Widespread criticism of U.S. human rights practices as 2016 gets underway

us human rights

Numerous non-governmental organizations and a UN panel of experts last week issued a litany of serious concerns about the state of human rights in the United States as the new year – and President Obama’s final year in office – gets underway. Considering the depth and breadth of criticism, it is clear that Obama will be leaving behind a troubling legacy of human rights problems, which will prove not only a challenge for his successor (assuming the next president gives a whit about human rights), but also the nation as a whole for many years to come.

Amnesty International, for starters, issued a harsh statement on January 29, regretting that a full seven years into Obama’s presidency, the human rights abomination known as Guantanamo Bay remains open – despite Obama’s many promises over the years to close the notorious prison.

“Two weeks after the Guantánamo Bay detention site entered its 15th year of operation, the detention site faces a new milestone,” Amnesty noted in a press release Friday. “As of tomorrow, January 30, Guantánamo will have been open longer under President Obama’s administration than the previous administration which opened the site for indefinite detention.”

Marking the shameful milestone, Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights program, issued the following statement:

With Guantánamo now open longer on his watch than on former President Bush’s, President Obama’s human rights legacy is on the line. In some ways, Obama will be defined by whether he chose to end fifteen years of injustice and human rights violations at Guantánamo.

President Obama was able to cut the prison’s population by nearly 10 percent this month alone and he must continue to show he’s undeterred by congressional threats and fear mongering. The prison should be shuttered, and detainees who cannot be transferred should be charged in federal court or released. There must be accountability for the torture and other human rights violations that many of the detainees have suffered.

Human Rights Watch also had some stern words for the United States last week. In publishing its annual catalogue of the state of human rights around the world, World Report 2016, HRW focused particular attention on misguided U.S. policies towards refugees and migrants. As the group pointed out on January 27,

In December 2014, the US opened its largest lock-up for arriving migrant families, a detention facility slated to house more than 2,400 parents and children – primarily asylum seekers from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. A year earlier, the US had only 85 beds specifically dedicated to detaining families. This new policy of detaining families from Central America in large numbers was in response to an influx of arrivals seeking refuge from uncontrolled gang violence in their home countries.

These policies, which criminalize and discriminate against “people seeking refuge or reunification with their families in the US during 2015 have been ill-considered, discriminatory, and harmful,” Human Rights Watch said.

“The Obama administration is sending messages of detention, discrimination, and distrust to families fleeing violence and persecution at home,” said Alison Parker, US program co-director at Human Rights Watch. “US policymakers should reverse course and stop treating undocumented arrivals as criminals.”

Other major concerns raised by HRW included:

When it comes to the issue of sentencing and mass incarceration, HRW noted that the United States locks up 2.37 million people, by far the largest incarcerated population in the world. Another 12 million people pass through local jails annually.

HRW noted that concerns over over-incarceration in prisons have led some states and the U.S. Congress to introduce several reform bills, but regretted that none of the federal congressional measures had become law.

The rights group also pointed out that racial disparities “permeate every part of the US criminal justice system,” with particularly egregious disparities when it comes to drug law enforcement.

“While whites and African Americans engage in drug offenses at comparable rates, African Americans are arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated for drug offenses at much higher rates,” HRW pointed out. “African Americans are only 13 percent of the US population, but make up 29 percent of all drug arrests. Black men are incarcerated at six times the rate of white men.”

Racial disparities in criminal justice – and virtually all other facets of American life – were also in focus last week with the conclusion of an official visit by the UN’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, which visited several U.S. cities from January 19-29.

Despite observing some positive indications of halting progress in certain areas – including a growing mass movement for racial justice and some attempts to introduce more fairness into criminal sentencing – overall, the Working Group was “extremely concerned about the human rights situation of African Americans.”

In a statement issued January 29, the UN body said:

The colonial history, the legacy of enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism, and racial inequality in the US remains a serious challenge as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent. Despite substantial changes since the end of the enforcement of Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights, ideology ensuring the domination of one group over another, continues to negatively impact the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of African Americans today. The dangerous ideology of white supremacy inhibits social cohesion amongst the US population. Lynching was a form of racial terrorism that has contributed to a legacy of racial inequality that the US must address. Thousands of people of African descent were killed in violent public acts of racial control and domination and the perpetrators were never held accountable.

Contemporary police killings and the trauma it creates are reminiscent of the racial terror lynching of the past. Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Racial bias and disparities in the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, and the tough on crime policies has disproportionately impacted African Americans. Mandatory minimum sentencing, disproportionate punishment of African Americans including the death penalty are of grave concern.

