‘Russiagate’ impeachment push reveals U.S. indifference to corruption and war crimes

Just a couple weeks past the symbolic 100-day marker of the Trump presidency, prominent Democrats are increasingly urging the president’s impeachment for alleged improprieties related to the so-called “Russiagate” controversy. More than two dozen Democratic members of congress — and a couple Republicans — have already alluded to the possibility of initiating impeachment proceedings, and following Donald Trump’s recent firing of FBI Director James Comey, those calls are intensifying.

Democratic Rep. Al Green of Texas last week became the first congressman to call for Trump’s impeachment from the floor of the House of Representatives.

“I rise today with a heavy heart,” Green said in a dramatic speech. “I rise today with a sense of responsibility and duty to the people who have elected me, a sense of duty to this country, a sense of duty to the Constitution of the United States of America. I rise today, Mr. Speaker, to call for the impeachment of the President of the United States of America for obstruction of justice.”

The congressman went on to describe the reasons he feels impeachment is necessary. Stating that “our democracy is at risk,” Green explained that when President Trump “fired the FBI director who was investigating the President for his connections to Russian involvement in the President’s election,” the president unlawfully obstructed justice into a federal investigation.

For the sake of the rule of law, the congressman stated that Congress must initiate impeachment proceedings to ensure the principle of no one being above the law is upheld. His calls have been echoed by senators and congressmen speaking out on television talk shows and Twitter, indicating a growing trend in Washington toward the real possibility of removing this president less than a year into his first term.

There are two things noteworthy about these developments. One is that the very basis for the impeachment calls rests on a number of assumptions that may very well lack any basis in fact. For all of the talk about Trump’s alleged “collusion” with the Russian government, what is left unsaid is that the “collusion” allegations relate to a fundamentally unproven assertion – that the Russian government actually interfered in Election 2016 as part of a plot to ensure that Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8 presidential election.

This alleged “interference” amounted to a supposed clandestine plot to hack the Democratic National Committee’s emails and provide the contents to WikiLeaks in order to make Clinton look bad and expose the DNC’s unfair handicapping of the insurgent Bernie Sanders campaign during the Democratic primary elections. In other words, Russia allegedly “meddled” in the election by helping to expose how corrupt the U.S. electoral system is. (It should be noted that the veracity of the emails’ contents is not disputed.)

Although this conspiracy theory has been endlessly promoted in the U.S. media and is essentially accepted as a self-evident truth by Democratic partisans, it should not be forgotten that it lacks any proof whatsoever and that there are a number of alternative possibilities for how WikiLeaks obtained the incriminating emails from the DNC.

One such theory is that they were provided by former DNC staffer Seth Rich, who was mysteriously murdered in a so-called “botched robbery” on the streets of Washington, DC, on July 10, 2016. This is the possibility that WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange alluded to when he offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in Rich’s killing.

Although WikiLeaks has a strict policy of not naming its sources, the reward for information about the Rich murder coupled with the fact that Assange has unequivocally stated that Russia was not the source of the leaks should raise at least a few doubts about the “official conspiracy theory,” i.e. the theory promoted by mainstream media, the U.S. intelligence community and the Democratic Party that Russia – in collusion with the Trump campaign – somehow “meddled” in the election.

(For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin has also unequivocally denied being the source of the DNC email leaks. “Read my lips – no,” he said when asked whether Russia had interfered in the U.S. election.)

It should also be noted that the closest thing to evidence to back up this official conspiracy theory amounts to a series of unproven assertions put forward by the U.S. intelligence community, which it should be recalled, has been known to tell a lie or two on occasion. In an “analytic assessment” published Jan. 6, the Director of National Intelligence concluded that the Kremlin had hacked the DNC emails in an effort to undermine Clinton’s campaign.

The official report however offers nothing approaching hard evidence of allegation of Russian interference, which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others have called an “act of war.” Indeed, the report states upfront that its sources and methods for reaching its conclusions remain “highly classified,” noting that “the Intelligence Community rarely can publicly reveal the full extent of its knowledge or the precise bases for its assessments, as the release of such information would reveal sensitive sources or methods and imperil the ability to collect critical foreign intelligence in the future.”

So, instead of offering proof, the report “covers the motivation and scope of Moscow’s intentions regarding US elections and Moscow’s use of cyber tools and media campaigns to influence US public opinion.” In other words, the intelligence community is offering its guesses as to why Moscow may have been motivated to engage in an “act of war” against the U.S. government without sharing a shred of proof that it actually did.

As former CIA analyst Ray McGovern describes it in a recent article,

The oft-cited, but evidence-free, CIA/FBI/NSA report of Jan. 6 – crafted by selected senior analysts, according to then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper – is of a piece with the “high-confidence,” but fraudulent, National Intelligence Estimate 15 years ago about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Basically, it’s propaganda designed to influence the American people of a predetermined conclusion – in this case that the Russian government is acting as a hostile power to interfere in “American democracy,” not unlike how the intelligence community 15 years ago worked to convince the American people that Iraq posed a grave threat with its non-existent weapons of mass destruction program.

Besides the complete lack of evidence to back up the official conspiracy theory of Russian interference in Election 2016, another thing striking about this line of attack against Trump is the fact that it ignores any number of other possibly impeachable offenses that have been committed by Trump since the day he took office.

These include violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which is intended to prevent corruption and conflict of interests by ensuring that nobody holding a position of trust with the United States government can receive payments from foreign governments, whether gifts or a salary or profits.

As Richard Painter, former ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, explained before Trump even took the oath of office,

If you have somebody who’s making profits from dealing with foreign governments or companies controlled by foreign governments, that person must dispense with those profits, cannot receive that money, while holding any position of trust with the United States government. That applies to every U.S. government employee, including the president. And so, what this means is that, for Donald Trump, if he’s going to hold onto these business enterprises, which present a whole range of other conflict of interest problems, to satisfy the Constitution, at a bare minimum, what he’s going to have to do is get the foreign government money and money from foreign government-controlled corporations out of his business enterprise. And this includes foreign diplomats staying at the hotels at government expense, foreign governments having big parties in his hotels and canceling reservations at the Four Seasons, going over to the Trump Hotel, to curry favor. All of that is unconstitutional.

Interestingly, however, Democrats have apparently eschewed this line of attack in favor of the “Russiagate” narrative, effectively letting Trump off the hook for a very real constitutional issue in favor of highly dubious and unproven accusations of “collusion” with an “adversarial power” in “undermining American democracy.”

Another area of concern that Democrats appear to be turning a blind eye to is regarding the mounting evidence of war crimes committed since Trump was sworn in as president last January.

The war crimes began within days of Trump’s inauguration, with Navy SEALs conducting a raid in Yemen on January 29 raid ending up with dozens of innocents killed and the loss of a $70 million MV-22 Osprey aircraft.

As Charles Pierson describes the deadly raid at CounterPunch,

Two deaths stand out.  One was the Trump Administration’s first combat fatality: 36- year old Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens.

The second was an 8-year old American citizen, Nawar Al-Awlaki.  Nawar’s father was the US-born cleric and Al-Qaeda recruiter and propagandist, Anwar Al-Awlaki.  Al-Awlaki was assassinated in a US drone strike in Yemen on September 30, 2011.  Shortly afterwards, Nawar’s 16-year old brother Abdulrahman was also killed by a US drone, probably inadvertently.

Thanks to the US, the Awlakis—father, son, and daughter—are together again.  It’s too bad the Awlakis can’t thank the Pentagon themselves.

