International community expressing growing concerns about deteriorating human rights in the USA

As the Obama administration criticizes governments around the world for failing to respect the rights of gays, lesbians and transgendered people, the U.S. government itself is coming under growing criticism for the treatment of journalists, demonstrators and whistleblowers.

In response to police harassment of reporters covering Occupy Wall Street protests across the country, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, on Nov. 11 reminded U.S. authorities of international commitments the United States has subscribed to regarding freedom of the media.

“There is no question that reporters and photographers have the right to observe, record and report on events that are in plain view,” Mijatović said. “Media coverage of public events is the backbone of citizen oversight of government activities, and to detain reporters covering these events jeopardizes freedom of the media.”

Numerous police encounters have led to at least eight reporters and photographers being detained while covering the protests, including journalists who were clearly identified as members of the working press.

“Journalists should not have to defend their right to report on matters of public importance,” Mijatović said. “Violating one reporter’s right affects all citizens. It is time for local officials to demand that their law enforcement agencies respect the rights and duties of media in covering public issues.”

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression has also weighed in on the violation of fundamental freedoms at Occupy protests across the country.

Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue, who was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in August 2008, told the Huffington Post that the crackdowns against Occupy protesters appear to be violating their human rights.

“I believe in city ordinances and I believe in maintaining urban order,” he said last Thursday. “But on the other hand I also believe that the state — in this case the federal state — has an obligation to protect and promote human rights.”

“If I were going to pit a city ordinance against human rights, I would always take human rights,” he added.

La Rue said that the protesters have a right to occupy public spaces “as long as that doesn’t severely affect the rights of others.”

Another issue of concern to the international community is the ongoing mistreatment of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army intelligence analyst accused of leaking a huge trove of diplomatic cables and military reports indicating U.S. war crimes to WikiLeaks. After 17 months of imprisonment – much of it in solitary confinement – Manning is finally expected to have his first day in court next week.

In an open letter to President Obama, members of Congress and top officials at the Pentagon, more than 50 members of the European Parliament expressed concern “that the US army has charged Bradley Manning with ‘aiding the enemy,’ a capital offence that is punishable by death,” and that the United States government has refused to allow the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture to meet privately with the imprisoned veteran.

The letter states:

We are troubled by reports that Mr Manning has been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement and other abusive treatment tantamount to torture. And we are disappointed that the US government has denied the request of the United Nations special rapporteur on torture to meet privately with Mr Manning in order to conduct an investigation of his treatment by US military authorities.

We call upon the United States government to allow Juan Méndez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, to conduct a private meeting with Bradley Manning, the accused WikiLeaks whistle-blower. Mr Méndez has made repeated requests to American officials to meet privately with Mr Manning in response to evidence that he was subjected to abusive confinement conditions while he was detained at a facility in Quantico, Virginia. Mr Manning was held in solitary confinement for 23 hours per day during the eight months he was incarcerated at that location. It appears that he was at times forced to sleep and stand at attention without any clothing. His legal counsel has documented additional incidents which indicate the possibility of other rights violations.

Hundreds of US legal scholars have signed an open letter to the Obama administration, arguing that the conditions of confinement endured by Mr Manning at Quantico may have amounted to torture. Following worldwide calls for an end to the abusive treatment, Manning was moved to a facility in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where his conditions are said to have improved. The US military conducted an internal investigation into the allegations of mistreatment at Quantico. The preliminary results of this investigation found that Mr Manning was improperly placed on “prevention of injury” status, against the recommendations of qualified medical personnel. However, these findings were ultimately overturned by a military prison official who was implicated by the report. Therefore, the US military’s internal investigation has been compromised by clear conflicts of interest. This so-called “prevention of injury” status was the justification for a number of extraordinary measures, such as denying Mr Manning comfortable bedding and not allowing him to exercise.

By preventing UN officials from carrying out their duties, the United States government risks undermining support for the work of the United Nations elsewhere, particularly its mandate to investigate allegations of torture and human rights abuses. In order to uphold the rights guaranteed to Bradley Manning under international human rights law and the US constitution, it is imperative that the United Nations special rapporteur be allowed to properly investigate evidence of rights abuses. PFC Manning has a right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. People accused of crimes must not be subjected to any form of punishment before being brought to trial.

Finally, we in the European Union are totally opposed to the death penalty. And we certainly do not understand why an alleged whistleblower is being threatened with the death penalty, or the possibility of life in prison. We also question whether Bradley Manning’s right to due process has been upheld, as he has now spent over 17 months in pre-trial confinement.

Furthermore, Bradley Manning should not be forced to waive his right against self-incrimination in order to speak with anyone who seeks to investigate evidence of abuse in their official capacity.

Consistent with these internationally recognised standards, as well as the rules governing his mandate, United Nations special rapporteur on torture Juan Méndez must be allowed to conduct an unmonitored meeting with Bradley Manning, without any further delay.

In addition to the breaches of international norms articulated by the European MPs, Bradley Manning’s legal defense is raising a constitutional issue in his defense, arguing that by declaring Manning’s guilt during a political fundraiser in San Francisco in April, President Obama had dispensed “unlawful command influence” since the president acts as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

“Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), a superior officer in the chain of command is prohibited from saying or doing anything that could influence any decision by a subordinate in how to handle a military justice matter,” says Manning’s defense team.

Obama “made improper comments on 21 April 2011 when he decided to comment on PFC Manning and his case. On that date, he responded to questions regarding PFC Manning’s alleged actions by concluding that ‘We’re a nation of laws. We don’t let individuals make their own decisions about how the laws operate. He [PFC Manning] broke the law.'”

The president made the comments while greeting supporters at a fundraiser where someone questioned Manning’s treatment. The president’s back and forth about Manning was captured on a mobile phone camera.

Manning’s lawyer says he wants to question Obama about the “nature of his discussions with members of the military regarding this case and whether he has made any other statements that would either influence the prosecution of this case or PFC Manning’s right to obtain a fair trial.”

It remains to be seen whether Obama administration officials respond to requests from Manning’s legal defense, much less the concerns of the international community.

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