Archive | March 2011

Arab League opposition calls into question legality of Libya assault

The legal basis of the U.S.-allied military operation against Libya, launched on the eighth anniversary of the U.S. “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq, was called into question yesterday by the Arab League’s harsh criticism of the attacks as going well beyond the no-fly zone that it had earlier agreed to.

Though UN Security Resolution 1973 authorizes the use of “all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas,” Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said that the bombing could actually lead to more civilian deaths, which would negate the very legal basis for the attacks.

“What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians,” Moussa said yesterday.

His point is a valid one, both in terms of logic and legality. If the primary legal justification for taking military action is to “protect civilians and civilian populated areas,” that justification would be undermined if the attacks in fact exacerbate the crisis and lead to more civilian deaths.

The point is even more germane considering the fact that the Security Council resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” specifically mandates consultation with the Arab League.

Language in the resolution requires notification of the Arab League Secretary General by Member States that decide to take action against Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi. Specifically, the resolution:

Authorizes Member States that have notified the [UN] Secretary-General and the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to take all necessary measures to enforce compliance with the ban on flights imposed by paragraph 6 above, as necessary, and requests the States concerned in cooperation with the League of Arab States to coordinate closely with the Secretary General on the measures they are taking to implement this ban…

Therefore, by the terms established in the resolution that is serving as legal cover for military attacks, the U.S. and allies are required to “notify” the Arab League Secretary General of its actions and act “in cooperation” with the Arab States. By disregarding the objections of the Secretary General, the continued bombardment of Libya appears to violate the spirit – if not the letter – of the resolution.

Of course, a day after issuing his criticism, no doubt under heavy diplomatic pressure, Moussa clarified his earlier opposition, saying today that the Arab League “respects the U.N. Security Council resolution, and there is no contradiction.”

He added though that “we will continue working to protect civilians, and we will ask everybody to take this into consideration in any military operation.”

However, history does not instill confidence, or bear well upon the United States in its “targeted” military operations. Though the Pentagon stresses the precision of its weapons, and emphasizes that is only targeting military installations in Libya, its track record is less than stellar in this regard. In recent conflicts, U.S. warplanes have inflicted substantial civilian death, either accidentally or on purpose.

For instance, in 1999 during the Kosovo crisis, U.S. warplanes killed non-combatants when going after civilian targets in Yugoslavia, such as bridges and even a television station that was deemed a government propaganda outlet. An international uproar also followed the apparently accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy. The CIA later blamed an “outdated map” for that fatal attack.

In the early days of the Afghan bombing campaign in 2001, U.S. warplanes struck two wedding parties and twice bombed the headquarters of the International Red Cross.

In the attack on Iraq launched eight years ago this week, unknown numbers of civilians were killed either by errant bombs or by intentional attacks on civilian targets.

In one such incident, George W. Bush ordered the bombing of an Iraqi residential restaurant on April 7, 2003, on the suspicion that Saddam Hussein and his sons might be having lunch there.  Four precision-guided 2,000-pound bombs were dropped, which destroyed the target building and several surrounding structures.

Diners, including children, were ripped apart by the bombs. U.S. intelligence later confirmed that Hussein wasn’t there.

Despite this spotty track record, the Arab League is apparently satisfied — for now — that assurances from the U.S. and its allies that this time, civilians will be protected.

“We have received assurances that these issues, especially the protection of civilians, will remain a unanimous goal for the UN and the Arab League,” said Amr Moussa.

Just how many of those civilians are not protected, and how many inevitable casualties emerge over the coming days, will prove decisive, not only in terms of ensuring stability in the region, but also upholding the pretense of legality which is being used as a justification for this particular military action.

Eight years on and no justice for Iraq War aggressors

Eight years ago today, the United States and a handful of allies launched a military assault on the sovereign state of Iraq. Estimates of the war’s costs vary, but commonly cited figures put the financial cost for U.S. taxpayers at upwards of a trillion dollars, the cost in Iraqi lives at around one million, and U.S. soldier deaths at nearly 5,000. Another 100,000 Americans have been wounded.

As staggering as those numbers may be, they don’t come close to describing the true cost of this war, or the magnitude of the crime which was committed by launching it on March 19, 2003. Besides the cost in blood and treasure, we would be remiss if we do not also take account of the cost to basic principles of international justice.