Besides this incident, the routine use of flying robots (commonly known as “drones”) to rain death from above half-way around the world has shot up 432% under the Trump administration, continuing a trend started under the Bush-43 administration and intensified under President Obama to use unmanned aerial vehicles to indiscriminately kill terrorist suspects while also terrorizing civilian populations.

Indeed, Trump has killed enormous numbers of civilians in drone strikes, many of which have taken place far from any battlefield, in places such as Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. However, according to international humanitarian law, the legal use of military force are limited only to areas of “armed conflict.”

Because the United States is not involved in an armed conflict with Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, nor has any of these countries attacked the United States, Trump’s actions are violations of the United Nations Charter.

Other violations of the UN Charter include recent attacks on Syria, which were carried out both in violation of international law and without congressional authorization. Congressman Ted Lieu responded to news last week that the U.S. military bombed forces allied with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad with a tweet denouncing the attack as “frickin illegal.”

“Trump does not have Congressional authorization to attack Syria, a country that has not attacked U.S.,” Lieu pointed out.

While Lieu’s complaint was a welcome departure from the deafening silence that usually accompanies acts of U.S. military aggression, it should be kept in mind that voices such as his are the exception to the rule. And compared to the growing chorus of calls for impeachment over unfounded “Russiagate” allegations, the voices in the wilderness complaining of U.S. war crimes remain few and far between.

What this indicates is that while the U.S. ruling class – or what is commonly referred to as the “deep state” – has grown increasingly weary of Trump’s friendly moves toward Russia, what it doesn’t seem to mind is a policy of war crimes. Indeed, when Trump carries out acts of military aggression, he is generally lauded across the political spectrum for acting “presidential” and showing “leadership.”

In other words, what the deep state cannot abide is rapprochement, what it really wants is endless war.

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World moves to ban nuclear weapons as U.S. flouts obligations, moves to revamp arsenal

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Donald Trump as Dr. Strangelove

Governments from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe are pressing for a new legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, and will convene later this month in New York to launch historic negotiations toward this end. Noting that the negotiations are proceeding at an “unprecedented” pace, United Nations Conference President Elayne Whyte Gómez said in February that the rapid progress “reflects the urgency that Member States attach to the need to realize progress in the area of nuclear disarmament.”

While previous efforts to ban nuclear weapons have been considered non-starters due to the refusal of nuclear-armed states to adhere to verification procedures, the new treaty effort avoids such pitfalls by focusing instead on establishing unambiguous international norms that would make these weapons politically untenable.

As the Nuclear Threat Initiative explains it,

The Nuclear Weapons Ban is an initiative to prohibit the use, possession, development, testing, deployment and transfer of nuclear weapons under international law. Unlike prior efforts at comprehensive nuclear disarmament, notably the proposed Nuclear Weapons Convention, a treaty banning nuclear weapons would not include dismantlement and disarmament verification procedures. As such, its proponents argue, the negotiation of a ban treaty does not require the participation of the nuclear weapons possessors.

Advocates of a ban treaty believe that nuclear weapons are incompatible with international law. First, as a consequence of their destructive power and radioactive fallout, nuclear weapons inherently violate several articles of the Geneva Conventions meant to protect the victims of international conflicts. Second, many non-nuclear weapons states and disarmament advocates believe that states possessing nuclear weapons have been unwilling to pursue good-faith negotiations mandated by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

Proponents see the nuclear weapons ban treaty as a measure to close this perceived “legal gap” in international law, and to encourage an international norm against nuclear weapons.

Standing in the way of this goal, of course, is the United States and other nuclear-armed powers. While the nuclear powers either voted against launching these negotiations – or, as in the case of China, abstained – the U.S. opposition carries additional weight because so many countries around the world consider themselves shielded under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. (Australia voted against launching the negotiations on these grounds, for example.)

The United States also has a special responsibility since it is the nation responsible for inventing these heinous weapons and the only country in the world that has ever used them, dropping two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, which killed at least 129,000 people and as many as 250,000.

In voting against the launching of treaty negotiations in October 2016, the U.S. explained its position by asserting that it has been “steadily reduc[ing] the role and number of nuclear weapons in a way that maintains strategic stability and creates the conditions and opportunities for further progress.”

In its usual self-serving manner, the U.S. claimed that it is working diligently toward disarmament “without headlines or fanfare,” and the sort of legally binding instrument as being proposed will complicate those efforts:

[T]he United States does not accept the premise underlying the call to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons found in L.41 and L.24, and while we respect the views of the proponents we disagree with the practicality of their approach and are concerned with the negative effects of seeking to ban nuclear weapons without consideration of the overarching international security environment. We understand and share the disappointment of others with the pace of progress. We must continue to support an approach to reductions which builds upon decades of pragmatic steps to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons. In our view, diverting focus from this proven course in favour a nuclear weapons ban would be both polarizing and would forsake longstanding principles of credible nuclear disarmament, such as verifiability and is not the recipe for success when dealing with nuclear weapons.

What the U.S. fails to acknowledge is that those “decades of pragmatic steps” have woefully failed to achieve what is needed, which is a complete global ban on nuclear weapons, considering that these weapons, in all likelihood, will end up being used somewhere in the world sooner or later – either intentionally or by mistake.

iran-nuclearIt also fails to recognize the fact that the United States and other nuclear powers are already in violation of their international obligations on disarmament, which is a responsibility required by the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is partially out of frustration regarding the U.S. obstinacy and its decades-long shirking of international commitments that so many countries have decided to take steps to ban these weapons unambiguously and comprehensively once and for all.

Indeed, as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference reminded states parties to the treaty in 2010:

The Conference recalls that the overwhelming majority of States entered into legally binding commitments not to receive, manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices in the context, inter alia, of the corresponding legally binding commitments by the nuclear-weapon States to nuclear disarmament in accordance with the Treaty.

The Conference admonished nuclear-armed countries such as the United States for failing to live up to their end of the NPT bargain:

The Conference, while welcoming achievements in bilateral and unilateral reductions by some nuclear-weapon States, notes with concern that the total estimated number of nuclear weapons deployed and stockpiled still amounts to several thousands. The Conference expresses its deep concern at the continued risk for humanity represented by the possibility that these weapons could be used and the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons.

In deciding to launch a new treaty negotiation process, the United Nations General Assembly also alluded to the failures of nuclear powers to live up to obligations under the NPT noting that “additional efforts” may be necessary. Specifically the General Assembly:

Recommend[ed] that additional efforts can and should be pursued to elaborate concrete effective legal measures, legal provisions and norms that will need to be concluded to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons, reaffirms the importance of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the commitments made therein, and considers that the pursuit of any such measures, provisions and norms should complement and strengthen the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime, including the three pillars of the Treaty

Rather than pursuing good-faith efforts toward disarmament as called for by the NPT, the United States has instead engaged in extensive atomic rebuilding and refurbishing of the U.S. nuclear force to the tune of an estimated trillion dollars in the coming decades. The administration of Barack Obama supported disarmament rhetorically, but simultaneously pursued polices to entrench the U.S. as a nuclear-armed power, leading to Boston Globe columnist James Carroll to remark in late 2014,

Mark these days. A long-dreaded transformation from hope to doom is taking place as the United States of America ushers the world onto the no-turning-back road of nuclear perdition. Once, we could believe there was another way to go. Indeed, we were invited to take that path by the man who is, even today, overseeing the blocking of it, probably forever.

