International community reiterates calls for Guantanamo’s closure as Congress moves to keep it open

Amnesty International USA activists protest the 10th anniversary of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, Washington DC, USA, 11 January 2012. - AIUSA

Amnesty International USA activists protest the 10th anniversary of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, Washington DC, USA, 11 January 2012. – AIUSA

Two major developments took place on Tuesday regarding the ongoing travesty of justice known as Guantanamo Bay. Taken together, the developments once again demonstrate how drastically out of step the United States is with the global community when it comes to human rights and international norms, and in particular how contemptuous the U.S. Congress remains of nearly universal international opinion on the Guantanamo Bay abomination.

On the same day that the U.S. Senate voted 91-3 in favor of a military spending bill that obstructs President Obama’s plans to close the Guantanamo prison camp by prohibiting transfers of detainees, one of Europe’s leading human rights bodies issued a comprehensive report reiterating the international community’s calls to close the detention facility and to either bring the remaining detainees to trial or free them.

The scathing 280-page report issued by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights also calls for the full investigation of human rights violations at the prison, including torture, as well as prosecutions of those responsible.

“There is a clear need for full transparency and accountability in addressing the violations of the human rights of detainees, including torture, that have occurred at the Guantanamo detention facility, and as part of the CIA rendition program,” said Omer Fisher, Deputy Head of ODIHR’s Human Rights Department. “Detainees have a right to redress, including access to justice, to compensation, and to medical rehabilitation.”

The report analyses compliance with international human rights standards of the detention and proceedings before U.S. military commissions, demands accountability for human rights violations both at Guantanamo and in the CIA’s illegal rendition and torture program, and specifies the right of victims to claim redress for arbitrary detention and ill-treatment. Regarding the CIA’s rendition and torture program, the report makes clear not only the United States but 27 other OSCE countries are guilty of participating and enabling this gross violation of human rights.

Detention and interrogation practices are examined in some detail. According to the report’s executive summary:

A wide variety of sources, including leaked ICRC reports and official reports have pointed to numerous instances of abuse at Guantánamo under the Bush administration. Interviews with former Guantánamo detainees have provided ODIHR with further information on the severity of abuses inflicted upon them during their detention and interrogations. Practices were reportedly designed to break detainees’ will, cause stress and make them co-operate with and wholly dependent on their interrogators who had total control over their level of isolation, access to comfort items and basic needs such as access to food, drinkable water, sunlight or fresh air. The lack of co-operation with interrogators and non-compliance with constantly changing prison rules were punished, including by the removal of basic items and prolonged isolation. Documented cases corroborated by ODIHR interviews of former detainees indicate the routine use of excessive force against detainees by the Initial Reaction Forces and during the force-feeding of hunger strikers.

Other areas of focus of the report include the use of physical isolation, which “remains the norm for a number of detainees kept in segregated cells with access to two to four hours of recreation per day, alone or with one other detainee.”

The OSCE takes issue with U.S. claims that single-cell confinement does not amount to solitary confinement, noting that “all detainees who spend 22 hours a day in segregated cells are undoubtedly held in solitary confinement.” This isolation “can lead to severe impact on detainees’ health and its effect can be even more pronounced in cases of individuals suffering mental distress from past abuses,” the OSCE points out.

“Solitary confinement combined with the prospect of indefinite detention is even more likely to amount to torture or ill-treatment,” notes the OSCE.

Hunger strikes and force feeding are another area of concern. According to the executive summary:

The reportedly substantial deterioration of confinement conditions during hunger strikes, including the most recent mass hunger strike of 2013 seems to constitute a system of punishment or reward implemented to break the hunger strike and discourage detainees from continuing to protest. Should gathered information be true, such practices would be unjustifiable and would violate a number of international human rights standards, including prison standards and the right of detainees to peacefully protest. It may also violate the prohibition of torture or ill-treatment.

As this report was being published yesterday, the Senate was voting overwhelmingly to thwart Obama’s plans to shutter the Guantanamo facility by maintaining a ban on transferring detainees. The bill adopted Tuesday imposes restrictions on moving any of the 112 remaining detainees to the United States or foreign countries. The measure had passed the house by a vote of 370-58 last week, and although Obama officially opposes the Guantanamo provisions, the White House has indicated that he will sign it into law anyway.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook however said that it is premature to say that Congress has blocked the efforts to close Guantanamo. “Let’s wait to see what the plan finally looks like,” he said. “The folks who are crafting that plan have been working very hard on this for months. … This is not going to deter the department from moving forward.”

Even if the plan goes forward, it’s not clear exactly how much impact it would have on ensuring U.S. compliance with international law. Since Obama’s plan would essentially import Guantanamo to the United States while keeping intact the system of indefinite arbitrary detention without charge, the physical closing of the facility in Cuba would largely be symbolic. As a recent letter to the New York Times by Steven W. Hawkins, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, explained:

The purpose of closing Guantánamo should be to end the human rights violation of indefinite detention without charge — not merely move it to a new location and change Guantanámo’s ZIP code. If the United States does not intend to prosecute a detainee in a fair trial, it should release him. No exceptions.

This call for charging and trying Gitmo detainees or releasing them was echoed by the OSCE report released Tuesday. “Notwithstanding the complexity of the cases before the military commissions, the right to be tried without undue delay has likely been violated in a number of cases,” explained the OSCE. The report goes on:

This right, as recognized under international human rights and humanitarian law and contained in OSCE commitments, applies from the first official charges until the final judgment on appeal. ODIHR is gravely concerned that the US government has intentionally deprived the Guantánamo detainees of this right by excluding the applicability of certain speedy trial rights to cases before the military commissions. The lack of longstanding established procedures and precedent of the military commissions and the hindrances to holding regular hearings due to the remote location of Guantánamo are examples of US government actions that have contributed to the slow path of the proceedings. ODIHR is not aware of particular conduct of the defendants that had led to significant delays. Moreover, lengthy detention, including of 12-13 years in some cases, is likely a violation of the right to liberty and security which applies to pre-trial detention and provides individuals arrested or detained for criminal charges with the right to be tried within a reasonable time or released.

The Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Michael Georg Link, will present the findings of the report Thursday at OSCE headquarters in Vienna. The OSCE is an intergovernmental organization whose membership includes all of the member countries of the European Union, NATO and the Commonwealth of Independent States. The U.S. is one of its charter members, having signed its founding document, the Helsinki Final Act, in 1975.

