made of the United States as a country that considers itself a human rights champion,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the Human Rights Program of the American Civil Liberties Union. “I think that there was a clear message from today’s review that the United States needs to do much more to protect human rights and to bring its laws and policies in line with human rights standards.”
Yet, despite its wholesale violations of international norms on policing at home, the United States is currently engaging in international training programs of police in other countries, which can only be seen as a potential disaster for human rights.
A June 10, 2015 post on the US Department of State’s official blog revealed that the Department of Justice and Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) are running a police training program in Kiev, Ukraine. The program has trained at least 100 Ukrainian police instructors to oversee a new 2,000-member patrol unit as part of a broader effort to “fundamentally change the relationship between law enforcement and the citizens of Ukraine.”
The blog post noted that the police trainers – hailing from Nevada, California and Ohio – “traveled to Ukraine to teach tactical skills training and mentor the instructors as they train the first new cadets.”
The training program “has been key in advancing our goals in Ukraine and deepening our relationships with the new government,” stated the post.
This relationship, of course, stems from a violent U.S.-backed coup d’etat that ousted the democratically elected president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. Ukraine has been embroiled in civil war ever since.
Besides the self-serving geopolitical nature of the police training program, what is astounding about it is that the U.S. feels that it is in any position to train any country’s police. Indeed, considering the widespread epidemic of police brutality in the United States, it is clear that U.S. police need training before they go training other countries’ police forces.
The practice of U.S. international police trainings has long caught the attention of human rights groups, including Amnesty International.
Amnesty notes that the United States government trains at least 100,000 foreign soldiers and police from more than 150 countries each year at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, but “the vast majority of U.S.-administered training courses do not include specific instruction in the human rights or humanitarian law obligations that soldiers must obey.”
Unfortunately, according to Amnesty, “many of the government forces the U.S. has trained have poor human rights records.”
The human rights group points out that it is “vital that the U.S. military mainstream human rights and humanitarian law into all foreign military and police training. Such instruction should be mandatory for all U.S. and foreign trainees attending courses, and it should be reinforced through operational exercises.”