With Donald Trump in the White House, the situation is even more ominous, as he signals that he will pull out of nuclear weapon reduction treaties such as the New START agreement with Russia, and indicates that the U.S. will pursue absolute nuclear dominance over the world. “If countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack,” said Trump last month, flying in the face of decades of tepid U.S. efforts to pursue modest reductions in nuclear arsenals around the world.

Underlining this point and demonstrating his complete disregard for nuclear stability and international norms, Trump told MSNBC’s Morning Joe “let it be an arms race,” essentially egging on the rest of the world to arm themselves to the teeth with weapons capable of ending all life on earth within minutes. He also tweeted that the U.S. should “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

With these sorts of flippant remarks in mind, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which since 1947 has been periodically raising alarm bells over looming nuclear catastrophe, set its “Doomsday Clock” ahead 30 seconds in January 2017 to “two and a half minutes to midnight”:

For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.  See the full statement from the Science and Security Board on the 2017 time of the Doomsday Clock.

Thankfully, although United States’ intransigence continues to remain an obstacle to progress, responsible global leaders are pushing forward with “actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster,” and it is in this spirit that negotiations will begin on the nuclear weapons ban at UN headquarters in New York from March 27 to 31 and again from June 15 July 7.

hiroshima-never-againAlthough the U.S. remains opposed to this treaty along with 37 other countries that voted against launching negotiations, the overwhelming majority of the world – 123 nations – have expressed support for banning nuclear weapons once and for all. Many countries that voted to launch negotiations explicitly took issue with the U.S. rationale against the treaty, with Iraq, for example, noting that “negotiations [on risk reduction measures] cannot be an alternative to a convention to expressly prohibit nuclear weapons.”

Peru concurred, stating, “It is only through a prohibition on the use and possession of nuclear weapons that we will achieve elimination.” The Philippines pointed out that “while we have treaties banning chemical and biological weapons, we do not have one for the deadliest [weapons] of them all. And so work on a treaty that will ban the possession, use or threat of use, acquisition, development and testing of nuclear weapons is the most ideal and correct action.”

South Africa argued that “A prohibition treaty could be a stand-alone treaty which establishes a norm against nuclear weapons through a non-discriminatory prohibition on possession, use, threat of use, acquisition, stockpiling, deployment, as well as assistance, encouragement or inducement of [these] acts.”

Afghanistan said, simply, “We join all peace-loving people in their call for a global treaty to outlaw and eliminate these instruments of human destruction.”

Civil society will be intimately involved in the negotiations process with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), for example, planning to have a large delegation of campaigners present for both negotiating sessions. “We will urge all governments to work in good faith to achieve the strongest, most effective treaty possible,” says ICAN.

Reaching Critical Will (RCW) will report daily from the ban treaty negotiations, and urges people to subscribe to their First Committee Monitor for regular updates.

More information about campaign activities and expectations for the negotiations can be found at www.nuclearban.org.

Trump’s proposed hike in military spending likely to kick off new arms race

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President Donald Trump this week proposed a $54 billion boost in U.S. military spending, representing a nearly 10 percent increase, to be funded by cuts to domestic spending and foreign aid. As the National Priorities Project points out, the proposed increase is more than the annual budgets of the Department of Homeland Security ($48 billion), Housing and Urban Development ($38 billion), Department of Energy ($30 billion), Department of Justice ($29 billion), and Department of State ($29 billion).

It is also well above the annual budgets of Environmental Protection Agency and National Science Foundation, which come in at $8 and $7 billion a piece. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in stark contrast, only receives $485 million a year and the National Endowment for the Arts just $148 million. “Domestic and foreign aid spending already account for less than half of the federal discretionary budget,” the National Priorities Project points out, while the Pentagon accounts for “more than half of the annual discretionary budget” at more than $600 billion a year.

Yet, President Trump proudly stated last night in an address to a joint session of Congress that he is pushing for the biggest military spending hike in generations. “I am sending the Congress a budget that rebuilds the military, eliminates the Defense sequester, and calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history,” he said. Of course, he failed to mention that the U.S. already spends about as much as the next 12 countries combined.

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Trump’s proposed increase in military spending is part of a broader budget plan that includes massive cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. So, basically, less Sesame Street, more war.

Besides questions of national priorities at a time when the country faces a host of problems on issues across the board – from crumbling infrastructure to the fact that more than 43 million people are living in poverty – the sharp increase in “defense” spending at a time of rising global instability and distrust likely means that other countries will feel compelled to follow suit in order to keep up.

Recalling the fact that Trump recently indicated his willingness to kick off a global arms race, actually stating in December 2016 “let it be an arms race” in response to criticisms of his flippant remarks about nuclear weapons, the military increases that he is now proposing should be understood as an opening salvo in what is sure to be a growing trend towards militarization and war.

cartoon_of_american_imperialismThis is a troubling development by any standard, but for a country with as long a history of aggression and atrocities as the United States, it is even more worrying.

Notably, the U.S. has just been exposed for using depleted uranium munitions during air raids in Syria, despite a vow not to use the toxic, radioactive and legally ambiguous weapons in the battlefield. Foreign Policy magazine reported two weeks ago that Air Force A-10 attack planes fired more than 5,000 rounds of 30mm depleted uranium rounds during a pair of assaults on convoys in an ISIS-controlled part of eastern Syria in November 2015 despite the fact that the weapons have been linked to cancer and birth defects.

Trump’s budget proposals also come just after the release of a major report detailing trends in global military spending and arms transfers. The report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found that the volume of international transfers of major weapons has grown continuously since 2004 and increased by 8.4 per cent between 2012 and 2016. Notably, SIPRI found, “transfers of major weapons in 2012-16 reached their highest volume for any five-year period since the end of the cold war.”

The five biggest exporters – the United States, Russia, China, France and Germany – together accounted for 74 percent of the total volume of arms exports, while the U.S. alone accounted for a disproportionate one-third of the total. The lion’s share of its arms transfers went to the Middle East, fueling conflicts there in Syria, Yemen and Israel-Palestine, likely contributing significantly to the refugee crisis that is now destabilizing Europe.

As SIPRI reports:

With a one-third share of global arms exports, the USA was the top arms exporter in 2012–16. Its arms exports increased by 21 per cent compared with 2007–11. Almost half of its arms exports went to the Middle East.

‘The USA supplies major arms to at least 100 countries around the world—significantly more than any other supplier state’, said Dr Aude Fleurant, Director of the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme. ‘Both advanced strike aircraft with cruise missiles and other precision-guided munitions and the latest generation air and missile defence systems account for a significant share of US arms exports.’

Not only is the United States fueling global conflict through its conventional military spending and arms sales around the world, but it is also potentially triggering a new nuclear arms race with the possibility of ending life on earth. This is at the same time that growing global efforts are being made to ban nuclear weapons once and for all with an ultimate goal of total nuclear disarmament.

As Trump recently told Reuters, “It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.”

Yet, as Matthew Rosza recently pointed out, writing at Salon,

This statement seems to contradict New START, a strategic arms limitation treaty that requires America and Russia to have an equal number of strategic nuclear weapons for 10 years as of February 2018. It was reported by Reuters earlier this month that Trump denounced that treaty as a bad deal during a Jan. 28 conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear organization, noted however that “Donald Trump’s Plan to be Leader of the Nuclear Pack Is Nuts.”

“Scientists now calculate that as few as 100 nuclear weapons used in a war in South Asia would put enough smoke and particulates in the atmosphere to enshroud the Earth in a cloud for 2 to 3 years, dropping global temperatures about 2 to 3 degrees,” according to Ploughshares.