To join the international grassroots campaign to close Guantanamo, click here.

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MSF report bolsters claims of U.S. war crime in Kunduz

The Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, after it was destroyed by a U.S. gunship on Oct. 3, 2015.

The Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, after it was destroyed by a U.S. gunship on Oct. 3, 2015.

A damning new report released Thursday by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) contains new – and sometimes shocking – details regarding the U.S. airstrike last month on its hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The preliminary report offers a thorough account of the days leading up to the attack and the assault itself, which lasted for approximately an hour, placing the onus on the United States to now refute, clarify or explain the circumstances surrounding the vicious attack by an AC-130 gunship in the early morning hours of Oct. 3, 2015.

In its report, MSF rebuts claims that the hospital had been used as a “Taliban base” and confirms that its strict no-weapons policy was in effect, meaning that none of the occupants inside the trauma center were combatants and therefore had protected status under international humanitarian law.

The charity also reiterates that it had provided the precise coordinates of the hospital to the U.S. military just days before the assault, and that “confirmation of receipt was received from both U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. army representatives, both of whom assured us that the coordinates had been passed on to the appropriate parties.”

before after hospitalIn a previously undisclosed detail, MSF reveals that the United States government had inquired just two days before the strike whether there were any Taliban “holed up” in the facility, to which MSF replied that “the hospital was full of patients including wounded Taliban combatants.” According to MSF, there were approximately 20 Taliban patients in the hospital and three or four wounded government combatants.

Nevertheless, “Not a single MSF staff member reported the presence of armed combatants or fighting in or from the hospital compound prior to or during the airstrikes.”

The harrowing account of the horrific assault carried out on the hospital is enough to make your stomach turn, thinking about the bravery of these medical workers carrying out a vital humanitarian mission, only to be incinerated, decapitated, dismembered and shot down in cold blood by a massive military gunship circling the clearly identified hospital for an hour.

In one passage, MSF describes a grisly scene of death and mayhem as victims were gunned down by the U.S. warplane as they attempted to flee for safety:

Many staff describe seeing people being shot, most likely from the plane, as people tried to flee the main hospital building that was being hit with each airstrike. Some accounts mention shooting that appears to follow the movement of people on the run. MSF doctors and other medical staff were shot while running to reach safety in a different part of the compound.

One MSF staff member described a patient in a wheelchair attempting to escape from the inpatient department when he was killed by shrapnel from a blast. An MSF doctor suffered a traumatic amputation to the leg in one of the blasts.  He was later operated on by the MSF team on a make-shift operating table on an office desk where he died. Other MSF staff describe seeing people running while on fire and then falling unconscious on the ground. One MSF staff was decapitated by shrapnel in the airstrikes.

Another passage describes an MSF nurse who was covered from head to toe in debris and blood “with his left arm hanging from a small piece of tissue after having suffered a traumatic amputation in the blast.”

The group also provides a detailed timeline of their real-time communications with the United States military and other relevant actors as the carnage unfolded, imploring them to call off the attack, all to no avail. MSF reveals that they communicated with their U.S. military contacts in Kabul and Washington no fewer than six times during the course of the assault, all the while bombs just kept landing on their hospital:

Summary phone log of contacts MSF made during the US airstrikes

MSF made multiple calls and SMS contacts in an attempt to stop the airstrikes:

– At 2.19am, a call was made from MSF representative in Kabul to Resolute Support in Afghanistan informing them that the hospital had been hit in an airstrike

– At 2.20am, a call was made from MSF representative in Kabul to ICRC informing them that the hospital had been hit in an airstrike

– At 2.32am a call was made from MSF Kabul to OCHA Civil Military (CivMil) liaison in Afghanistan to inform of the ongoing strikes

– At 2.32am a call was made by MSF in New York to US Department of Defense contact in Washington informing of the airstrikes

– At 2.45am an SMS was received from OCHA CivMil in Afghanistan to MSF in Kabul confirming that the information had been passed through “several channels”

– At 2.47am, an SMS was sent from MSF in Kabul to Resolute Support in Afghanistan informing that one staff was confirmed dead and many were unaccounted for

– At 2.50am MSF in Kabul informed Afghan Ministry of Interior at Kabul level of the airstrikes. Afghan Ministry of Interior replied that he would contact ground forces

– At 2.52am a reply was received by MSF in Kabul from Resolute Support stating “I’m sorry to hear that, I still do not know what happened”

– At 2.56am an SMS was sent from MSF in Kabul to Resolute Support insisting that the airstrikes stop and informing that we suspected heavy casualties

– At 2.59am an SMS reply was received by MSF in Kabul from Resolute Support saying ”I’ll do my best, praying for you all”

– At 3.04am an SMS was sent to Resolute Support from MSF in Kabul that the hospital was on fire

– At 3.07am an SMS was sent from MSF in Kabul to OCHA CivMil that the hospital was on fire

– At 3.09am an SMS was received by MSF in Kabul from OCHA CivMil asking if the incoming had stopped

– At 3.10am and again at 3.14am, follow up calls were made from MSF New York to the US Department of Defense contact in Washington regarding the ongoing airstrikes

– At 3.13am an SMS was sent from MSF in Kabul to OCHA CivMil saying that incoming had stopped

– At 3.15am an SMS was received from CivMil OCHA stating that information had been passed to Resolute Support in the North and CJOC in Kabul as well as ANA in Kabul and the North

– At 3.18am an SMS was sent from MSF in New York to US Department of Defence contact in Washington that one staff was confirmed dead and many were unaccounted for

As this blog has previously pointed out, it stretches credulity that the U.S. was unaware that the target was a hospital before launching the attack. Giving the U.S. the benefit of the doubt, however, that the initial strike may have been the result of some sort of bureaucratic snafu, the fact that U.S. and Afghan military officials were again informed after staff at the hospital became aware of the bombardment, and yet continued to bomb for another half-hour, should put to rest the notion that the attack was just a “mistake.”

The MSF report issued yesterday provides further circumstantial evidence that this was indeed a premeditated war crime, providing an obvious motive of the United States – the elimination of the 20 Taliban patients inside the hospital and the denial of future medical care to enemy combatants. MSF is fairly straightforwardly asking the United States, in fact, whether 151 years of international law still applies in this conflict, or whether hospitals and medical workers are now considered “fair game” by the U.S. military.