The scathing statement went on to list a whole litany of concerns ranging from discriminatory voter ID laws; states’ rejection of Medicaid expansion (with a disproportionate adverse impact on African Americans’ health); the existence of “food deserts” in many African American communities; the education system’s whitewashing of African enslavement; the housing crisis and high rates of homelessness and gentrification; the high unemployment rate of African Americans; and the environmental justice denied African Americans by highly polluting industries often disproportionately being placed in their communities.

Even Freedom House, which receives the lion’s share of its funding from the U.S. federal government, had some strong words of criticism for the United States last week.

Although the U.S. received Freedom House’s top ratings for political rights and civil liberties, the country “was affected by the cumulative impact over recent years of certain deficiencies in the electoral system, the influence of private money in election campaigns and the legislative process, legislative gridlock, the Obama administration’s failure to fulfill promises of enhanced government openness, and fresh evidence of instances of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system,” the NGO noted.

Specifically, Freedom House pointed to the ongoing “controversy over relations between black citizens and the police [which] grew in intensity in 2015.” Protests in Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland, and other cities highlighted “incidents in which black people, often unarmed, were shot or fatally injured in confrontations with the police,” Freedom House observed.

Another issue the group pointed to is the epidemic of mass shootings in the United States, which contravenes the U.S. government’s international obligation to protect the right to life.

As Freedom House pointed out,

Mass shootings continued to claim lives across the country, renewing a perennial discussion of proposed restrictions on gun ownership. While the targets of the separate attacks included a college campus and a women’s health clinic and featured a variety of motives, the year’s deadliest assault was carried out in San Bernardino, California, by a husband and wife who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Obama took modest executive actions to tighten enforcement of existing laws and urged further changes through the legislative process. However, the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, and the Republican Party remained strongly opposed to any new gun-control proposals.

With just one year left in his presidency, Obama obviously cannot be expected to remedy all of the above-mentioned human rights issues, and certainly not all of them can be blamed on his leadership – or lack thereof – over the past seven years. However, there are many things he could do in his final months to at least attempt to marginally improve the state of human rights in the U.S., including by prioritizing the closing of the Guantanamo prison once and for all, and reversing some of the discriminatory policies his administration has implemented on refugees and migrants.

Perhaps above all, it is important that the president begins to use the bully pulpit to more clearly speak out on human rights domestically. This way, at least, these issues may become part of the national dialogue in this crucial election year, in a way that they have not been up until now.

Despite its domestic human rights problems, U.S. trains police forces abroad

police_brutality

The numbers are in, and it is now confirmed that 2015 was the deadliest year for civilians interacting with police since records have been kept. Of course, this is not saying all that much since last year was the first year in which records were kept in any comprehensive fashion.

Filling a notable gap in record-keeping by the United States government, which doesn’t bother to gather data on how many civilians are slain by police in a given year, news organizations including The Washington Post and The Guardian last year determined that between 965 and 1,134 civilians were killed by police, depending on what counting standards are used. (The Washington Post only tracked fatal police shootings, not killings by other forms of force, while the Guardian employed a more comprehensive methodology.)

While much of the focus of the police deaths has been on the racial component of the nationwide police brutality epidemic, fueled in large part by the agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement and the media’s tendency to devote more attention to cases following an easily digestible racial narrative, the numbers confirm in fact that the rampant police violence impacts communities of all colors and creeds across the United States.

Indeed, despite the disproportionate attention paid to cases involving a white cop and black victim, more whites were killed by police than any other race in 2015. According to the Guardian’s tally, the total numbers of police victims are as follows:

  • 577 White
  • 300 Black
  • 193 Hispanic/Latino
  • 27 Other/Unknown
  • 24 Asian/Pacific Islander
  • 13 Native American

Of course, while the raw numbers appear to demonstrate an equal-opportunity problem that cuts across racial lines, when analyzed a bit more closely, it is clear that in fact the tendency of police to kill civilians is a much greater threat to African Americans than it is to any other group. Nearly seven out of a million black people were killed by police in America last year, while white victims accounted for 2.86 per million. In other words, African Americans were nearly 2.5 times as likely to be killed by police as their white counterparts.

Age and gender also play a factor in being killed by police, with young black men being nine times more likely than other Americans to die at the hands of a cop in 2015, according to the Guardian study. As the UK-based paper further explained:

Despite making up only 2% of the total US population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of all deaths logged this year by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police. Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age.