That, as it turns out, is enough to devastate most food crops in the world. The resulting famine could kill one billion people. The panic, global mass migrations, desperation and chaos would likely result in the end of nation states.

Make it a war with 200 or 300 nuclear weapons, and all that human beings have accomplished over the millennia would be wiped out. We would be well into Mad Max scenarios.

There are some 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world. The U.S. and Russia have almost 95 percent of them. That is much more than we need for any conceivable military mission. China, for example, only has about 260 weapons, yet that seems to do a pretty good job of deterring anyone from attacking them.

With these concerns in mind the United Nations is convening negotiations this month on “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” This new international agreement will place nuclear weapons on the same legal footing as other outlawed weapons of mass destruction, many of which the United States continues to use, manufacture and to supply to other countries, in blatant violation of international norms.

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For more information on the nuclear ban negotiations, visit the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

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Trump presidency shaping up to be a disaster for international norms

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A little more than two weeks into the presidency of Donald J. Trump, it is clear that his administration is shaping up to be one of the most hostile to international norms in recent memory. While George W. Bush once dismissed a reporter’s question about whether his Iraq policies conformed with international law by joking, “International law? I better call my lawyer,” Trump’s attitude toward rule of law principles was summed up by a tweet today disparaging a “so-called judge” who put a nationwide hold on the implementation of his travel ban on nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries.

“The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!” Trump tweeted.

The travel ban has sparked a national and international outcry, with demonstrations taking place at airports across the country and numerous world leaders weighing in on Trump’s controversial executive order to halt entries into the United States by citizens of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

“Discrimination on nationality alone is forbidden under human rights law,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad Al Hussein. “The U.S. ban is also mean-spirited, and wastes resources needed for proper counter-terrorism.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed regret over the U.S. government’s entry ban and explained the U.S.’s international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention in a phone call with Trump, Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

“The Refugee Convention requires the international community to take in war refugees on humanitarian grounds. All signatory states are obligated to do. The German government explained this policy in their call yesterday,” Seibert said.

The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s human rights and humanitarian committee chair Ignacio Sanchez Amor expressed concerns that the ban on refugees represents a major step backward in the international community’s efforts to develop a cohesive response to the refugee and migrant crisis, and noted that on humanitarian grounds the United States cannot send refugees back to countries where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.

“This is the core principle of non-refoulement that is at the heart of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and is now a widely accepted norm,” he said.

Sanchez Amor also pointed out that the travel ban is contrary to the spirit of the OSCE’s founding document, which the United States signed along with 34 other countries of North America, Europe and Eurasia in 1975.

“To the extent that this travel ban may affect those with dual nationalities or residents of OSCE countries, I note that it may contravene the 1975 Helsinki Final Act’s stipulation that signatories should ease regulations concerning movement of citizens within the OSCE area,” he said.

In this document, the United States agreed:

to facilitate wider travel by their citizens for personal or professional reasons and to this end they intend in particular:

– gradually to simplify and to administer flexibly the procedures for exit and entry;

– to ease regulations concerning movement of citizens from the other participating States in their territory, with due regard to security requirements.

In addition to whipping up a frenzy of international condemnation over the travel ban, the Trump administration is also drawing fire for his nominations to lead the nation’s intelligence services. Yet, despite serious concerns about Trump’s pick to lead the CIA, Mike Pompeo, for his pro-torture statements and lax attitude about the use of mass surveillance, the U.S. Senate confirmed him on Jan. 23 by a vote of 66-32.

“Pompeo’s responses to questions about torture and mass surveillance are dangerously ambiguous about whether he would endorse abusive practices and seek to subvert existing legal protections,” said Human Rights Watch’s Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno. “Pompeo’s failure to unequivocally disavow torture and mass surveillance, coupled with his record of advocacy for surveillance of Americans and past endorsement of the shuttered CIA torture program, make clear that he should not be running the CIA.”

Democratic Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said Pompeo was the “wrong man for the job.”

“He has endorsed extreme policies that would fundamentally erode liberties and freedoms of our people without making us safer,” Wyden said. He said Pompeo’s answers to questions from some senators have been “vague” and “contradictory,” making it impossible to know what Pompeo believes.

Nevertheless, his nomination sailed through the Senate, likely paving the way for a return to torture as U.S. policy, as President Trump has promised to do on numerous occasions. The president recently even defended torture on national television, stating unequivocally that it “works.”

Shortly following Pompeo’s confirmation, his deputy director at the CIA was named as Gina Haspel, who, according to the New York Times “played a direct role in the CIA’s ‘extraordinary rendition program,’ under which captured militants were handed to foreign governments and held at secret facilities, where they were tortured by agency personnel.”

She also ran the CIA’s first black site prison in Thailand and oversaw the brutal interrogations of two detainees, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

In addition, she played a vital role in the destruction of interrogation videotapes that showed the torture of detainees both at the black site she ran and other secret agency locations. As The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald explains:

The concealment of those interrogation tapes, which violated both multiple court orders as well the demands of the 9/11 Commission and the advice of White House lawyers, was condemned as “obstruction” by Commission Chairs Lee Hamilton and Thomas Keane. A special prosecutor and Grand Jury investigated those actions but ultimately chose not to prosecute.

As if these developments were not bad enough, it also looks as if Trump is going to continue the reckless drone assassination program that was developed by his predecessor, Barack Obama. In one of his first military actions as president, Trump ordered an attack on a village in Yemen on Jan. 29 that killed as many as 23 civilians, including a newborn baby and an eight-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki.

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Nawar al-Awlaki, eight-year-old girl killed by U.S. drone on Jan. 29, 2017

Nawar was the daughter of the al-Qaida propagandist and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a September 2011 US drone strike in Yemen. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman was killed in a second drone strike soon afterwards.

Following the tragic killing of this young girl, The Guardian pointed out that Trump has previously endorsed killing relatives of terrorist suspects, which is a war crime. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” he told Fox News in December 2015.

The human rights organization Reprieve pointed out:

Secret US strikes, in countries where the US is not at war, are widely considered to violate international law. Previous research by Reprieve has found that, in attempts to kill 41 named individuals in Yemen and Pakistan, US strikes killed some 1,147 unknown men, women and children.

It looks as though this is one policy area that we should expect some continuity between Obama and Trump. It also looks as if Trump will be moving rapidly to reinstate the torture regime that was halted by Obama in 2009. It should be noted, however, that the use of torture – although illegal – was never prosecuted by the Obama administration, and this lack of law enforcement ensured that it would remain a “policy option” for a fascist president like Donald Trump to pull off the shelf.

Trump takes office in violation of anti-corruption norms

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There are many things unprecedented about the incoming Trump presidency, not the least of which being the fact that the United States has never before been led by a billionaire with business interests spanning the globe. Only time will tell how Donald Trump ultimately ends up balancing his global business empire with running the U.S. government – but so far it is not looking promising.

In fact, as Richard Painter, former ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, has pointed out, he may be in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clause on day one of his presidency. This clause is one of the most critical conflict of interest provisions for all U.S. government officials. Basically, it is intended to ensure that nobody holding a position of trust with the United States government can receive payments from foreign governments, whether gifts or a salary or profits.