The violations of international law, which began even before the initial shock and awe bombing campaign, continued and intensified throughout the invasion, and the subsequent occupation and counterinsurgency campaign. To this date, no high-ranking officials have ever been held accountable for these actions.

Below is a partial accounting of some of the most blatant violations of international law that took place in the early days of hostilities with Iraq, starting with the threats that were being made in the weeks and months leading up to the attack.

Threats of Force

As early as January 2003 — three months before the U.S. actually launched its attack — the Pentagon was announcing its plans for the “shock and awe” bombing campaign.

“If the Pentagon sticks to its current war plan,” CBS News reported on January 24, “one day in March the Air Force and Navy will launch between 300 and 400 cruise missiles at targets in Iraq. … [T]his is more than number that were launched during the entire 40 days of the first Gulf War. On the second day, the plan calls for launching another 300 to 400 cruise missiles.”

A Pentagon official warned: “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad.”

The intention of announcing these plans so early — before the UN weapons inspectors had finished their job and before diplomacy in the Security Council had been allowed to take its course — appeared to be a form of psychological warfare against the Iraqi people. If that was not the intent, it was certainly the effect.

A group of psychologists published a report in January 2003 describing the looming war’s effect on children’s mental health.

”With war looming, Iraqi children are fearful, anxious and depressed,” they found. ”Many have nightmares. And 40 percent do not think that life is worth living.”

The explicit threats being made against Iraq in early 2003 were arguably a violation of the UN Charter, which states that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”

Shock and Awe

“Shock and awe” began with limited bombing on March 19, 2003 as U.S. forces unsuccessfully attempted to kill Saddam Hussein. Attacks continued against a small number of targets until March 21, 2003, when the main bombing campaign began. U.S.-led forces launched approximately 1,700 air sorties, with 504 using cruise missiles.

The attack was a violation of the UN Charter, which stipulates that “Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.” The only exception to this is in the case of Security Council authorization, which the U.S. did not have.

Targeting Civilians

Desperate to kill Hussein, Bush ordered the bombing of an Iraqi residential restaurant on April 7.  A single B-1B bomber dropped four precision-guided 2,000-pound bombs.  The four bunker-penetrating bombs destroyed the target building, the al Saa restaurant block and several surrounding structures, leaving a 60-foot crater and unknown casualties.

Diners, including children, were ripped apart by the bombs. One mother found her daughter’s torso and then her severed head. U.S. intelligence later confirmed that Hussein wasn’t there.

The deliberate attack on a civilian target was in breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention’s protection of non-combatants, 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

Failure to Provide Security

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime on April 9, the U.S. action in Iraq took on the character of an occupation, and as the occupying power, the U.S. was bound by international law to provide security. But in the post-war chaos, in which looting of Iraq’s national antiquities was rampant, U.S. forces stood by as Iraq’s national museum was looted and countless historical treasures were lost.

Despite the fact that U.S. officials were warned even before the invasion that Iraq’s national museum would be a “prime target for looters” by the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), set up to supervise the reconstruction of postwar Iraq, U.S. forces took no action to secure the building. In protest of the U.S. failure to prevent the resulting looting of historical artefacts dating back 10,000 years, three White House cultural advisers resigned.

“It didn’t have to happen”, Martin Sullivan – who chaired the President’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Property for eight years – told Reuters news agency. The UN’s cultural agency UNESCO called the loss and destruction “a disaster.”

Cluster Bombs

During the course of the war, according to a four-month investigation by USA Today, the U.S. dropped 10,800 cluster bombs on Iraq. “The bomblets packed inside these weapons wiped out Iraqi troop formations and silenced Iraqi artillery,” reported USA Today. “They also killed civilians. These unintentional deaths added to the hostility that has complicated the U.S. occupation.”

U.S. forces fired hundreds of cluster weapons into urban areas from late March to early April, killing dozens and possibly hundreds of Iraqi civilians. The attacks left behind thousands of unexploded bomblets that continued to kill and injure civilians weeks after the fighting stopped.

Because of the indiscriminate effect of these duds that keep killing long after the cessation of hostilities, the use of cluster munitions is banned by the international Convention on Cluster Munitions, which the United States has refused to sign.

Authorizing Torture

Possibly anticipating a long, drawn-out occupation and counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq, in a March 2003 memorandum Bush administration lawyers devised legal doctrines justifying certain torture techniques, offering legal rationales “that could render specific conduct, otherwise criminal, not unlawful.”