Paired with official government mortality data, this new finding indicates that about one in every 65 deaths of a young African American man in the US is a killing by police.

But even setting aside the racial factor, it is clear that far too many people of all races and ages are killed by their police forces in America, a trend of police brutality not seen in other “advanced democracies.” Even looking at just the white victims of police violence, the U.S. is in a league of its own. According to the Guardian,

[L]ooking at our data for the US against admittedly less reliable information on police killings elsewhere paints a dramatic portrait, and one that resonates with protests that have gone global since a killing last year in Ferguson, Missouri: the US is not just some outlier in terms of police violence when compared with countries of similar economic and political standing.

America is the outlier – and this is what a crisis looks like.

The Independent, another British paper, illustrated the issue this way:

police-shootings

 

Taking a broad view of the situation, it seems clear that the problem is deeper than just a matter of racial discrimination, and in fact reflects a fundamental lack of respect for human life by U.S. police, regardless of race.

Take for example the recent case of a white drunk driver who was gunned down by a cop after having flipped his vehicle in Paradise, California. The driver attempted to crawl out of the car after surviving the accident, only to be inexplicably shot by a police officer on the scene for no apparent reason.

In that particular case, the police officer claimed that his firearm went off by “accident” but anyone watching the video can see that all indications point to an intentional shooting. This would fit in a pattern of senseless police violence that was described in a report issued last year by Amnesty International as a possible violation of international norms.

The report, “Deadly Force,” pointed out:

The use of lethal force by law enforcement officers raises serious human rights concerns, including in regard to the right to life, the right to security of the person, the right to freedom from discrimination and the right to equal protection of the law. The United States has a legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfill these human rights and has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which explicitly protects these rights.

One of a state’s most fundamental duties which police officers, as agents of the state, must comply with in carrying out their law enforcement duties, is to protect life. In pursuing ordinary law enforcement operations, using force that may cost the life of a person cannot be justified. International law only allows police officers to use lethal force as a last resort in order to protect themselves or others from death or serious injury. The United Nations (UN) Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or the defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, and that, in any event, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

Furthermore, international law enforcement standards require that force of any kind may be used only when there are no other means available that are likely to achieve the legitimate objective. If the force is unavoidable it must be no more than is necessary and proportionate to achieve the objective, and law enforcement must use it in a manner designed to minimise damage or injury, must respect and preserve human life and ensure medical aid are provided as soon as possible to those injured or affected.

The problem of police violence also caught the attention of the United Nations last year. At the U.S.’s Universal Periodic Review for compliance on human rights norms at the United Nations Human Rights Council in May, the United States heard criticism of its policies ranging from Guantanamo to the death penalty to police brutality.

The representative from Nambia, for example, said U.S. officials must “collaborate closely with marginalized communities to fix the broken justice system that continues to discriminate against them, despite recent waves of protest over racial profiling and police killings of unarmed black men.”

“Chad considers the United States of America to be a country of freedom, but recent events targeting black sectors of society have tarnished its image,” said Awada Angui, the delegate from that country.

The barrage of criticism led James Cadogan, senior counselor in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, to concede that the United States has a problem with police violence.

“We must rededicate ourselves to ensuring that our civil rights laws live up to their promise,” he said at the review. “The tragic deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Ohio, and Walter Scott in South Carolina have… challenged us to do better and to work harder for progress.”

The review “was a demonstration of the no confidence vote that world opinion has made of the United States as a country that considers itself a human rights champion,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the Human Rights Program of the American Civil Liberties Union. “I think that there was a clear message from today’s review that the United States needs to do much more to protect human rights and to bring its laws and policies in line with human rights standards.”

Yet, despite its wholesale violations of international norms on policing at home, the United States is currently engaging in international training programs of police in other countries, which can only be seen as a potential disaster for human rights.

A June 10, 2015 post on the US Department of State’s official blog revealed that the Department of Justice and Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) are running a police training program in Kiev, Ukraine. The program has trained at least 100 Ukrainian police instructors to oversee a new 2,000-member patrol unit as part of a broader effort to “fundamentally change the relationship between law enforcement and the citizens of Ukraine.”

The blog post noted that the police trainers – hailing from Nevada, California and Ohio – “traveled to Ukraine to teach tactical skills training and mentor the instructors as they train the first new cadets.”

The training program “has been key in advancing our goals in Ukraine and deepening our relationships with the new government,” stated the post.

This relationship, of course, stems from a violent U.S.-backed coup d’etat that ousted the democratically elected president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. Ukraine has been embroiled in civil war ever since.