As Painter explained recently on Democracy Now:

If you have somebody who’s making profits from dealing with foreign governments or companies controlled by foreign governments, that person must dispense with those profits, cannot receive that money, while holding any position of trust with the United States government. That applies to every U.S. government employee, including the president. And so, what this means is that, for Donald Trump, if he’s going to hold onto these business enterprises, which present a whole range of other conflict of interest problems, to satisfy the Constitution, at a bare minimum, what he’s going to have to do is get the foreign government money and money from foreign government-controlled corporations out of his business enterprise. And this includes foreign diplomats staying at the hotels at government expense, foreign governments having big parties in his hotels and canceling reservations at the Four Seasons, going over to the Trump Hotel, to curry favor. All of that is unconstitutional.

Trump has responded to these criticisms by assuring the public that he would donate hotel profits from foreign governments to the United States Treasury and let his children manage all operations. This however isn’t enough to keep him on the right side of the Constitution, as law professor Erwin Chemerinsky explains:

In a word, Trump’s proposed solutions are laughable. So what if he donates “profits” from foreign governments to the United States Treasury? All he has to do is accept money from a foreign government and he’s already in violation of the emoluments clause – it doesn’t matter whether it constitutes a profit, or where the money ultimately ends up.

Focusing on profits, moreover, ignores the countless ways that his businesses can benefit from foreign governments that would never show up on a balance sheet. For example, it was widely reported that Trump lobbied a British political ally to oppose a wind farm project because it might ruin the view from his golf course in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Besides, Trump on Wednesday again refused to reveal his tax returns and declared that the American people do not care about them. A pledge to turn over profits is meaningless without detailed accounting.

While his global business holdings may render his conduct as president unconstitutional, his incoming administration’s nepotism and conflicts of interests also pose serious challenges to international norms, and may render the United States in violation of the United Nations Convention against Corruption. As a state party to this convention, the United States has agreed to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption – including through “revolving-door practices,” such as placing corporate chieftains in charge of government regulatory agencies.

In particular, according to the convention:

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.

Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials. …

Preventing conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.

The United States has long flouted these international obligations by allowing the corporate-government revolving door to swing freely and lucratively, but the violations of international norms will likely reach extraordinary new levels under Trump.

The advocacy group Transparency International, for one, is raising concerns that the practices that Trump is pursuing are exactly what “leaders in highly corrupt countries do.” As the organization recently tweeted out, “#Trump appointing his son-in-law as senior adviser looks a lot like #NEPOTISM to us!”

The group produced a video driving the point home in dramatic fashion:


Another Transparency International video outlines the conflicts of interest of his top cabinet picks and the likely corruption that will ensue:


While there is nothing new about conflicts of interest and corruption in the U.S. government (as reported by Compliance Campaign among others for years) the graft will likely dramatically worsen under Trump. In the past, the corruption has always been obscured by a veneer of legitimacy that masks the profiteering by the oligarchy running the government, but that mask is about to be removed.

But with the sleaze, fraud and vice about to be unleashed on the world, the United States may become more internationally isolated, possibly hastening the end of U.S. hegemony around the world. This might not ultimately be such a bad thing, as opening the global system to a more multilateral balance of power could end up being a net positive for the world, and U.S. isolation could help bring this about.

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Obama’s dismal human rights legacy in focus as Trump takes the helm

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President Barack Obama’s human rights record is under criticism once again as he prepares to step down after eight years leading the United States government. His record has been a major disappointment to many in the human rights community, who now genuinely worry how much worse U.S. policies will become under President Donald J. Trump.

As this blog has documented since 2011, the U.S. government’s human rights record has been dismal under Obama, with troubling policies including his lack of prosecutions of torturers – effectively institutionalizing a system of legal impunity for war crimes – his utter failure to follow through on closing the travesty of justice known as Guantanamo Bay, waging a “war on whistleblowers” and suppressing freedom of information, codifying illegal policies of extrajudicial assassinations, expanding mass surveillance programs in violation of individual privacy, and failing to take effective action to ensure accountability for a nationwide epidemic of police brutality.

In terms of promoting fundamental freedoms abroad, his administration has “treated human rights as a secondary interest – nice to support when the cost was not too high, but nothing like a top priority,” according to Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth.

In a recent article for Foreign Policy, Roth writes:

Obama took office with great promise, announcing on his second day that he would stop CIA torture immediately and close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. By all accounts, the torture did stop. But Obama has steadfastly refused to prosecute those responsible or even to allow the release of much more than the summary of a comprehensive Senate Intelligence Committee report that documented it. As a result, rather than reaffirming the criminality of torture, Obama leaves office sending the lingering message that, should future policymakers resort to it, prosecution is unlikely. Given Trump’s campaign rhetoric about reinstating waterboarding (“or worse”), this is hardly an academic point, even considering the opposition of his nominee for defense secretary.

With respect to surveillance, Roth notes that “Obama seems to have continued and expanded programs begun by George W. Bush that lead to massive invasions of privacy.” When whistleblower Edward Snowden alerted the public to these programs, Obama supported legislation to limit the National Security Agency’s ability to collect phone records in bulk under one program, but “most of the mass privacy violations that Snowden disclosed remain unaddressed,” Roth notes.

When it comes to closing Guantanamo, Roth says the president’s efforts have been halfhearted:

Early in his tenure, he moved slowly, enabling Congress to adopt legislation — which he refused to veto — imposing various obstacles to transferring detainees overseas and barring their transfer to the United States even for trial. Facing political resistance, he reversed early plans to try the accused 9/11 plotters in a federal district court in New York, where their trials would long ago have been completed. Instead, the suspects were placed before Guantánamo’s military commissions — made-from-scratch tribunals replete with procedural problems. Seemingly designed to avoid public revelation of the details of the suspects’ torture, the commissions have made virtually no progress toward actual trials, which will not begin until long after Obama leaves office, if ever.

close-gitmoRoth notes that Obama has slowly reduced the number of prisoners held at Guantanamo by transferring many abroad, but “his insistence on holding some two dozen detainees indefinitely without charge makes it easier for Trump to repopulate Guantánamo, as he has threatened.”

When it comes to Guantanamo, Amnesty International is imploring Obama to do whatever he can in his last days in office to close the legal abomination before Trump – who has threatened to repopulate the prison and reinstate a torture regime – takes over as president on January 20. In an open letter to Obama, Amnesty International USA Executive Director Margaret Huang begs the president, “Don’t Leave Guantánamo to Trump.”

“Dear President Obama,” she writes:

On behalf of Amnesty International’s 1.2 million supporters in the United States, I write to make a final plea that you use all the powers of your office to close the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay. We are gravely concerned that if you fail to do so, President-elect Trump may attempt to bring dozens or even hundreds of people there, to be held in unlawful detention for decades and possibly subjected to torture and other forms of cruel treatment.

Despite your positive actions to date, your legacy will include failing to cure this corruption of our country’s ideals of justice and fairness. You will leave behind Guantánamo as a system of injustice that—having survived for 15 years, two political parties and four presidential terms of office—may remain open for the foreseeable future.

Our concern is heightened by the sharp rise in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric during the election. Proposals for large-scale detention without charge, which once seemed inconceivable, are now on the table as options your successor may pursue. Guantánamo, with its shameful tradition of secrecy and insularity from legal process, would be all too convenient a location for mass imprisonment without charge, returning the United States to one of its grimmest chapters.

“It is past time to shut down the detention facility at Guantánamo,” you said recently at MacDill Air Base, and not for the first time. You emphasized that Congress would be “judged harshly by history” due to restrictions it placed on your ability to transfer detainees. However, despite your concerted efforts, it is your presidency that will be judged harshly — by history, the international community and human rights supporters across the United States and the rest of the world — if you fail to take all possible measures to transfer those remaining out of Guantánamo.