They argued that the president or anyone acting on the president’s orders are not bound by U.S. laws or international treaties prohibiting torture, asserting that the need for “obtaining intelligence vital to the protection of untold thousands of American citizens” supersedes any obligations the administration has under domestic or international law. [WSJ, June 7, 2004]

“In order to respect the President’s inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign,” the memo states, U.S. prohibitions against torture “must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his Commander-in-Chief authority.”

Over the course of the next year, disclosures emerged that torture had been used extensively in Iraq for “intelligence gathering.” Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh disclosed in The New Yorker in May 2004 that a 53-page classified Army report written by Gen. Antonio Taguba concluded that Abu Ghraib prison’s military police were urged on by intelligence officers seeking to break down the Iraqis before interrogation.

“Numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees,” wrote Taguba.

These actions, authorized at the highest levels, constituted serious breaches of international and domestic law, including the Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of Prisoners of War, as well as the U.S. War Crimes Act and the Torture Statute.

Ongoing Crimes

These are just a few of the more obvious examples U.S. violations of international law from the earliest days of the invasion of Iraq, for which no one has been held to account. Of course, sadly, the crimes against the Iraqi people have continued and intensified over these eight years.

There was the 2004 assault on Fallujah in which white phosphorus – banned under international law – was used against civilians. There was the 2005 Haditha massacre, in which 24 unarmed civilians were systematically murdered by U.S. marines. And of course, there was the 2007 “Collateral Murder” massacre revealed by WikiLeaks last year. (To name just a few.)

While each of the above-mentioned crimes should be dealt with in its own way, it is important not to lose sight of the forest through the trees. In this respect, it is worth remembering the words of American prosecutor Robert Jackson, who led the prosecutions of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. In his opening statement before the international military tribunal on Nazi war crimes, Jackson denounced aggressive war as “the greatest menace of our time.”

Jackson noted that “to start an aggressive war has the moral qualities of the worst of crimes.” The tribunal, he said, had decided that “to initiate a war of aggression … is not only an international crime: it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of whole.”

On this eighth anniversary of the unprovoked war of aggression against Iraq, it is worth keeping those words in mind. It is never too late to bring prosecutions against that war’s chief architects, including Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and the chief war criminal George W. Bush.

In any objective sense, they have the same moral standing as the architects of Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1933.


Post-script: Demonstrations are taking place over the weekend to mark the eighth anniversary of the U.S. invasion, and to protest any potential war against Libya.

A “Resist the War Machine” rally is taking place in front of the White House today, and tomorrow a rally in support of Bradley Manning, the Iraq War veteran accused of providing confidential documents to WikiLeaks, will be held at Quantico. (See ComplianceCampaign’s “The twisted justice of Bradley Manning“.)

Other rallies are taking place across the country, and around the world, in support of Bradley. See for more information.

Demand for Libyan compliance highlights U.S. hypocrisy on Bahrain

As Talking Points Memo reports today,

President Barack Obama and his British and French counterparts are demanding that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi immediately comply with a U.N. Security Council resolution creating a no-fly zone aimed at protecting civilians from attacks.

Obama phoned British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy Thursday evening after the Security Council vote on the resolution authorizing the no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” to protect the Libyan people from Qaddafi’s forces, the White House said in a statement.

Military intervention against Libya may start within “several hours,” French government spokesman Francois Baroin said in an interview on RTL radio, according to a Bloomberg report.

Ostensibly, the tough stance on Libya has been prompted by Qaddafi’s brutal repression of the Libyan people, who like others throughout the region, have risen up against a firmly entrenched dictator for greater freedom and democracy in their country. But even as the U.S. takes a tough stance against Libya, including the implicit threat of force, U.S. military aid continues to flow to nearby Bahrain, which is also carrying out systematic human rights abuses against its people.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called King Hamad of the Gulf state yesterday to express his “deepest concern over reports of excessive and indiscriminate use of force by the security forces and police in Bahrain against unarmed civilians, including, allegedly, against medical personnel,” a UN statement said.

He also “noted that such actions could be in breach of international humanitarian and human rights law.”

Amnesty International documented in a report issued yesterday how security forces have used live ammunition and extreme force against demonstrators without warning and prevented medical staff  from helping the wounded. Amnesty identified some of the ammunition found in the aftermath of the raid on Pearl Roundabout on February 17, which include U.S.-made tear gas canisters and U.S.-made 37mm rubber multi-baton rounds.