As MSF President Joanne Lieu wrote in the introduction to the report, “The attack on our hospital in Kunduz destroyed our ability to treat patients at a time when we were needed the most. We need a clear commitment that the act of providing medical care will never make us a target. We need to know whether the rules of war still apply.”

It is now up to the United States to provide answers, and if the answer is “yes, the rules of war apply,” then the natural follow up should be to place under arrest whoever was responsible in the chain of command for ordering, authorizing and carrying out this heinous war crime. To add your name to a petition demanding that President Obama allow an independent investigation to take place, click here.

Voter-approved election reforms push the U.S. closer to respecting international norms

Two election reforms were adopted by voters in Ohio and Maine this week, pushing the United States substantially closer to respecting international norms on holding free and fair, democratic elections.

In Ohio, a constitutional amendment was adopted by ballot initiative to ban gerrymandering districts for the state legislature – the politically charged and controversial process of drawing legislative districts to virtually guarantee certain electoral outcomes by packing votes in favor one political party over the other.

The amendment approved by voters on Tuesday will create a new, bipartisan commission to draw legislative districts that are compact and do not unfairly favor any party or candidate. It effectively said that district lines for the state legislature will be drawn to be competitive. Unfortunately, however, the reform only applies to elections to the state legislature and will not affect the undemocratic gerrymandering procedure for congressional elections.

gerrymandering 2

The new system, as explained by Ballotpedia, will consist of a seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission:

The members are the governor, state auditorsecretary of state, one person appointed by the speaker of the House of Representatives, one person appointed by the legislative leader of the largest political party in the House of which the speaker is not a member, one person appointed by the president of the Ohio Senate and one person appointed by the legislative leader of the largest political party in the Senate of which the president is not a member. The new commission requires two members from the minority party or 29 percent of the commission seats, versus a single member under the former system.

To approve a redistricting plan for 10 years, at least two from each major political party have to agree to the plan. If the commission fails to pass a plan by a bipartisan vote, members must pass a plan by a simple majority vote of any four members, but this plan only lasts four years.

All legislative districts are required to be compact and made of “contiguous territory, and the boundary of each district to be a single nonintersecting continuous line.” The amendment forbids district plans from favoring or disfavoring either political party.

The reform, which will take effect in 2021 when the next redistricting occurs, will help ensure that the U.S. begins living up to its international election-related commitments, as spelled out in agreements such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document. But because it does not apply to elections for the United States Congress, its effect will be limited.

Although some campaigners had advocated including congressional redistricting reform in the amendment, proponents backed off after Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission was sent to the United States Supreme Court. Some critics believe Speaker of the House John Boehner pressured state lawmakers to drop any proposed changes to the corrupt system of drawing congressional districts.

gerrymandering drawingIn advocating that reformers drop their efforts to change congressional redistricting procedures, however, Boehner essentially admitted to the deep corruption embedded in the system of election-rigging known as gerrymandering.

“For 40 years the Democrat Party had the pencil in their hands and for the last 20 years we’ve had the pencil,” he said. “When you’ve got the pencil in your hand, you’re going to use it to the best of your advantage.”

International observers deployed by the OSCE to monitor U.S. adherence to commitments in the Copenhagen Document have long pointed to the prevalence of gerrymandered congressional districts as one of the major hindrances to holding democratic elections in the United States.

The OSCE’s final report on the 2010 midterm elections noted for example that due to gerrymandering, “There is a broad perception that a significant number of congressional districts are non-competitive as the outcome of the election could be predicted with a high degree of probability. In these mid-term elections, one senator and 27 candidates for members of the House were elected unopposed.”

The OSCE reiterated a recommendation contained in the final report on the 2006 midterm elections: “With a view to ensuring genuine electoral competition in congressional districts, consideration could be given to introducing procedures for drawing district boundaries that will be based on criteria other than voters’ voting histories and perceived future voting intentions.”

In a publication issued in 2013, the OSCE further outlined best electoral practices for member states (including the U.S.), including a tacit criticism of the American system of drawing congressional districts. “Electoral constituencies should be drawn in a manner that preserves equality among voters,” noted the OSCE, adding that “the manner in which constituencies are drawn should not circumvent the principle of equal suffrage.”

This would help ensure the U.S. lives up to its obligations in the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document, including the following:

To ensure that the will of the people serves as the basis of the authority of government, the participating States will

(7.1) — hold free elections at reasonable intervals, as established by law;

(7.2) — permit all seats in at least one chamber of the national legislature to be freely contested in a popular vote;

(7.3) — guarantee universal and equal suffrage to adult citizens;

Another important reform adopted on Tuesday was a clean elections amendment approved by the voters of Maine, which beefed up their state financing systems as an alternative to big money. Specifically, the initiative strengthened the Maine Clean Elections Act by increasing funding from $2 million to $3 million for the Maine Clean Elections Fund, increasing penalties for violating campaign finance disclosure rules, adjusting political ad disclosure rules, and allowing candidates to qualify for additional funds.

The reform establishes the state of Maine as a U.S. leader in clean elections and transparency in campaign financing, another area that has long been a concern of international observers monitoring U.S. elections. Following last year’s midterm elections, OSCE observers noted:

The ability of independent special interest groups to produce and air campaign-style advertisements without disclosing their sources of funding limited the ability of voters to judge the information that they were presented with. This lack of transparency undermined the ability of legally mandated bodies to provide accountability. Further, the purely legalistic interpretation of what constitutes co-ordination between campaigns and political action committees undermined the legal framework intended to bring transparency to campaign spending.

Although international election-related commitments are somewhat ambiguous on the topic of campaign finance laws, it is widely understood that unregulated private money has the potential for tilting the playing field in favor of a particular party or candidate, thus potentially violating the requirement in the Copenhagen Document for OSCE member states to “provide political parties and organizations with the necessary legal guarantees to enable them to compete with each other on a basis of equal treatment before the law and by the authorities.”

In its 2013 guidelines, the OSCE warned of the impact that unregulated campaign financing can have on electoral systems, noting that “there is the risk of undue influence that can result from excessive or disproportionate contributions by a single contributor or group of contributors.”

Following the 2010 midterms, OSCE election observers noted that “Money played a significant role, creating an uneven playing field between candidates. About three-quarters of the total of upwards four billion dollars was spent on political campaign ads on television and radio. The ads inundated the airwaves, turning many voters off.”