Your actions now will impact this country’s decisions on detention without charge, torture and human rights for decades to come by informing the way young people understand the injustice of Guantánamo. People under the age of 25 have spent all or much of their lives with Guantánamo open. Most are too young to remember the photos of torture at Abu Ghraib, or of men at Camp X-Ray kneeling next to their cages. They do not know the collective shock and moral outrage that millions of Americans felt then, which led political figures from Colin Powell to John McCain to call for the closure of Guantánamo. Through your actions now, you can ensure new generations learn this history—and do not repeat it.

We also urge your administration, in closing Guantánamo, to abandon the military commissions. These ill-conceived tribunals simultaneously fail to respect human rights principles or achieve justice. To be sure, anyone responsible for the crimes against humanity committed on September 11, 2001 should be brought to justice in fair trials. Guantánamo and the military commissions have not—and cannot—provide that justice. The 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks recently passed, and those who lost loved ones in the attacks have a right to see justice in their lifetime. However, not only do the military commission trials seem unlikely to begin—much less conclude—for years to come, when they do take place they will fail to meet international fair trial standards.

You began your presidency with an executive order to end the Guantánamo detentions and to close the detention camp there. We urge you to end it with bold action to realize your promise.

gitmo-solThe human rights group urges supporters to send messages to Obama urging him to close this travesty of justice once and for all, and to prioritize other human rights matters in the waning days of his presidency.

It is not clear, however, how much stock Obama places in the concerns of the human rights community. He spoke rather dismissively of “activist organizations” in a recent interview with The Atlantic, in which he defended his drone assassination program, which has killed hundreds of innocent people including U.S. citizens.

“I think right now we probably have the balance about right,” he told The Atlantic, referring to the ratio of killed terrorists and innocent civilians. “Now, you wouldn’t know that if you talked to Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or some of the international activist organizations.”

He further asserted that “the internal reforms we put in place had less to do with what the left or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or other organizations were saying and had more to do with me looking at sort of the way in which the number of drone strikes was going up and the routineness with which, early in my presidency, you were seeing both DOD and CIA and our intelligence teams think about this.”

obamadroneIt troubled him, he said, because the drone strikes could enable “a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate.” Of course, this is exactly what Obama has done, as has been repeatedly pointed out.

As Naureen Shah of Amnesty International told The Intercept last year, “What’s so interesting is that President Obama acknowledges this problem – that future presidents will be empowered to kill globally, and in secret. What he doesn’t acknowledge is how much of a role his administration had in making that a bizarre normal.”

Another legacy that Obama is leaving behind is torture impunity, which he has instituted by failing to launch prosecutions of gross human rights violations during the Bush administration. By shielding torturers from criminal justice, Obama has done more than any other president in history in establishing torture as little more than a “policy option” for presidents to utilize or not depending on the political whims of the day.

To prevent torture from being reinstituted by the incoming Trump administration, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture is calling on Obama to release in full the Senate’s torture report and force “appropriate officials” to read it in order to ensure that they “learn from the past.” Although White House Counsel Neil Eggleston recently announced that Obama will archive one copy of the torture report, it will remain classified for at least 12 years. “At this time, we are not pursuing declassification of the full Study,” he wrote recently in a letter to Sen. Feinstein.

In an action alert, the online advocacy group Roots Action is urging supporters to sign a petition to President Obama urging him to release the full report.

Obama is also being urged by a range of organizations to free the U.S. government’s political prisoners, including Chelsea Manning, Jeffrey Sterling and Leonard Peltier. For more on those cases, click here.

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Obama urged to release U.S. political prisoners in waning days of his presidency

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Human rights advocates are urging Barack Obama to release the U.S. government’s political prisoners before he steps down as president on January 20, 2017.

Among the cases highlighted by human rights defenders include imprisoned U.S. whistleblowers and activists such as Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond, Jeffrey Sterling, and Leonard Peltier. Campaigners are also pressing Obama to pardon NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has been living in exile in Russia since exposing serious abuses and crimes by the intelligence community in 2013.

As one of its priority actions, Amnesty International is highlighting Peltier’s case as a clear-cut case of government overreach and misconduct, in which the government itself has acknowledged that it lacks any evidence. The Native American activist is currently serving two life sentences for the deaths of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams.

“Amnesty International has studied [Peltier’s] case extensively over many years and remains seriously concerned about the fairness of proceedings leading to his trial and conviction,” the human rights organization says in an action alert. “Amnesty believes that political factors may have influenced the way in which the case was prosecuted.”

Amnesty points out that the U.S. Parole Commission has acknowledged that, “the prosecution has conceded the lack of any direct evidence that [Peltier] personally participated in the executions of two FBI agents.”

The group recently produced a video on his case to draw attention to the injustice endured by this 71-year-old diabetic who is in dire need of medical care that is unavailable in prison:

Regarding political prisoner Chelsea Manning, who is serving a draconian 35-year sentence for exposing U.S. war crimes and other embarrassing state secrets, a coalition of human rights organizations has written to Obama urging the outgoing president to do the right thing and release this courageous whistleblower by commuting her sentence to time served.

In a Dec. 5 letter to the president, groups including the ACLU, Lambda Legal, League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Organization for Women, and the Transgender Law Center wrote:

We support commuting her court-martial sentence to time served. Ms. Manning is currently in the seventh year of a thirty-five year sentence for disclosing classified information to the media with the intention of raising public awareness about issues she found concerning, including the impact of war on innocent civilians. Our organizations may be of differing opinions concerning Ms. Manning’s actions; however, we stand united in our support for her clemency petition.

As Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight for the Future, pointed out,

Transparency activist Chelsea Manning has already spent more time behind bars than any other whistleblower in U.S. history. She’s been systematically mistreated, subjected to torture, and denied access to desperately needed health care while serving a 35 year sentence in an all-male military prison. … If President Obama does not grant Chelsea’s clemency request before he leaves office, he is condemning her to a nightmarish fate.

Earlier this month, a petition asking President Obama to commute Manning’s prison sentence reached the 100,000-signature threshold to receive a response from the White House.

The international advocacy group Index on Censorship provides details on other U.S. political prisoners that Obama is being urged to pardon:

Jeffrey Sterling

Considered to be a whistleblower by some, Jeffrey Sterling, who worked for the CIA from 1993 to 2002, was charged under the Espionage Act with mishandling national defense information in 2010. Sterling was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for his contributions to New York Times journalist James Risen’s book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, which detailed the failed CIA Operation Merlin that may have inadvertently aided the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Risen was subpoenaed twice to testify in the case United States v Sterling but refused, resulting in a seven-year legal battle.

On 11 May 2015, at Sterling’s sentencing, judge Leonie Brinkema stated that although she was moved by his professional history, she wanted to send a message to other whistleblowers of the “price to be paid” when revealing government secrets. …

Edward Snowden

Although the most famous whistleblower on this list has not been tried and sentenced, Edward Snowden could face up to 30 years in prison for his multiple felony charges under the World War I-era Espionage Act. Snowden was charged on 14 June 2013 for his role in leaking classified information from the National Security Agency, notably a global surveillance initiative.

Snowden has expressed a willingness to go to prison for his actions but refuses to be used as a “deterrent to people trying to do the right thing in difficult situations” as so many whistleblowers often are.