Amnesty International called on governments who supply weapons to Bahrain “to immediately suspend the transfer of weapons, munitions and related equipment that could be used to commit further human rights violations, and to urgently review all arms supplies and training support to Bahrain’s military, security and police forces.”

But even as the UN and human rights groups intensify their criticism of the Bahraini government’s crackdown on protesters, U.S. government aid continues to flow. This is despite the fact that international and domestic law requires that the U.S. cut military aid to states that commit violations of human rights.

According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,

A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State” (Article 16 of the International Law Commission, “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts,” (2001) which were commended by the General Assembly, A/RES/56/83).

Further, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and the Arms Export Control Act  authorizes the supply of U.S. military equipment and training only for lawful purposes of internal security, “legitimate self-defense,” or participation in UN peacekeeping operations or other operations consistent with the UN Charter.

The U.S. provided Bahrain $19 million for the fiscal year 2010, and this fiscal year, the island monarchy is on track to receive $19.5 million in military aid.

So why the two different approaches to Libya and Bahrain? How is it that in one case, the U.S. is demanding under threat of military action that Libya complies with international law and in the other, the U.S. turns a blind eye to gross human rights abuses?

Bahrain, a former a British colony, currently hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet. While the population is mostly Shiite, the royal family is Sunni and closely allied with Saudi Arabia. The Shiites are discriminated against by law, including a legal prohibition against serving in Bahrain’s army. So, in Bahrain, the people are coming out in mass protests against a regime solidly supported by the West and reactionary Arab forces like the Saudis. Further, if the Bahraini government were to fall, it could be replaced by a Shiite regime sympathetic to Iran, the United States government’s great nemesis in the region.

Libya, on the other hand, has consistently antagonized the West. It recently forced foreign oil companies, especially France’s Total, to agree to take a much smaller percentage of the oil and gas yielded from their wells, under threat of renationalization. In Libya, the armed rebel groups have Western support. The leaders of the U.S., Britain and France have all called for the toppling of the Libyan government, and have continually threatened to intervene unless Qaddafi steps down.

Thus two very different struggles are taking place in the region, and two very different responses are being made by the U.S. and other Western powers. It appears for now that Qaddafi is complying with the Security Council resolution, declaring a ceasefire with the rebels. But the situation remains tense, and the possibility of Western military action remains real.

If it comes to war, the U.S. should at least be forced to answer how it is that it can apply two such wildly divergent policies in the region — in one case holding up international law as an inviolable principle, and in the other disregarding it completely.

U.S. interference in Aristide’s return to Haiti violates international law

The United States government, in violation of international human rights treaties, is currently trying to prevent the return to Haiti of twice-elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was deposed in a U.S.-backed coup d’etat in 2004. He has been living in exile in South Africa ever since.

The State Department warned Monday that Aristide’s presence in Haiti could disrupt a runoff election being held on Sunday that will decide Haiti’s next leader. President Obama also personally phoned South African President Jacob Zuma to express his “deep concerns” about exiled former president Aristide’s planned return to Haiti, an official said on Thursday.

“Mr. Aristide has chosen to remain outside of Haiti for seven years,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “To return this week can only be seen as a conscious choice to impact Haiti’s elections… Return prior to the election may potentially be destabilizing to the political process.”

Besides being untrue (Aristide never left Haiti voluntarily, but rather was forced into exile under U.S. pressure in 2004), the State Department’s opposition to Aristide’s return is legally dubious, as a prominent group of lawyers wrote in a letter to Cheryl Mills, U.S. Depart­ment of State Chief of Staff yesterday.

The let­ter to Chief of Staff Mills explains that the U.S. government’s inter­fer­ence in Pres­i­dent Aristide’s return vio­lates his rights guar­an­teed by Haiti’s Con­sti­tu­tion and inter­na­tional law:

Haiti’s Constitution guar­an­tees the right of any Hait­ian national to return to the coun­try. The Inter­na­tional Covenant on Civil and Polit­i­cal Rights (ICCPR), which is bind­ing on both the United States and Haiti, declares that “[n]o one shall be arbi­trar­ily deprived of the right to enter his own country.”