In its statement on the 2012 general elections, the OSCE again stressed “the unprecedented and often negative role played by private campaign financing [which] has a potential to impact negatively on the fairness of the process.”

If more states begin following Maine’s lead, it could have a chance of finally leveling the playing field and improving the fairness of the process.


U.S. struggles to provide answers on Kunduz attack

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It has been over a week since the U.S. military’s deadly strike on the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) field hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, and despite personal assurances from President Barack Obama for a “transparent” internal inquiry, there still remain far more questions than answers regarding the tragedy.

As the Washington Post reported Saturday, “the military … has said that the hospital was ‘mistakenly struck,’” but it “has declined to provide full details of the incident while its investigators examine what occurred in the worst example of errant U.S. air power in recent years.”

An AC-130H gunship from the 16th Special Operations Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Fla., jettisons flares as an infrared countermeasure during multi-gunship formation egress training on Aug. 24, 2007. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Julianne Showalter) (RELEASED)

An AC-130, the U.S. gunship that attacked the MSF hospital on Oct. 3 2015.

These full details would include answers to such basic questions as: Did the military know that the target was a hospital before launching the strike in the early morning hours of Oct. 3? If they did not know at first that their target was a working hospital with patients, civilians and medical workers inside, why did they not immediately abort the mission when MSF called U.S. military headquarters in a frantic attempt to stop the bombing?

And, by the way, who ordered the attack?

In testimony to Congress last week, General John Campbell, who serves as commander of the Resolute Support Mission and the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, stated on multiple occasions that there is a “rigorous procedure” for vetting targets, but was unfortunately not pressed on what that rigorous procedure entails.

“When the Afghans call for fire, that’s not an automatic response,” Campbell told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday. “Every day the Afghans ask me for close air support and we just don’t go fire some place. We go through a rigorous procedure to put aerial fires on the ground – a U.S. process, under the U.S. authorities.”

A logical follow-up question might have been: what does that rigorous procedure entail? Or, if your process is so rigorous, why did you not know that the target that you bombed with an AC-130 gunship was indeed a hospital? After all, MSF had provided you with the coordinates of their hospital, had they not? Don’t you have some database you could cross-check, or at least an old-fashioned map on the wall with “do not bomb” areas marked with thumbtacks or something?

It is quite simply not credible to claim that the United States was unaware that the target was a hospital before launching the attack. If, however, one is inclined to give the world’s most advanced military the benefit of the doubt that the initial strike was the result of some sort of bureaucratic snafu – in spite of all of its “rigorous procedures” – the fact that U.S. and Afghan military officials were again informed after staff at the hospital became aware of the bombardment, and yet continued to bomb for another half-hour, should put to rest the notion that the attack was just a “mistake.”

The specifics as laid out by MSF, and generally not disputed in any way by the U.S. military, should lead any reasonable person to the unavoidable conclusion that the attack was a deliberate, premeditated war crime – most likely motivated by animosity over the fact that MSF treats all patients, including Taliban combatants, without discrimination, based on longstanding principles of medical ethics. And yet, the mantra being repeated endlessly by politicians and the media is that the hospital was bombed “by mistake.”

Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) both made this claim in relation to Gen. Campbell’s Senate testimony last week, and it has been reiterated endlessly in the media, despite the reality that there has been no official determination of how and why this bombing took place – and certainly no independent international investigation as called for by Doctors Without Borders.

Rather than providing answers, Pentagon officials are offering to make “condolence payments” to the families of the 22 people slain in the U.S. attack and are saying that “appropriate payments” will be made toward the repair of the hospital they bombed.

“The Department of Defense believes it is important to address the consequences of the tragic incident,” said Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook on Saturday. “One step the department can take is to make condolence payments to civilian non-combatants injured and the families of civilian non-combatants killed as a result of U.S. military operations.”

Considering the amount of noise that the victims of this assault have made, it’s hard to view this offer as anything other than a coldly calculated and rather crude attempt at throwing around hush money – on the U.S. taxpayers’ dime – to get MSF to cease its demands for an independent investigation.

To its everlasting credit, however, MSF is declining the Pentagon’s offer. The organization said on Sunday that it has not officially received any details of the compensation announced by the Pentagon, but that it has a longstanding policy “to not accept funding from any governments for its work in Afghanistan and other conflicts around the world.”

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning charity added: “This policy allows us to work independently without taking sides and provide medical care to anyone who needs it. This will not change.”

thanks but no thanks msf

As the Pentagon stonewalls, MSF continues to press for answers, invoking a never-before used mechanism known as the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC) to investigate the incident. The IHFFC has acknowledged that it has been contacted by Doctors Without Borders and says that it “stands ready to undertake an investigation but can only do so based on the consent of the concerned State or States.”

In other words, good luck with that. The United States must consent to the investigation, and considering its intransigence so far, there is no reason to believe that the U.S. government will suddenly submit to a truly impartial, independent investigation into the “tragic incident,” or war crime that occurred on October 3.

Apparently, the United States is unconcerned about how its image is affected by this stonewalling, which appears to many people as a tacit admission of guilt. The only conceivable reason for the U.S. to block an independent investigation is because it knows that someone within the U.S. chain of command ordered a deliberate strike on a working hospital, a grave breach of international law for which someone should be prosecuted as a war criminal.

To demand justice for the victims of the U.S. attack on the Kunduz hospital, click here.

cartoon msf bombing

Senate softball-questioning on Kunduz attack underlines the need for a credible independent investigation

Tuesday’s display at the Senate Armed Services Committee, in which General John Campbell testified about the security situation in Afghanistan and talked a bit about the U.S. airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital last weekend that killed and maimed dozens of civilians, provided one of the clearest indications yet that there is no reason to trust an internal inquiry and that an independent investigation is absolutely necessary.

For the most part, Senate Committee members sidestepped the topic of the Kunduz attack altogether, focusing their questions instead on overall U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, with a bit of discussion on the recent revelations of rampant child abuse, pedophilia and sex slavery in the country by the U.S.’s Afghan allies.

When the subject of the hospital bombing was addressed, the senators generally asked rather mundane questions that avoided tackling the most pertinent issues. No one asked, for example, who had personally authorized the attack, whether the United States knew that the target was a hospital before launching airstrikes, or if it did not know initially, at what point the picture came into focus that U.S. bombs were landing on a medical facility protected under international law.

Instead, questions focused on who had requested the attack, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the committee, and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) both asking the general if it was true that the strike was called in by the Afghans.