Barrett Brown

The political climate in the US has become so hostile towards leaks that even journalists can face repercussions for their involvement with whistleblowers. American journalist and essayist Barrett Brown’s case became well-known after he was arrested for copying and pasting a hyperlink to millions of leaked emails from Stratfor, an American private intelligence company, from one chat room to another. The leak itself had been orchestrated by Jeremy Hammond, who is serving 10 years in prison for his participation, and did not involve Brown. Brown faced a sentence of up to 102 years in prison, once again for sharing a hyperlink, before the 12 counts of aggravated identity theft and trafficking in stolen data charges were dropped in 2013.

Although the dismissal of these charges was heralded as a victory for press freedom, Brown was still convicted of two counts of being an accessory after the fact and obstructing the execution of a search warrant. On 22 January 2015, Brown was sentenced to 63 months in prison and ordered to pay $890,250 in fines and restitution to Stratfor.

Barrett Brown was released from prison last month, after serving four years under harsh and punitive conditions.

While incarcerated, Brown wrote award-winning columns about an endless stream of abuses he endured in prison, including misconduct by prison officials seeking to silence him and violate his rights and the rights of other inmates. This included multiple stints in solitary and restrictions on his access to the press and use of email.

While there is no single internationally agreed upon designation of what constitutes a political prisoner, the intergovernmental organization Council of Europe in 2012 agreed upon one of the most useful and balanced definitions ever put forward.

The resolution adopted  by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe includes the following criteria: a person is considered a political prisoner “if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of,” or “if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons.”

Amnesty International’s definition is a bit broader, and it is clear that under its criteria all of these cases would qualify as political prisoners. As Amnesty has previously explained its use of the term “political prisoner,”

In AI’s usage, the term includes any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner’s acts, the acts in themselves, or the motivation of the authorities. “Political” is used by AI to refer to aspects of human relations related to “politics”: the mechanisms of society and civil order, the principles, organization, or conduct of government or public affairs, and the relation of all these to questions of language, ethnic origin, sex or religion, status or influence (among other factors). The category of political prisoners embraces the category of prisoners of conscience, the only prisoners who AI demands should be immediately and unconditionally released, as well as people who resort to criminal violence for a political motive. In AI’s use of the term, here are some examples of political prisoners:

a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime carried out for political motives, such as murder or robbery carried out to support the objectives of an opposition group;

a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime committed in a political context, such as at a demonstration by a trade union or a peasants’ organization;

a member or suspected member of an armed opposition group who has been charged with treason or “subversion”.

Although the United States would never acknowledge that it holds political prisoners, it is clear that under commonly used definitions of the term, many cases in the U.S. certainly apply. Chelsea Manning is a political prisoner, as her harsh sentence was applied for purely political motives, as was made clear during her sentencing.

“This court must send a message to those who release confidential information,” prosecutor Army Capt. Joe Morrow said to Judge Denise Lind during the sentencing phase of the trial. “There is value in deterrence, Your Honor. This court must send a message to any soldier contemplating stealing classified information.”

So, Manning, just like Sterling and others, is rotting in prison simply to send a “message” to other would-be whistleblowers. It is long past time for Obama to show some integrity and let these prisoners go.

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To bring U.S. elections in line with international standards, abolish Electoral College

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The U.S.’s long national nightmare of Election 2016 is one step closer to coming to an end, with electors gathering across the country today to cast ballots in the Electoral College. This in all likelihood will result in billionaire Donald J. Trump becoming the country’s 45th president, solidifying the descent of the United States into a bona fide oligarchy, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a government by the few … in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.”

It also serves as a stark reminder of the archaic and undemocratic nature of U.S. elections, in which the winner of the popular vote – in this case Hillary Clinton – can be denied the presidency because of an indirect electoral system conceived in the 18th century as a way for slave states to maintain political hegemony. By counting enslaved African Americans as three-fifths of a person, while simultaneously denying them the right to vote, wealthy white landowners in the South were able to maintain disproportionate political control over the federal government for generations.

electoral-college-2Now, for the second time in the young 21st century, the popular vote loser is assuming the White House solely due to this antiquated, undemocratic system of choosing presidents. In both cases, the Electoral College has handed the election to a Republican with authoritarian tendencies, meaning that without this controversial electoral method, there would have been no Republican presidents this century, and the world would probably be a very different place.

While it is impossible to predict what Al Gore (who received half a million more votes than George W. Bush) would have done as president, in all likelihood there would have been no Iraq War, no torture regime, no Guantanamo Bay – all of which have been instrumental in facilitating the descent into lawlessness and international chaos that is coming to define this century. It is clear, at least, that the undemocratic nature of U.S. elections, including but not limited to the problematic Electoral College, has real-world implications that reverberate well beyond the borders of the United States.

If the United States hopes to bring its procedure for choosing its leaders in line with international standards for democratic elections, a good place to start would be to abolish the Electoral College. International election observers have noted what an oddity this system is, with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observing that “the system allows for a candidate to win the popular vote nationwide while falling short of the majority of Electoral College votes.”

Observers from the Organization of American States, in their recent assessment of the November elections, pointed out that

The U.S. electoral system presents several characteristics that make it unique in the hemisphere. One of these aspects is the Electoral College by which the President is elected through an indirect vote consisting of the accumulation of electoral votes tallied state by state, as opposed to the most common electoral practice of direct election through popular vote.

Although there are a dozen or so recognized electoral systems around the world and while the United States is not bound to ensure that its electoral practice follows the accepted procedures of other democracies, there are certain principles to which the U.S. has agreed, which may be violated to varying degrees by the Electoral College system.

The electoral commitments the United States has signed onto in such landmark international agreements as the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights include such widely accepted international norms of “equal suffrage” which is fundamentally undermined by the Electoral College, in which the popular vote is discounted.

electoral-college-1In the ICCPR, for example, the signatories agreed that “Every citizen shall have the right … [t]o vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.”

In the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document, the United States agreed that it would hold “free elections that will be held at reasonable intervals by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedure, under conditions which ensure in practice the free expression of the opinion of the electors in the choice of their representatives.”

This does not happen in the U.S. electoral system. The free expression of opinion of the electors is irrelevant in fact, since nearly three million more Americans chose the Democrat over the Republican, but the Republican is assuming the presidency anyway, due to the arcane and undemocratic Electoral College.

It is long since passed time to abolish this system and move towards direct elections under the principle of one-person-one-vote.

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‘Rogue country’: International community reacts to U.S. election, frets over Trump presidency

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The international community was prepared to criticize the United States last week – regardless of who prevailed in the election – for its arcane, highly decentralized and deeply flawed electoral system. Now, with Donald J. Trump poised to become the 45th president, there are myriad other reasons to criticize the U.S. as well.

Two international organizations deployed election observation missions to the United States to monitor the vote, and while their final reports varied considerably, both the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe highlighted numerous deficiencies in the way the United States chooses its leaders.

Although generally positive in its tone, the OAS final report identified the following issues as representing key areas for improvement in the U.S. electoral system:

  • Taking measures to avoid the excessive concentration of voters and long lines in the voting centers.
  • Broaden the cooperation between states to compare information and avoid possible duplications in voter registries.
  • Expand the practice of designing electoral districts through independent, non-partisan commissions.
  • Analyze the impact of the decision of the Supreme Court to eliminate parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • Establish better and stricter rules to govern PACs and super PACs.
  • Leave behind the polarizing and divisive campaign rhetoric and promote a civil dialogue between opposing visions.

The OAS also noted the unusual practice in the United States of simultaneously requiring voter identification while not providing this required identification.