The DOS jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for restrict­ing Pres­i­dent Aristide’s con­sti­tu­tional and human rights– that his “return this week could only be seen as a con­scious choice to impact Haiti’s elec­tions” is itself a vio­la­tion of his polit­i­cal rights, includ­ing his right to free expression, free­dom of association, and free­dom to take part in the con­duct of pub­lic affairs.

Bill Quigley, Legal Direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Con­sti­tu­tional Rights, stated that “the United States try­ing to con­trol when any Hait­ian cit­i­zen—espe­cially a for­mer President—can enter Haiti is out­rageous. It vio­lates a stack of bind­ing inter­na­tional human rights treaties. I felt com­pelled to speak out to defend both Pres­i­dent Aristide’s human rights and the Amer­i­can tra­di­tion of rule of law that I teach in my classroom.”

The let­ter, signed by more than 100 lawyers and law professors, points out that the State Department’s expressed jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for restrict­ing Pres­i­dent Aristide’s right to return home—a fear that he might “impact” Sunday’s elec­tion, is an addi­tional vio­la­tion of Aristide’s rights to free expres­sion and free­dom to take part in the con­duct of pub­lic affairs. The let­ter calls such state­ments “espe­cially dis­turb­ing” com­ing from a State Depart­ment that has noted human rights experts on its staff.

It could be added that it is also especially disturbing that given the U.S.’s long history of abuses toward Haiti — much of it based on brazen racism — America’s first black president is apparently continuing this shameful legacy.

For his part, Aristide says that he does not intend to be involved with Sunday’s election, but rather, plans to get involved with educational projects and teach. He wants to return before Sunday’s election because he worries that the next president may not allow him to return.

International, domestic law requires the U.S. to cut aid to Bahrain

Following Bahrain’s declaration of martial law and Saudi forces entering the country to help quell a rebellion by the island’s Shia Muslim majority, White House spokesman Jay Carney said today that “There is no military solution to the unrest in Bahrain or in other countries in the region.”

“We continue to urge all sides to refrain from violence and the use of force in any way, to respect the universal rights of the people in that country — the right to free speech, the right to freedom of assembly, access to information; and to address the grievance that they have, their demands for greater participation,” he said.

Yet, international and domestic law requires that the U.S. not just call for a peaceful solution or express support for the rights of free speech speech and assembly, but actually cut all military aid to states that commit violations of human rights.

According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,

A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State” (Article 16 of the International Law Commission, “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts,” (2001) which were commended by the General Assembly, A/RES/56/83).

The U.S. provided Bahrain $19 million for the fiscal year 2010, which ended on September 30, 2010. This fiscal year, the island monarchy is on track to receive $19.5 million in military aid.

In response to Bahrain’s brutal crackdown on protesters, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) stated on Feb. 18,

U.S. law prohibits aid to foreign security forces that violate human rights, and there is evidence to apply the law today inBahrain. I have asked the State Department to consider the application of our law and I urge a prompt decision. Attacks on civilians calling for political reform and on the press are assaults on the human rights and dignity of all people.

He was referring to Section 502B of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, which stipulates that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and section 4 of the Arms Export Control Act which authorizes the supply of U.S. military equipment and training only for lawful purposes of internal security, “legitimate self-defense,” or participation in UN peacekeeping operations or other operations consistent with the UN Charter.

In response to Leahy’s protest, the State Department wrote in a March 10 letter that it was “investigating the actions of the Bahraini police and Ministry of Interior forces and assessing their conduct in connection with the protests” last month.

The State Department said “the administration is reevaluating its procedures for reviewing U.S. security assistance and defense sales during periods of domestic unrest and violence and has specifically included Bahrain in this reassessment.”

As the Wall Street Journal reports, “The investigation could force the U.S. to cut off aid to specific military units found to be involved in crackdowns on civilian protesters. It could also delay multibillion-dollar arms deals to Gulf states, one of the fastest-growing markets for U.S. defense contractors.”

Whether the rule of law or the almighty dollar prevails, only time will tell.

Wisconsin law flouts Universal Declaration of Human Rights

At a rally in Madison on February 18,  AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka warned that the Wisconsin GOP’s attempt to strip public unions of their collective bargaining rights “is a coordinated effort by the Republican Party to destroy the labor movement in this country. If Wisconsin passes this, there are at least another 12 to 15 states that will try it.”