Gen. Campbell, who currently serves as commander of the Resolute Support Mission and the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, responded to these softball questions by reiterating the latest U.S. account of the atrocity – that it was the Afghans who called in the strike but that the ultimate decision for carrying it out went up the U.S. chain of command, going through a “rigorous” process of vetting the target.

He was asked no follow-up questions on what this “rigorous” process might entail, and if it is indeed so rigorous, why it is that the United States, which had been repeatedly provided the coordinates for the MSF hospital, would have launched a strike on a clearly marked medical facility.

There were also no questions posed to the general about whether it is in fact true that MSF staff had frantically called their contacts in U.S./NATO command to tell them — in real time — that the hospital was under attack, calls which were apparently ignored while the strikes continued in 15-minute intervals for the next hour.

These would have been pertinent questions to ask, because they would have forced the general to go on record regarding what the United States knew and when the United States knew it regarding the target that it was hitting. This is important because if the United States knew that it was bombing a hospital, this would be considered a grave breach of international law – a war crime and an atrocity for which U.S. officials must be held accountable.

Attacking the sick and wounded, as in bombing a hospital, is a clear violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, which states:

(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;

If the United States knew that it was bombing a medical facility, this would also be a grave breach of Customary International Humanitarian Law, as explained by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which states on its website:

Medical personnel exclusively assigned to medical duties must be respected and protected in all circumstances. They lose their protection if they commit, outside their humanitarian function, acts harmful to the enemy.

But rather than attempting to determine what the U.S. knew about the target that it bombed for more than an hour early Saturday morning, instead the senators asked technical questions, which seemed geared more towards deflecting and obfuscating the issue than getting to the heart of the matter. The toughest question probably came from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who asked the general whether he would be opposed to a truly independent investigation into the tragedy.

But even Sen. Shaheen engaged in some whitewashing by stating upfront that the tragedy was an “accident,” despite the fact that there is still no indication that the attack on the hospital was not a deliberate and premeditated war crime.

This theme of portraying the atrocity as an accident continued after the hearing, with senators going on television to reiterate the key talking points of the U.S. military’s cover story – namely that this was a terrible mistake and a tragedy but that no one could have ever carried out this sort of crime intentionally.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) went on MSNBC following the hearing to reiterate that the bombing was a “horrible mistake,” and further explained Gen. Campbell’s testimony regarding the allegedly “rigorous vetting” that took place in the U.S. chain of command leading up to and during this assault.

Although Kaine was in the hearing as a member of the Armed Services Committee, he opted not to ask the general any questions about the tragedy. On MSNBC however, he had quite a bit to say about it:

It seems clear that what is taking place is a systematic whitewash of this incident, with all relevant officials assuming their assigned roles to obfuscate and confuse with technocratic jargon and feel-good rhetoric designed to reassure the American people of the moral rectitude of their military. The only problem is that Doctors Without Borders is refusing to play along and is continuing to demand real answers.

The group is seeking to invoke a never-used body, the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, to investigate the U.S. bombing of its hospital. As BBC reported Wednesday,

MSF said it did not trust internal military inquiries into the bombing that killed at least 22 people.

The International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC) was set up in 1991 under the Geneva Conventions.

The US says last Saturday’s bombing was a mistake. It came amid efforts to reverse a Taliban takeover of Kunduz.

MSF says the co-ordinates of the hospital were well-known and its bombing could not have been a mistake. The aid agency – winner of the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize – has said it is proceeding from the assumption that the attack was a war crime.

MSF is also continuing to plead its case in the media, refusing to allow the military’s PR machine to sweep the atrocity under the rug. This is Doctors Without Borders Executive Director Jason Cone speaking with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday:

Supporters of MSF’s calls for an independent investigation include Human Rights Watch, the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam International, and Greenpeace. To add your name to a petition calling for justice for Doctors Without Borders, click here.

msf says enough

U.S. bombing of hospital in Afghanistan a grave breach of international law

Fires burn in the MSF emergency trauma hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, after it was hit and partially destroyed by aerial attacks on October 3, 2015. - MSF

Fires burn in the MSF emergency trauma hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, after it was hit and partially destroyed by aerial attacks on October 3, 2015.
– Photo by MSF

In 14 years of war and occupation the U.S. military has committed some serious atrocities in Afghanistan, but few compare to the war crime committed over the weekend when the United States repeatedly bombed a hospital in the northern city of Kunduz for over an hour – killing 22 medical workers and patients, including three children, and injuring 37 other people.

Perhaps realizing the truly grave nature of the assault on the Doctors Without Borders hospital, the U.S. has changed its story a number of times attempting to explain its actions. While originally indicating that it was an accident, the military then claimed that its bombing of the hospital was in response to enemy fire from the facility.

On Monday, however, General John Campbell, who commands the 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and holds ultimate responsibility for Saturday’s attack, said that it was actually “called in” by Afghan commanders. But as the New York Times reported on Monday, there was no clarification given on the discrepancies between the various U.S. accounts:

General Campbell’s comments … did not clarify the military’s initial claims that the strike, which killed 22 people, had been an accident to begin with. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has repeatedly said that there had been no fighting around the hospital, and that the building was hit over and over by airstrikes on Saturday morning, even though the group had sent the American military the precise coordinates of its hospital so it could be avoided.

Campbell even acknowledged that his new story was “different” than the two earlier stories, while failing to explain precisely why the stories differed so greatly from day to day. “An airstrike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat and several civilians were accidentally struck,” he said. “This is different from the initial reports which indicated that U.S. forces were threatened and that the airstrike was called on their behalf.”

So here we have the Pentagon blatantly contradicting itself – repeatedly – and manipulating the media, falsely portraying the attack as somehow justified or legal. But even the new explanation offered by the military does not clarify whether the United States knew that it was bombing a hospital, which is a grave violation of international humanitarian law even if there were enemy combatants in the vicinity.

no weapons msfAs MSF has stated, it had repeatedly given notification to the U.S. military of its coordinates, including five days before the attack, and even called the U.S. military during the bombing urging them to stop the attack – all to no avail. The bombing continued for more than a half-hour after the U.S. had been contacted by MSF, with several strikes pounding the clearly identified hospital, incinerating patients in their beds.