“Practically all countries in the region provide at least one free form of national identification to their citizens, which is used for electoral purposes,” said the OAS, which represents 35 independent countries of the Western hemisphere. “In the U.S., 32 states currently have laws in force that require voters to show some form of prescribed identification to verify their identity before casting a vote.”

However, these states do not make this identification readily available to citizens, contrary to good practice.

This is also a weakness that the OSCE pointed out in its report, noting:

Voter identification rules are politically divisive and vary across the states, with 32 states requiring photo identification. A high volume of litigation regarding voter identification continued up to election day, generating confusion among voters and election officials regarding the application of rules. Efforts to ensure the integrity of the vote are important, but should not lead to the disenfranchisement of eligible voters.

As the OSCE also pointed out: “Recent legal changes and decisions on technical aspects of the electoral process were often motivated by partisan interests, adding undue obstacles for voters. Suffrage rights are not guaranteed for all citizens, leaving sections of the population without the right to vote.”

The 57-member state organization also noted the undue obstacles faced by minor parties and independents trying to compete in U.S. elections.

“The number of signatures required and the signature submission deadlines vary from state to state, which made it cumbersome for third party or independent candidates to register across all states for presidential elections,” the OSCE pointed out. “Both the Green Party and Libertarian Party challenged ballot access requirements in several states, with success in a few instances.”

Campaign financing’s lack of transparency and ineffective enforcement of campaign finance laws was also noted:

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) oversees a campaign finance regime that imposes few actual limits on donations and does not limit expenditure. All financial reports are published expeditiously, but transparency is diminished by the absence of disclosure for some types of non-profit organizations that play an important role in the campaign. Partisan decision making has limited the FEC’s ability to reach decisions on key campaign finance issues.

The election-rigging process known as gerrymandering was also highlighted as a problem, with the OSCE pointing to “longstanding concerns that redistricting is a largely partisan process, which has led to a number of uncompetitive contests.” The election watchdog noted that 28 candidates for the House ran unopposed in these elections.

The undemocratic nature of the U.S.’s indirect elections – enabled by the controversial Electoral College system – was also alluded to, with the OSCE noting that “the system allows for a candidate to win the popular vote nationwide while falling short of the majority of Electoral College votes.”

This is precisely what appears to have taken place in Election 2016, with Donald Trump assuming the presidency despite his opponent Hillary Clinton receiving some 800,000 more votes nationwide than Trump. It is the second time this century that the popular vote loser has prevailed in the Electoral College and will move into the White House despite a plurality of voters preferring someone else.

Beyond the electoral system itself, international leaders are now raising concerns about the specter of a Trump presidency and what it will mean for the global system of alliances, international agreements, trade regimes, and international law. In particular, with Trump having repeatedly threatened to pull the U.S. out of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, global figures such as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stressed the importance of continued U.S. engagement in multilateral diplomacy.

The day after the election, the UN chief noted that today’s global challenges demand concerted global action and joint solutions.

“As a founding member of the United Nations and permanent member of the Security Council, the United States is an essential actor across the international agenda,” Ban said. “The United Nations will count on the new Administration to strengthen the bonds of international cooperation as we strive together to uphold shared ideals, combat climate change, advance human rights, promote mutual understanding and implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve lives of peace, prosperity and dignity for all.”

Mary Robinson, a former Irish president and UN human rights chief, warned that the United States would become “a kind of rogue country” if it pulls out of the Paris Agreement, leaving the world more vulnerable to droughts, hurricanes, rising sea levels, high temperatures and other climate extremes.

“It would be a tragedy for the United States and the people of the United States if the U.S. becomes a kind of rogue country, the only country in the world that is somehow not going to go ahead with the Paris Agreement,” Robinson said.

Trump has promised to pull the United States out of that global climate accord, which was agreed last year by 193 countries and which went into effect earlier this month. If he follows through on this campaign pledge, European leaders may  call for a carbon tax on American imports.

“Donald Trump has said – we’ll see if he keeps this promise – that he won’t respect the conclusions of the Paris climate agreement,” said French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy on November 13.

“Well, I will demand that Europe put in place a carbon tax at its border, a tax of 1-3%, for all products coming from the United States, if the United States doesn’t apply environmental rules that we are imposing on our companies,” he added.

Another area of concern to U.S. allies is what Trump’s victory means for the NATO military alliance. In an interview with the New York Times last July, Trump indicated that he would make U.S. military commitments to the NATO alliance – predicated on principles of collective defense – conditional upon other countries’ financial contributions to the alliance.

European Union leaders held an emergency meeting in Brussels Sunday night, dealing in part with this question and also exploring issues such as possible U.S. policy changes towards Russia and Iran.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said after Sunday’s dinner that “values, principles, interests” will continue to form the basis of the alliance with the United States, and said that Europe is “looking forward to a very strong partnership with the next administration.”

“We would like to know what intentions he has regarding the [NATO] alliance. We must know what climate policies he intends to pursue. This must be cleared up in the next few months,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Others are raising concerns that Trump will follow through on campaign promises to reinstate the Bush administration’s torture regime, an illegal policy that was halted – but not punished – by the Obama administration.

Despite Obama’s touted “reaffirmation” of the ban on torture, “Trump easily could rescind Obama’s orders and direct the CIA to capture and humanely interrogate terror suspects in secret overseas, something many Republicans have urged,” noted Ken Dilanian at NBC News. “Trump also has some wiggle room via executive order on what constitutes torture, despite the change in the law.”

As Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, pointed out in a blog post on Monday,

Trump has said that not only does he “like” waterboarding, he doesn’t think it goes far enough.

Apparently, it bears repeating: Waterboarding is torture. And it is therefore a gross violation of human rights law. Waterboarding was banned by the military in the 2006 Army Field Manual. President Obama extended the ban to the CIA with an executive order in 2009.

Torture of any kind does not make anyone safer as information gathered under such circumstances is highly suspect. It undermines the standing of any country that seeks to influence others when it comes to human rights.

The United States’ history of using torture against prisoners is deeply shameful. It must remain in the past.

Other possible Trump policies that she highlighted as problematic from a human rights perspective include: closing the door on refugees, banning Muslims from entering the US, building a wall between the United States and Mexico, restrictions on reproductive freedom, and allowing more guns on U.S. streets.

Others have raised concerns that the permissive body of “secret law” that has purportedly guided the U.S. drone assassination policy under President Obama will be carried over into the Trump administration. This is especially worrisome because Trump has already made clear his intentions to target not just suspected terrorists but also their families in what would be a clear-cut war crime against non-combatants.

As Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, writes today in the Guardian:

Now the lethal bureaucracy whose growth Obama personally oversaw will be turned over to a new administration. The powers Obama claimed will be wielded by another president. Perhaps as significant is the jarring fact that the practice of targeted killing – assassination, as it would once have been called, without a second thought – no longer seems remarkable, and the fact that the United States now boasts a legal and bureaucratic infrastructure to sustain this practice. Eight years ago the targeted-killing campaign required a legal and bureaucratic infrastructure, but now that infrastructure will demand a targeted-killing campaign. The question the next president will ask is not whether the powers Obama claimed should be exploited, but where, and against whom.

Those who oppose these policies – whether on the grassroots level, within the U.S. government, or in the international community – should act now to ensure that Trump feels the pressure from day one before he launches an international crisis with brash and ill-conceived initiatives such as pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, reinstating torture or expanding Obama’s illegal assassination program.

A good place to start would be protesting the planned inauguration ceremonies on January 20, 2017. A number of groups are already organizing to do just that. See these websites for more information:

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