Now that the union-busting provisions have been signed into law, there is every reason to believe that Trumka’s warning  will begin to play out.  According to American Rights at Work, policymakers across the country are using the fiscal crisis to advance proposals that use the excuse of the state budget problems to gut workers’ rights and benefits.

The group points out that as bad as the Wisconsin law might be, it is only the tip of the iceberg of a nationwide problem. Research by American Rights at Work found that of the 140.5 million people in the civilian workforce, “33.5 million, or 23.8%, have no rights under the NLRA or any other labor law: no legally-protected right to join or form a union, no legally-protected right to bargain collectively for their wages and conditions of work, and therefore, effectively no freedom of association in the workplace.”

With laws such as Wisconsin’s now being pushed around the country, the United States will find itself in further breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the U.S. in 1948. Article 23 of the Declaration states that,

  • (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  • (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  • (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  • (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Although the United States was one of only 48 countries that freely subscribed to these principles in 1948, it has fallen far behind the rest of the developed world in terms of its respect for labor rights

As the U.S.-based Freedom House said in a 2010 report, “the United States is almost alone among economically advanced democracies in its lack of a strong trade union movement in the private sector. While in the decade after World War II some 35 percent of workers in the nonagricultural private sector were represented by unions, by 2009 that figure had fallen below 8 percent.”

Freedom House, which traditionally challenges authoritarian dictatorships over denials of freedom, designated the United States as only “partly free” in its survey of global workers’ rights.

“The ability of workers to join trade unions and engage in collective bargaining has been gradually restricted through legislation, regulatory decisions, and court verdicts,” Freedom House noted.

Freedom House pointed out that the public sector is the only area of the economy that has seen its union ranks grow over the past several decades. Over 35 percent of public employees are represented by unions, but as Freedom House observed, “even public-sector unions may suffer as governments are forced to cope with unsustainable budget deficits.”

For this reason, the coming budget battles – and legislation like that just adopted in Wisconsin – could prove decisive to the very existence of a labor movement in the United States, and the future of Americans’ basic human right to form and join labor unions.

The twisted justice of Bradley Manning

WikiLeaks’ release of the “Collateral Murder” video in April 2010 offered a brief hope that its raw portrayal of the U.S. occupation of Iraq would place a long-overdue spotlight on the legality of this war and in particular the loose “rules of engagement” that U.S. soldiers operate under. By any objective standards, the video was clear evidence of a massacre in violation of Article 3 of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War:


Art. 3. In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:

(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;
(b) taking of hostages;
(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment;
(d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.

(2)    The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.

By indiscriminately opening fire on a group of civilians who posed no threat, the U.S. forces were clearly in breach of provision (1)(a) of this Convention, and by shooting down the Good Samaritans  who came to aid the injured, they were also arguably in violation of provision (2).

Evidently, however, the soldiers were unconcerned about the niceties of international law. In the video, crew members can be heard celebrating their kills, with one joking, “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards.” Another crewman begs for permission to open fire on the van and its occupants, even though it has done nothing but stop to help the wounded: “Come on, let us shoot!” Later, when it was revealed that two of their victims were small children, one of the crewmen absolves himself of any responsibility, saying dismissively, “it’s their fault for bringing children to a battle.”

Yet, despite this stomach-churning evidence of a war and occupation that has thrown international standards of conduct out the window, official U.S. outrage was expressed not over the heinous crime that was uncovered, but on the fact that it was uncovered at all. Rather than focus on the perpetrators of the crime, which left more than a dozen people dead, including two Reuters news staff, the official U.S. response was to pursue whoever was responsible for disclosing the video, which the U.S. military had kept hidden for three years.

On July 6, 2010, Private Bradley Manning, a 22 year old Army intelligence specialist stationed in Baghdad, was charged with leaking the video. After initially being imprisoned in Kuwait, Manning was transferred to the Marine Corps Base Quantico Brig in Quantico, Virginia, on July 29, where he has been held in solitary confinement ever since.

Manning, who is also accused of leaking the trove of State Department cables that has caused the United States a great deal of embarrassment in diplomatic circles, was initially charged with 12 offenses accusing him of violating federal criminal and military law for unauthorized disclosure of classified information. On March 2, the military unveiled 22 additional charges, including the serious offense of “aiding the enemy,” which carries a potential death sentence.