Attacking the sick and wounded, even if the intended targets are enemy combatants, is a clear violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, which states:

(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;

If the United States knew that it was bombing a medical facility, this would also be a grave breach of Customary International Humanitarian Law, as explained by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which states on its website:

Medical personnel exclusively assigned to medical duties must be respected and protected in all circumstances. They lose their protection if they commit, outside their humanitarian function, acts harmful to the enemy.

This rule, the ICRC explains,

goes back to the 1864 Geneva Convention and was repeated in the subsequent Geneva Conventions of 1906 and 1929.  It is now set forth in the First, Second and Fourth Geneva Conventions of 1949.  Its scope was expanded in Article 15 of Additional Protocol I to cover civilian medical personnel in addition to military medical personnel in all circumstances.  This extension is widely supported in State practice, which generally refers to medical personnel without distinguishing between military or civilian medical personnel.  It is also supported by States not, or not at the time, party to Additional Protocol I.

This very clearly stated law of war, dating back 151 years and elaborated upon in multiple conventions and protocols, explains why the United States and Afghan allies will go to great lengths to portray the MSF hospital as engaged in combat in some way. However, these claims are vociferously disputed by the victims of this assault.

MSF said that it is “disgusted” by statements justifying violence, calling them essentially an “admission of a war crime.”

As MSF stated Monday:

Today the US government has admitted that it was their airstrike that hit our hospital in Kunduz and killed 22 patients and MSF staff. Their description of the attack keeps changing—from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government. The reality is the US dropped those bombs. The US hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff. The US military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack. With such constant discrepancies in the US and Afghan accounts of what happened, the need for a full transparent independent investigation is ever more critical.

independent investigation kunduzFor these reasons, MSF is calling for an independent investigation of the incident, as opposed to the internal inquiry that the Pentagon is promising. So far, it seems that the international community is relatively united in its condemnation of the U.S. war crime, with the ICRC saying it was “deeply shocked by the bombing” and “strongly condemn[ing] such violence against patients, medical workers and facilities.”

The ICRC noted that “under international humanitarian law (IHL), the civilian population, medical personnel, ambulances and medical facilities must be respected and protected in all circumstances, and the work of medical personnel must be facilitated.”

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called the event “utterly tragic, inexcusable, and possibly even criminal.”

Zeid also called for a “swift, full and transparent investigation.”

However, as we have often seen, when the U.S. starts fully throwing its diplomatic weight around, often these war crimes and atrocities end up swept under the rug. It’s therefore up to civil society to keep the pressure on.

The victims of this crime – whether alive or dead – absolutely demand it.

MSF Sweden demanding an independent investigation.

MSF Sweden demanding an independent investigation.

Mass shootings and the U.S.’s international obligation to protect the right to life


Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The latest mass shooting in the United States – yesterday’s massacre at a community college in western Oregon – is another painful reminder of the U.S.’s inability or unwillingness to rein in its gun control problem and bring its laws into conformity with international norms.

The problem of U.S. gun violence has long caught the attention of the international community, including at recent review conferences examining U.S. compliance with various international conventions, with diplomats and experts repeatedly noting that U.S. laws may not fulfill international obligations of the United States government to protect life.

Following a review of the United States early last year by the UN Human Rights Committee for adherence to obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Committee’s concluding observations included the following passage on U.S. gun violence:

While acknowledging the measures taken to reduce gun violence, the Committee remains concerned about the continuing high numbers of gun-related deaths and injuries and the disparate impact of gun violence on minorities, women and children. While commending the investigation by the United States Commission on Civil Rights of the discriminatory effect of the “Stand Your Ground” laws, the Committee is concerned about the proliferation of such laws which are used to circumvent the limits of legitimate self-defence in violation of the State party’s duty to protect life (arts. 2, 6 and 26).

To bring the U.S. epidemic of gun violence under control and to fulfill its obligation to effectively protect the right to life, the UN recommended that the United States should:

(a)          Continue its efforts to effectively curb gun violence, including through the continued pursuit of legislation requiring background checks for all private firearm transfers, in order to prevent possession of arms by persons recognized as prohibited individuals under federal law, and ensure strict enforcement of the Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban of 1996 (the Lautenberg Amendment); and

(b)          Review the Stand Your Ground laws to remove far-reaching immunity and ensure strict adherence to the principles of necessity and proportionality when using deadly force in self-defence.

At a review of U.S. compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, held later in 2014, the United States was again admonished for its failure to comply with international obligations on protecting the right to life. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) observed that gun violence disproportionately impacts racial and ethnic minorities:

The Committee is concerned at the high number of gun-related deaths and injuries which disproportionately affect members of racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans. It is also concerned at the proliferation of “Stand Your Ground” laws, which are used to circumvent the limits of legitimate self-defence, in violation of the State party’s duty to protect life, and have a disproportionate and discriminatory impact on members of racial and ethnic minorities (arts. 2, 5 (b) and 6).

As a recommendation, the Committee urged the U.S.

to take effective legislative and policy measures to fulfil its obligation to protect the right to life and to reduce gun violence, including by adopting legislation expanding background checks for all private firearm transfers and prohibiting the practice of carrying concealed handguns in public venues; increasing transparency concerning gun use in crime and illegal gun sales, including by repealing the Tiahrt Amendments; and reviewing the Stand Your Ground laws to remove far-reaching immunity and ensure strict adherence to the principles of necessity and proportionality when deadly force is used for self-defence.

The United States was again reminded of these recommendations during UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of the U.S. human rights situation in May 2015.

The CERD, the UN reminded the United States,

was concerned at the large number of gun-related deaths and injuries, which disproportionately affected members of racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans. It urged the United States to reduce gun violence by, inter alia, adopting legislation expanding background checks for all private firearms transfers and reviewing the “stand your ground” laws.57 The HR Committee58 and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences59 made similar recommendations.

Despite all of these recommendations, needless to say, the U.S. has not taken any meaningful steps to bring its gun laws into compliance with its international obligation to protect the right to life. The result: so far this year, there have been 294 mass shootings in America, including yesterday’s in Oregon.

shooting sprees

Death row prisoner Richard Glossip’s multiple stays of execution may amount to torture

too much doubt

For the fourth time in the past year, the U.S. state of Oklahoma has issued a stay of execution for Richard Glossip, an almost certainly innocent man wrongfully convicted for contracting the murder of his boss in 1997. Beyond serious questions of the man’s guilt, his multiple brushes with death in such a limited period of time are the equivalent of state-sanctioned mock execution, prohibited under international torture conventions and under U.S. law.

