State Department human rights report exposes U.S. violations of international law

The U.S. State Department’s annual report on the global human rights situation was released yesterday, coinciding with ongoing rebellions in the Arab world and continued repression of pro-democracy demonstrators by authoritarian U.S. allies. The report provides valuable insight into the human rights practices of governments around the world, but is perhaps even more useful in analyzing the duplicitous nature of U.S. foreign policy — often carried out in violation of international law.

In releasing the report, Maria Otero, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, explained that it is intended to demonstrate the United States’ “commitment to the protection of human rights around the world.”

The report serves “as a source of information for our own policy making,” she said. “As we are dealing with different countries, we consult this report, we use it in order to be able to advance our work.”

Yet, there is little evidence of this in practice, at least in situations in which economics and geopolitics trump principles. Despite the fact that international and domestic law requires the United States to cut military aid to governments that systematically violate the rights of their people, U.S. aid continues to flow to countries such as Bahrain and Yemen, which are using excessive force to crush pro-democracy rebellions.

In the State Department’s report on Bahrain, for example, the U.S. notes that in 2010:

Citizens did not have the right to change their government. Trafficking in persons and restrictions on the rights of foreign resident workers continued to be significant problems. There were numerous reports of abuse against foreign workers, particularly female domestic workers. There were many reports of domestic violence against women and children. Discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, nationality, and sect, especially against the Shia majority population, persisted. There were multiple allegations of mistreatment and torture, especially of Shia activists associated with rejectionist and opposition groups. Authorities arbitrarily arrested activists, journalists, and other citizens and detained some individuals incommunicado. Some detainees did not always have adequate access to their attorneys. At least two of the detainees were dismissed from their publicsector jobs prior to the commencement of judicial proceedings. The government restricted civil liberties, including freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and some religious practices. There were instances of the government imposing and enforcing official and unofficial travel bans on political activists. The Shia are underrepresented in positions of leadership in the civil service, police, and security forces.

It is little wonder then that Bahrainis would be rising up to challenge their repressive government. However, rather than stand unequivocally with the demonstrators, as the U.S. has done in Libya and in Iran, the U.S. seems to want it both ways: express rhetorical support for the rights of the people, while continuing to financially back the Bahraini monarchy, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

In an interview with Daivd Gregory on NBC’s Meet the Press, Ambassador Susan Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations said,

Well, we’ve been very clear with our partners in Bahrain that they ought to exercise restraint, that there’s no place for violence against peaceful protesters there or anywhere else, and we’ve condemned that violence. We’ve had outreach from President Obama, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Secretary of State Clinton and other senior officials, urging that restraint and encouraging what is now transpiring, which seems to be the pullback of the military forces and now a real effort to engage the opposition in a broad-based dialogue that will enable the people’s aspirations to be discussed and, we hope, respected.

Even while expressing this “hope,” however, the U.S. continues to enable the very crackdown that it criticizes. 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. So far, there has been no indication that this aid will be frozen.

A similar situation is playing out in Yemen, which the U.S. State Department report describes as “a republic whose law provides for presidential election by popular vote.”

But the report makes clear that the human rights situation in the country is grave, and that in practice there is no opportunity for the citizens to effect change through democratic processes:

The main government human rights abuses included severe limitations on citizens’ ability to change their government due to, among other factors, corruption, fraudulent voter registration, administrative weakness, and close political-military relationships at high levels. Arbitrary and unlawful killings, politically motivated disappearances, and reports of torture and other physical abuse accompanied the use of excessive force against civilians in internal conflict. Prisons and detention centers were in poor condition, and some private, largely tribal, ones operated without legal authorization or control. Arbitrary arrest and detention, sometimesincommunicado, and denial of fair public trial were widespread. Official impunity was common. The government restricted civil liberties, including freedoms of speech and of the press, including access to the Internet, peaceful assembly, and religious freedom. The judiciary was weak, corrupt, and lacked independence.Official corruption and lack of government transparency were severe problems. International humanitarian groups estimated more than 300,000 persons were internally displaced as a result of the Saada conflict. Pervasive discrimination against women continued, as did early marriage, child labor, and child trafficking. Discrimination on the basis of religion, sect, and ethnicity was common.

As in Bahrain and other countries in the region, the people of Yemen have risen up to demand change, and the government has responded with brutal repression. More than 300 people have reportedly been killed and several hundred others injured in nationwide protests against the rule of Yemeni President Saleh over the past two months.

As Bloomberg reported on Thursday, Saleh’s “treatment of the protest movement, now in its third month, has hardened. The shooting of 46 protesters by police and snipers in the capital, Sana’a, on March 18 sparked a wave of defections from the regime.

“This week, at least a dozen protesters were killed in the town of Taiz when they battled with police, and in Sana’a there were reports that soldiers from a rebel-led division clashed with Saleh’s supporters.”

Like Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Saleh has justified his violent crushing of protests by arguing that his downfall would lead to a greater threat from Islamic terrorists. The difference is that Saleh is facing down mass protests and defections with backing from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

As Bloomberg reports:

This year’s wave of Arab unrest has shown the U.S. is willing to dump longtime partners like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak as well as more recent ones like Qaddafi. In Yemen, the poorest Arab state and already a base for al-Qaeda attacks, Saleh’s army, government and much of his tribal base have abandoned the president, yet the U.S. is reluctant to do so. The standoff adds to the risk of a Libya-style conflict as violence escalates.

“Two weeks ago, it was really looking like game over for Saleh, then all of a sudden he seemed to have gotten a second wind,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University. “The only two foreign voices that matter for Yemen are the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. They are scrambling now with the reality that Saleh’s days may be numbered.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week that he saw the possible fall of Saleh as a “real problem.” Mark Toner, acting deputy spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said on April 4 that while Saleh must respond to public demands, “it’s not for us to impose a solution.”

Human rights organizations have repeatedly called for Washington to halt aid to the country. “The United States should back up its words condemning the carnage with action, and halt military aid to Yemen,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director.

Washington has provided “more than $US 300 million in military and security aid to Yemen in the past five years,” the New York-based group said.

The Pentagon, however, is making clear that military aid will continue to flow. As Reuters reported on Tuesday:

The United States is urging a negotiated transition in Yemen “as quickly as possible” but so far has not cut off military aid seen as vital to the fight against al Qaeda, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a key U.S. ally in the fight against al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing, is clinging to power after weeks of mass demonstrations demanding an end to his 32-year rule.

The continued financial support to both Bahrain and Yemen violate both U.S. and international law.

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.” 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.

In releasing the report on human rights, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the “struggle for human rights begins by telling the truth.”

Societies flourish,” she said, “when they address human rights problems instead of suppressing them. Freedom from fear makes economies grow as citizens invest, innovate, and participate. Where human rights matter, children grow up with the precious belief that they matter, too; that they should be able to live in dignity and shape their own destinies. People everywhere deserve no less. And we hope that this report will give comfort to the activists, will shine a spotlight on the abuses, and convince those in government that there are other and better ways.

Perhaps it is time for the United States to heed its own words, and stop enabling the very abuses that it condemns.

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