It was not defined in the charges precisely how Manning has “aided the enemy,” whether by “enemy” the U.S. military means the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, or whether it is a more nebulous term meaning anyone who may object to U.S. foreign policy. Presumably, the term “enemy” refers to al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups that may use the “Collateral Murder” video for propaganda purposes, or use the other information allegedly leaked by Manning, such as the “Afghan War Logs,” to assist their efforts on the battlefield.

Regardless, by any standard it is a legally dubious accusation that would most likely be thrown out of any civilian court. But before Manning has even been given that day in court, he is being subjected to highly punitive measures that Amnesty International has called a violation of international law. In January, Amnesty sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, calling Manning’s detention “unnecessarily harsh and punitive” and in “breach the USA’s obligations under international standards and treaties”:

We understand that PFC Manning’s restrictive conditions of confinement are due to his classification as a maximum custody detainee.  This classification also means that – unlike medium security detainees – he is shackled at the hands and legs during approved social and family visits, despite all such visits at the facility being non-contact. He is also shackled during attorney visits at the facility. We further understand that PFC Manning, as a maximum custody detainee, is denied the opportunity for a work assignment which would allow him to be out of his cell for most of the day.  The United Nations (UN) Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMR), which are internationally recognized guiding principles, provide inter alia that “Untried prisoners shall always be offered opportunity to work” should they wish to undertake such activity (SMR Section C, rule 89).

Amnesty went on:

The conditions under which PFC Manning is held appear to breach the USA’s obligations under international standards and treaties, including Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which the USA ratified in 1992 and which states that “all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person”. The UN Human Rights Committee, the ICCPR monitoring body, has noted in its General Comment on Article 10 that persons deprived of their liberty may not be “subjected to any hardship or constraint other than that resulting from the deprivation of liberty; respect for the dignity of such persons must be guaranteed under the same conditions as for that of free persons …”.

Following the disclosure of additional punitive measures being used against Manning, which include stripping him of his clothes for seven hours each day and forcing him to stand at attention while nude, Amnesty renewed its criticisms and called on support for the WikiLeaks suspect. The human rights group said last week that it will forward to President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates messages sent through its Amnesty USA website.

A rally in support of Bradley Manning will be held at Quantico on March 20. The previous day, on Saturday March 19, Manning supporters will be joining the “Resist the War Machine” rally at Lafayette Park. March 19, an international day of action against war and occupation, marks the eighth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which was launched without Security Council authorization in violation of the UN Charter, which states that:

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

The only exception to this principle is in the case of a defensive response to an armed attack:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain inter- national peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.

In the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, the crime of launching a war of aggession was called “the supreme international crime,” as it contains within it “the accumulated evil of the whole.” As we watch the shameful saga of Bradley Manning play out, it is worthwhile keeping that admonition in mind. The psychological torture of Bradley Manning, the “Collateral Murder” massacre, the violations of the Geneva Conventions and other international obligations, all have their roots in the initial invasion of the sovereign nation of Iraq eight years ago, by any objective standards a criminal war of aggression for which the perpetrators should be held to account.

Why this blog

The Founders provided international treaties the status of “supreme law of the land” in the U.S. Constitution, suggesting that they are not something to be entered into lightly. Before the ink was dry on the Constitution, however, the United States began a practice of systematically violating its treaties, particularly in regards to the Native American tribes that presented an obstacle to westward U.S. expansion.

From 1778 to 1871, the U.S. federal government negotiated hundreds of treaties with the Indian tribes, who were considered independent sovereign nations. In each case, the Indians made certain concessions, such as giving up the right to hunt and live on huge parcels of land that they had inhabited for thousands of years in exchange for trade goods, cash payments and promises that no further demands would be made of them. And in each case, the U.S. government broke its promises and decided to demand more of the Indian tribes, pushing them further westward and onto smaller and smaller reservations. By 1890, nearly every Native American nation was reduced to a reservation.

This pattern of treating international agreements as optional, depending on the needs and whims of those in power, has continued through today. As a global hegemon, the United States appears to view international agreements as non-compulsory, valued only for their geo-strategic utility at a given time. Insofar as international law can be employed to help the U.S. implement an agenda, for example providing legal cover for a military intervention, international law is held up as an inviolable principle that must be defended at all costs. However, when it presents an obstacle to U.S. actions, for example when the U.S. failed to get United Nations backing for its invasion of Iraq, international law is considered expendable and cast aside.