Glossip was convicted of murder-for-hire 18 years ago after Justin Sneed, the man who confessed to the killing, claimed Glossip had hired him to do it, despite a total lack of evidence connecting Glossip to the crime. Sneed received a life sentence without parole in a medium-security prison, while Glossip was sent to death row based entirely on Sneed’s testimony.

Despite how crucial Sneed’s testimony was in convicting Glossip, the courts have largely overlooked the fact that he gave not one but eight different accounts of what happened the night Barry van Treese was murdered.

In recent years a number of people have come forward to say that Sneed’s fingering of Glossip lacks any credibility, including former cellmates who claimed that Sneed had boasted of getting out of a death sentence by selling out an innocent man. Even Sneed’s daughter claims that her father had lied about Glossip’s involvement in the crime, stating in a clemency letter last year that he would recant if it wasn’t for his own fear of being executed:

For a couple of years now, my father has been talking to me about recanting his original testimony. But has been afraid to act upon it, in fear of being charged with the Death Penalty, and not be here for his children. My father has no reason to do so as a favor to Richard, as him and Mr. Glossip have no relationship and have had no communication in the last 17 years. I feel his conscious is getting to him. His fear of recanting, but guilt about not doing so, makes it obvious that information he is sitting on would exonerate Mr. Glossip. I’m sure if he felt safe that he would not lose his Plea Agreement, he would give new and truthful testimony, much different that his Testimony 17 years ago.  He has asked me several times to look into what the legal ramifications would be to his own case if he recanted.

Due to the massive amount of doubt surrounding Glossip’s conviction, his case has garnered worldwide attention, including from Pope Francis who on Wednesday urged Governor Mary Fallin to commute his death sentence and nearly 250,000 signers of a petition calling for his release. His supporters claim that his innocence makes his incarceration a gross violation of human rights, compounded by the multiple close calls he has had with the Oklahoma death chamber.

These brushes with death are described in a timeline of his case compiled by local Tulsa TV channel KJRH:

May 28, 2014 – Glossip’s execution date is set for Nov. 20, 2014.

Oct. 13, 2014 – Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt says the state does not have the drugs on hand or the medical staff prepared that is needed to carry out the state’s upcoming executions.

Oct. 24, 2014 – Stay of execution granted for Glossip and two other Oklahoma death row inmates

Oct. 24, 2014 – A state board voted unanimously not to recommend clemency for Glossip

Nov. 20, 2014 – Date Glossip was to be executed

Jan. 26, 2015 – State Attorney General Scott Pruitt asks for stays of execution for three death row inmates, including Glossip.

Jan. 26, 2015 – Application for stay of execution filed with United States Supreme Court. Glossip and two other inmates filed the application.

Jan. 28, 2015 – Supreme Court takes up inmates’ application for stays, pending final disposition of the case.

Jan. 28, 2015 – Glossip meets face-to-face with Sister Helen Prejean at the law library inside Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

Jan. 29, 2015 – Date Glossip was to be executed.

Aug. 10, 2015 – Actress Susan Sarandon takes to Twitter to fight against Glossip’s execution. She and Prejean rebutted tweets sent out by a spokesperson for Gov. Mary Fallin’s office.

Aug. 28, 2015 – The U.S. Supreme Court rejects a request for a new hearing. Scheduled execution will proceed.

Sept. 14, 2015 – Glossip’s attorneys claim to have new evidence days before client is scheduled to die.

Sept. 16, 2015 – Hours before his execution was to be carried out, anappeals court issued an emergency request for a stay for two weeks until Sept. 30.

As journalists Ziva Branstetter and Cary Aspinwall described the scene yesterday at the prison where Glossip was scheduled to die at 3:00 PM,

Outside the white walls of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Glossip’s family and friends thought he was already dead. Reporters heard them crying out in anguish when they learned the Supreme Court had denied Glossip’s request for a stay.

It turned out Oklahoma didn’t have the right lethal drug to carry out the last step of his execution. Instead of potassium chloride, which stops the heart, the prison had potassium acetate.

“That’s just crazy,” Glossip said, via speakerphone held up as reporters crowded around. “Nobody has really said much of anything.”

Glossip has had four stays of execution, including on Sept. 16, the day he was to be put to death. The stay on Wednesday “is the most stressful it has been.” He had been moved to a holding cell and was not taken into the death chamber.

“I’m sitting there watching TV trying to keep up with the news and find out what’s going on,” he said.

So, basically, because the state of Oklahoma purchased the wrong drug to use on Glossip he got one more stay of execution with a new date to die in 37 days’ time. But as Sister Helen Prejean noted in a tweet yesterday following the Governor’s stay of execution, “If Oklahoma can’t be trusted to buy the right lethal injection drugs, how can anyone trust them to convict the right person?”

Beyond serious questions regarding the basic competence of Oklahoma state officials, yesterday’s stay of execution raises grave issues over the state’s – and by extension, the U.S.’s – compliance with the UN’s Convention Against Torture (CAT), which defines the crime of torture in Article 1:

 [T]orture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

As a state party to the CAT, the United States has adopted domestic legislation to ensure compliance with the treaty’s provisions. The Torture Statute, formally known as Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113C of the U.S. Code, defines the crime of torture as “an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control.”

“Severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from:

(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;

(C) the threat of imminent death.

Considering the fact that Richard Glossip has now faced the threat of imminent death not once, not twice, but four times, it is clear that his treatment violates the letter and spirit of both international conventions and domestic statutes. It is effectively a mock execution, which is even prohibited under U.S. military interrogation and detention guidelines.

The likelihood that he is in fact innocent only compounds the tragedy and seriously calls into question the United States’ commitment to basic human rights.

For more on the Glossip case, click here.

To add your name to the petition demanding that his execution be stopped once and for all, click here.

U.S. expresses concern over barrel bombs in Syria, looks the other way in Yemen

yemen saudi arabia united states

Led by the United States, the international community has in recent days grown increasingly critical of the Syrian government for its indiscriminate use of barrel bombs on civilian populations. President Barack Obama highlighted the issue in his address to the United Nations Monday, noting that Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad “drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children,” and Secretary of State John Kerry drove the point home Tuesday by calling on Russia and Iran to force Assad to stop using these weapons.

The Iranians and the Russians, Kerry said, are “in a position, in exchange perhaps for something that we might do, they might decide to keep Assad from dropping barrel bombs,” which are essentially oil drums packed with explosives and shrapnel that are rolled out the back door of military helicopters. To be sure, they are heinous weapons which are most likely illegal under international conventions.