Besides the self-serving geopolitical nature of the police training program, what is astounding about it is that the U.S. feels that it is in any position to train any country’s police. Indeed, considering the widespread epidemic of police brutality in the United States, it is clear that U.S. police need training before they go training other countries’ police forces.

The practice of U.S. international police trainings has long caught the attention of human rights groups, including Amnesty International.

Amnesty notes that the United States government trains at least 100,000 foreign soldiers and police from more than 150 countries each year at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, but “the vast majority of U.S.-administered training courses do not include specific instruction in the human rights or humanitarian law obligations that soldiers must obey.”

Unfortunately, according to Amnesty, “many of the government forces the U.S. has trained have poor human rights records.”

The human rights group points out that it is “vital that the U.S. military mainstream human rights and humanitarian law into all foreign military and police training. Such instruction should be mandatory for all U.S. and foreign trainees attending courses, and it should be reinforced through operational exercises.”

MSF continues to press for real answers on Kunduz hospital bombing

doctors without borders us credibility

Despite the U.S. military’s cover story for its latest war crime in Afghanistan – the Oct. 3 bombing of a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz – being rather firmly in place, MSF is not giving up its quest for accountability, nor ceasing its calls for clarification on whether the United States still recognizes the rules of war as they apply to protections of medical facilities.

In a press release issued Monday, MSF reported on its latest action to bring attention to this case, a rally held last week across the street from the White House. The group delivered thousands of pages of printouts listing the names of more than half a million people who signed the MSF petition demanding an independent inquiry.

As MSF explains,

We did this to honor the staff members and patients who died that night and to continue our ongoing effort to get answers to lingering questions about how such a horrific incident could take place – how a well identified, fully-functioning hospital could be targeted with precise and overwhelming fire power for more than an hour. As it happened, just days after our gathering in Washington, DC, we shared the sad news that our own investigations of the incident and its aftermath had revealed that the death toll from the attacks now stands at 42 people, including 14 MSF staff members.

msf staff

In continuing its calls for an independent investigation, MSF is rejecting the U.S. version of events that led to the heinous and dastardly attack on the hospital. As the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, told reporters last month, the military’s internal inquiry into the assault had determined that it was “a tragic but avoidable accident caused primarily by human error.”

The investigation’s results, which were announced the day before Thanksgiving ensuring that they would receive the least possible amount of attention, determined that the airstrike on the trauma center “was a direct result of human error compounded by systems and signals failure.” Campbell said the crew aboard the AC-130 gunship “believed they were striking a different building several hundred meters away where there were reports of insurgents.”

The military’s improbable version of events – at least the fifth story that the U.S. has issued in justification of its actions – included something like a “perfect storm” of human and technical errors that led to the multiple airstrikes conducted against the hospital for an hour despite numerous phone calls and messages from MSF to U.S. military contacts imploring them to call off the bombing. (Those messages were apparently not relayed to the aircraft’s crew, which was limited by technical malfunctions, according to Campbell.)

“We failed to meet our own high expectations,” Campbell said. “Those who called and conducted the strike did not take procedures to verify this was a legitimate target.”

Of course, most people would expect that the U.S. military has at least a vague idea of what targets it is bombing on any given day, so Campbell’s characterization of these standards as “high” might ring hollow to some. Indeed, Doctors Without Borders objected to this account, noting that the new U.S. cover story raises more questions than answers, and that the lax U.S. standards regarding its bombing procedures are “shocking.”

Responding to the U.S. military investigation’s findings, Christopher Stokes, MSF’s general director, said, “The U.S. version of events presented today leaves MSF with more questions than answers. It is shocking that an attack can be carried out when U.S. forces have neither eyes on a target nor access to a no-strike list, and have malfunctioning communications systems.”

“The frightening catalog of errors outlined today illustrates gross negligence on the part of U.S. forces and violations of the rules of war,” Stokes added.

Of course, this assumes that the strike was actually done in error, which is a rather dubious and naive assumption indeed. As a list provided by The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz a few days after the Kunduz attack makes clear, the United States has a long and bloody track record of intentionally bombing civilian targets. A few of the more scandalous examples of U.S. attacks on civilian targets include the following (more details here):

Infant Formula Production Plant, Abu Ghraib, Iraq (January 21, 1991)

On the seventh day of Operation Desert Storm, aimed at evicting Iraq military forces from Kuwait, the U.S.-led coalition bombed the Infant Formula Production Plant in the Abu Ghraib suburb of Baghdad….