But regardless of the views on international law of the political elites, according to the United States Constitution, international agreements which have been ratified by the U.S. Senate, such as the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Charter, are legally binding upon the U.S. government. Other agreements, such as the 1975 Helsinki Accords and the 1990 Copenhagen Commitments, do not carry the weight of law, but are nonetheless politically binding obligations to which the U.S. has freely subscribed.

These agreements have long provided a basis for a more peaceful, just and democratic international order. While they have obviously not been sufficient in fully establishing that international order – with war and authoritarianism still prevalent around the world – they have at least provided a degree of political legitimacy to international efforts in promoting peace, justice and democracy.  Indeed, U.S. political leaders often cite these international agreements in pressuring other countries on various issues, sometimes using them to justify coercive actions ranging from diplomatic rebukes to economic sanctions to military intervention. But as much of the rest of the world will readily attest, the U.S. all too often fails to live up to these obligations itself.

This is obviously the case on high-profile issues such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq – which was a violation of the UN Charter’s prohibition of aggressive war – and the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay – which has been criticized since it first opened in 2002 for violating the Geneva Conventions’ protections of prisoners of war. But there are myriad other ways in which the USA flouts its international obligations, none of which ever come up in polite discussions on international politics.

For example, a strong case can be made that the United States is failing to live up to its obligations on holding democratic elections. In its assessments of American elections, the OSCE, or Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, has regularly pointed to a wide range of issues in the electoral framework of the United States which undermine its democratic credibility. These include the practice of “gerrymandering” congressional districts to guarantee certain electoral outcomes, the obstacles erected to unfairly prevent “third parties” from competing with the two major parties, and the system of campaign financing which provides an uneven playing field for election stakeholders.

Despite the criticisms issued by the OSCE, of which the United States is a member with the same political commitments as the organization’s other 55 countries, the U.S. Congress has taken no meaningful action to bring its electoral framework in line with OSCE recommendations. The election issue is instructive on how American double standards undermine U.S. credibility and provide a rationale for authoritarian leaders to shirk their international obligations as well. Countries such as Russia and Belarus have frequently pointed to U.S. electoral problems to excuse their own undemocratic systems, scoffing at the idea that the United States is in any position to criticize them.  Quite simply, why would they take advice from a hypocrite?

Besides complicating efforts to promote democratization and human rights, in a larger sense U.S. double standards undermine the very basis of the international system and the global rule of law. Just as the principle of no man being above the law applies in domestic law, so too does the principle hold in the international system as well. By ignoring political and legal obligations, the United States sends a message that these obligations are optional and may be ignored if they are considered inconvenient. This in turn leads to global chaos, an international system based on the law of the jungle.

Further, by shirking its international obligations, including but not limited to its flouting of international law, the U.S. is undermining the rule of law domestically. An attack on the rule of law at the international level inevitably becomes an attack on the domestic rule of law as well, leading to a state of lawlessness in which the ruling class feels immune from any constraints on its power. This is the definition of tyranny, and it is precisely the state that the USA finds itself slipping into.

As human rights advocates and civil libertarians have warned since the early days of the “war on terror,” human rights violations of al-Qaeda terror suspects will eventually set the United States on a slippery slope in which authorities deem it optional whether to respect the human rights of anyone, including U.S. citizens. At that point, anyone is fair game, and all of us, including law-abiding Americans, find ourselves at the mercy of an unsympathetic authoritarian state.

For these reasons, I felt it necessary to start the Compliance Campaign. My hope is that with regular reporting on these subjects, the issue of compliance at least becomes part of the national discourse.

While there are any number of organizations and websites that might deal with aspects of this issue, such as Human Rights Watch pointing out that waterboarding terror suspects violates the Convention Against Torture or Reporters without Borders criticizing the U.S. for failing to protect journalists in combat zones such as Iraq, to my knowledge there is no organization devoted entirely to the overall issue of compliance.

With this blog, I hope to at least partially fill that void, to make the case that that international standards are important, not just for American diplomatic credibility, but for their own sake. Not only would U.S. compliance help to promote democratic standards, human rights and conflict resolution around the world, it is equally important for the United States domestically. A lawless state abroad inevitably becomes a tyrant at home, and until the U.S. learns to respect the rule of law, we are in increasing danger of becoming an authoritarian state in which individual rights take a back seat to political power and expediency.

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