But what about the U.S.’s close ally in the region, Saudi Arabia? What sort of reaction is there for the Saudi regime’s use of barrel bombs on civilians in its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen? Of course, when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s massive violations of human rights, including its use of both cluster bombs and barrel bombs, there is only deafening silence from Washington, which continues to shower Riyadh with military assistance.

The U.S. arms transfers to Saudi Arabia are likely a violation of the recently adopted Arms Trade Treaty, as Amnesty International explained in a fact sheet published last month. “In June-July 2015, Amnesty International researchers investigated eight airstrikes carried out by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in different parts of Yemen which resulted in scores of deaths and injuries to civilians, and demonstrated a clear failure to abide by the requirements of international humanitarian law,” noted Amnesty.

In response, Amnesty called for strict safeguards in the supply of weapons and their use In line the Arms Trade Treaty, which has been signed but not ratified by the United States:

Amnesty International is calling on States supplying weapons and ammunition to adopt a preventive approach and apply strict safeguards in order to mitigate and remove the substantial risk of the arms being used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law; States must carry out rigorous risk assessments against strict human rights criteria before authorizing any arms transfer/military assistance; States must also implement robust post-delivery controls on all transfers. The Saudi Arabia-led military coalition involved directly or indirectly in air strikes or other military operations must refrain from carrying out indiscriminate attacks or direct attacks on civilians, including through the use of unguided air bombardment in densely populated areas.

In another recent report, Amnesty International pointed out that its assistance “makes the United States partly responsible for civilian casualties resulting from unlawful attacks” in Yemen. Amnesty also noted that “the countries that supplied the weapons have a responsibility to ensure that they are not used to commit violations of international law.”

The human rights group further described the situation in Yemen as dire. “Prior to the conflict, more than half of Yemen’s population was in need of some humanitarian assistance,” according to Amnesty. “That number has now increased to more than 80 percent, while a coalition-imposed blockade on commercial imports remains in place in much of the country and the ability of international aid agencies to deliver desperately needed supplies continues to be hindered by the conflict.”

Not only is the United States fueling this humanitarian disaster with its no-questions-asked weapons transfers, it is also directly assisting the Saudis with in-air refueling, combat-search-and-rescue support, and providing intelligence on target selection. It is also providing the Saudis banned cluster munitions which are being used against Yemeni civilians.

The U.S. is also directly killing Yemeni civilians through its drone strikes concentrated in the eastern part of the country, with attacks this month killing a number of innocent people. Altogether, since 2002 there have been at least 127 U.S. drone strikes on Yemen that have killed an estimated 100 civilians and injured hundreds more.

In addition, the U.S. government is providing crucial diplomatic support to the Saudi regime’s campaign at the United Nations to block a human rights inquiry into its assault on Yemen. A proposal submitted by the Netherlands last week calls for the UN Human Rights Council to launch a probe into abuses committed by all parties in Yemen, but Saudi Arabia and its key allies appear determined to prevent such an investigation.

“Saudi diplomats have robustly lobbied Asian, African and European states through their capitals or missions in Geneva,” reported the New York Times. While President Barack Obama has so far remained silent on the resolution, U.S. allies Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates “have argued for shelving [the] plans,” according to Foreign Policy journalist Colum Lynch.

Quite simply, without support from the United States military the Saudis would not be able to sustain its war either politically or logistically, lacking the capability to independently carry out airstrikes over Yemen for any period of time. Yet, when pressed about the U.S. support for Saudi war crimes, U.S. officials simply say, “I would refer you to the Saudis.”

This is why U.S. statements on Syria’s use of barrel bombs should be taken with a grain of salt. It is simply not credible for the United States to feign outrage over war crimes taking place in Syria while enabling war crimes taking place in Saudi Arabia. At the very least, there should be some consistency introduced to U.S. foreign policy which would both increase U.S. credibility and prevent the needless suffering of civilians.

As U.S. pushes for cybersecurity norms, civil society pushes for privacy norms

nsa privacy rights

While the U.S. government pushes for the adoption of international norms on cybersecurity, including on questions of critical infrastructure protection, a grassroots effort is underway to establish binding international law to protect the rights of citizens from electronic surveillance, including the bulk collection of data exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden more than two years ago.

A campaign for a new global treaty against government mass surveillance – entitled the “The International Treaty on the Right to Privacy, Protection Against Improper Surveillance and Protection of Whistleblowers,” or the “Snowden Treaty” for short – was launched yesterday in New York. While the full text of the treaty is yet to be released, an executive summary calls on signatories “to enact concrete changes to outlaw mass surveillance,” increase efforts to provide “oversight of state surveillance,” and “develop international protections for whistleblowers.”

As reported yesterday at The Intercept, “Since the Snowden revelations there has been increasing public recognition of the threat to global privacy, with the United Nations announcing the appointment of its first Special Rapporteur on this issue in March, followed by calls for the creation of a new Geneva Convention on internet privacy.”

The treaty effort is being spearheaded by the global activist organization Avaaz, working closely with David Miranda, who was detained and interrogated by British authorities at Heathrow airport in 2013 in relation to his work exposing NSA and GCHQ abuses with his partner Glenn Greenwald.

“We sat down with legal, privacy and technology experts from around the world and are working to create a document that will demand the right to privacy for people around the world,” Miranda said. Pointing out that governments and private corporations are moving to protect themselves from spying and espionage, Miranda added that “we see changes happening, corporations are taking steps to protect themselves, and we need to take steps to protect ourselves too.”

Snowden spoke via a video link at the event launching the campaign to say that the treaty effort is part of a larger movement to build popular pressure to convince governments to recognize privacy as a fundamental human right – a right already codified in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Although Article 17 of the ICCPR stipulates that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation,” some advocates believe that further elaboration is needed to ensure the full protection of privacy rights. The UN Human Rights Committee has raised concerns with the United States that its surveillance activities may violate both Articles 17 and 19, but no real changes to policy have been made.

The treaty is also necessary, Snowden said, to ensure internationally guaranteed protections to whistleblowers such as himself. Snowden cited the threat of pervasive surveillance in the United States, stating that “the same tactics that the NSA and the CIA collaborated on in places like Yemen are migrating home to be used in the United States against common criminals and people who pose no threat to national security.”


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