Air Raid Shelter, Amiriyah, Iraq (February 13, 1991)

The U.S. purposefully targeted an air raid shelter near the Baghdad airport with two 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs, which punched through 10 feet of concrete and killed at least 408 Iraqi civilians. …

Al Shifa pharmaceutical factory, Khartoum, Sudan (August 20, 1998)

After al Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the Clinton administration targeted the Al Shifa factory with 13 cruise missiles, killing one person and wounding 11. …

Train bombing, Grdelica, Serbia (April 12, 1999)

During the U.S.-led bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo war, an F-15E fighter jet fired two remotely-guided missiles that hit a train crossing a bridge near Grdelica, killing at least 14 civilians. …

Radio Television Serbia, Belgrade, Serbia (April 23, 1999)

Sixteen employees of Serbia’s state broadcasting system were killed during the Kosovo War when NATO intentionally targeted its headquarters in Belgrade. …

Chinese Embassy, Belgrade, Serbia (May 7, 1999)

Also during the Kosovo war, the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy in Serbia’s capital, killing three staff and wounding more than 20. …

Red Cross complex, Kabul, Afghanistan (October 16 and October 26, 2001)

At the beginning of the U.S-led invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. attacked the complex housing the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul. …

Al Jazeera office, Kabul, Afghanistan (November 13, 2001)

Several weeks after the Red Cross attacks, the U.S. bombed the Kabul bureau of Al Jazeera, destroying it and damaging the nearby office of the BBC. Al Jazeera’s managing director said the channel had repeatedly informed the U.S. military of its office’s location.

Al Jazeera office, Baghdad, Iraq (April 8, 2003)

Soon after the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the U.S. bombed the Baghdad office of Al Jazeera, killing reporter Tarek Ayoub and injuring another journalist. …

Palestine Hotel, Baghdad, Iraq (April 8, 2003)

The same day as the 2003 bombing of the Al Jazeera office in Baghdad, a U.S. tank fired a shell at the 15th floor of the Palestine Hotel, where most foreign journalists were then staying. Two reporters were killed …

When it comes to the attack on the Kunduz trauma center, the U.S. was well aware of the hospital’s location and indeed had been provided the precise coordinates just days before the assault. MSF has noted 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.”

MSF has also revealed 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.

This would seem to provide an obvious motive for the U.S. air strike – the elimination of the Taliban patients inside the hospital and the prevention of any future care being administered to U.S. enemies in Afghanistan.

Indeed, MSF has raised the possibility that the attack was intentional and has directly asked the U.S. government whether it still respects the Geneva Conventions’ protections of medical personnel. This, obviously, is highly relevant for MSF, which relies on these protections to perform its duties in conflict zones.

As MSF President Joanne Lieu wrote in the introduction to a report on the incident issued last month, “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.”

The MSF report also provided substantial circumstantial evidence that the U.S. strike was indeed a premeditated war crime, noting that the bombing consisted of “a series of multiple, precise and sustained airstrikes [that] targeted the main hospital building, leaving the rest of the buildings in the MSF compound comparatively untouched.”

MSF pointed out that the specific target hit in what appeared to be surgical strikes “correlates exactly with the GPS coordinates provided” to the United States, indicating that the U.S. may have used the coordinates to more precisely target the hospital.

Considering the obvious motive and the damning circumstantial evidence – not to mention the fact that the U.S. explanations for its actions have changed five times – you might think that the media would treat this attack as a possible war crime rather than a mistake or an accident. However, you would be dead wrong.

Despite the overwhelming preponderance of evidence pointing to an intentional and premeditated war crime, national media outlets such as the Associated Press routinely insert the words “accidental” and “mistaken” into their reporting, including their headlines, which have significant influence in shaping public perceptions.

“Death Toll in Accidental U.S. Airstrike on Kunduz Hospital Even Higher Than Thought,” read a Dec. 12 AP headline, while another, on Nov. 25 read “’Human Error’ Cited in Mistaken US Airstrike on Kunduz Hospital.”

At best, these preposterous and misleading headlines would be considered shoddy journalism, since there is no way of knowing – other than accepting at face value the self-serving proclamations of U.S. officials – that this airstrike was indeed an accident. At worst, it could be considered aiding and abetting the cover-up of a serious crime, making the AP and other media outlets accessories after the fact.

At the very least, U.S. media should withhold their judgments on whether it was an accident until an independent investigation has run its course – but of course, so far, the United States has systemically blocked that investigation from taking place.

To join Doctors Without Borders in calling for President Obama to stop blocking an impartial inquiry into this tragic incident, click here.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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