Several months after the United States resumed military aid to the Bahraini dictatorship amid promises of reform, the human rights situation in the country continues to deteriorate, according to a new report by Amnesty International. Repressive practices are growing increasingly entrenched, says Amnesty, and the government is displaying flagrant disregard for the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), set up to investigate widespread human rights violations during the 2011 uprising.
“The Bahraini authorities can no longer shield themselves from criticism by using the pretence of reform, and Bahrain’s close allies, including the USA and the UK can no longer brandish the BICI report to go back to business as usual,” reads the Amnesty report.
The findings come six months after the U.S. State Department informed Congress that the U.S. would be releasing “items and services for the Bahrain Defense Force, the Coast Guard, and the National Guard for the purpose of helping Bahrain maintain its external defense capabilities.”
In a statement at the time, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said that the decision was made “mindful of the fact that there are a number of serious unresolved human rights issues that the Government of Bahrain needs to address.” Saying that the U.S. will continue to maintain holds on certain material such as TOW missiles and Humvees, the State Dept. noted that “the Government of Bahrain has begun to take some important steps to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report.”
“Going forward,” Nuland said, “we will continue to engage with Bahrain to encourage meaningful progress on human rights and reform.”
Amnesty’s criticism of Bahrain’s human rights record since U.S. aid was resumed demonstrates that contrary to occasional claims by the U.S. government, supplying weapons to dictators does not necessarily have the effect of producing leverage over those regimes’ human rights practices.
This is a specious argument that is made from time to time by U.S. officials, particularly when aid to an unsavory regime is criticized as geopolitical opportunism, for example in September 2011 when the U.S. lifted restrictions on aid to Uzbekistan – one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
In response to criticism over that move, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that “our continuing dialogue with officials of the [Uzbek] government is essential.” That dialogue “always raises, as I have and as others from our government continue to do so, our concerns about human rights and political freedoms. But at the same time we are working with the Uzbeks to make progress, and we are seeing some signs of that, and we would clearly like to deepen our relationship on all issues.”
Some at the time wondered what progress the U.S. was seeing from the regime in Uzbekistan, which is known to boil people alive and commit other horrific human rights abuses. One blogger facetiously pointed out that “They haven’t boiled anyone alive in at least 5 years!”
As Human Rights Watch noted however in January 2012,
Uzbekistan’s human rights record remains appalling, with no meaningful improvements in 2011. Torture remains endemic in the criminal justice system. Authorities continue to target civil society activists, opposition members, and journalists, and to persecute religious believers who worship outside strict state controls.
Freedom of expression remains severely limited. Government-sponsored forced child labor during the cotton harvest continues. Authorities continued to deny justice for the 2005 Andijan massacre in which government forces shot and killed hundreds of protestors, most of them unarmed.
Reacting to the pro-democracy Arab Spring movements, the Uzbek government increased the presence of security forces across the country and widened its already-tight control over the internet. Despite the government’s persistent refusal to address concerns about its abysmal record, the United States and European Union continued to advance closer relations with the Uzbek government in 2011, seeking cooperation in the war in Afghanistan.
In defending the resumption of military aid to this regime that Freedom House identifies as among “the worst of the worst,” Victoria Nuland offered assurances that Clinton has spoken “very frankly” with Uzbek President Islam Karimov about U.S. support for human rights and the desire to see reforms. Clinton also raised “individual cases” that Washington is especially concerned about, Nuland said.
“Nobody is shying away from having the tough conversation,” she added. “That said, we also have other interests and things that we need to protect in our relationship with Uzbekistan.”
Those “other interests and things” are primarily related to securing support from the dictatorship for the decade-old U.S. war in neighboring Afghanistan. As Freedom House described the situation in May 2012,
Uzbekistan has largely repaired relations with the EU and United States in recent years, in part by agreeing to the overland transportation of nonmilitary supplies to support NATO operations in Afghanistan. The rapprochement gained new momentum in 2011, as NATO increased transit traffic, the United States approved waivers for Uzbekistan on some human-rights related sanctions, and high-level visits between U.S., European, and Uzbek officials resumed.
The U.S. reconciliation with Uzbekistan however has not resulted in any advances in human rights, with freedoms of speech and the press severely restricted, torture used pervasively in overcrowded prisons, and freedom of association tightly constrained. The country received Freedom House’s lowest possible score in its latest report, along with totalitarian states such as North Korea and Saudi Arabia.
Similarly, the situation in the island monarchy of Bahrain continues to deteriorate despite U.S. assurances of progress and pleas from the human rights community for the United States to stop supplying the regime with military aid. In a letter to Hillary Clinton in September, several human rights organizations pointed out that “the security forces of the Government of Bahrain continue to engage in human rights violations against non-violent, pro-democracy protesters.” The groups urged the State Department “to immediately suspend further U.S. military assistance and arms transfers to the responsible units, as required by law.”
The letter notes that
Bahrain Watch has visually documented the use of some U.S. origin weapons during the initial phase of protests (February-March 2011).  Members of the BDF can be seen in videos and photos attacking non-violent and unarmed pro-democracy protesters with U.S.-supplied arms, including M4 rifles sold to Bahrain as part of a 2008 arms sales package and .50 caliber machine guns mounted on M113 armored personnel carriers, of which the United States is the sole supplier to Bahrain. Again, we assume that the State Department has knowledge of which units operate U.S.-supplied arms, and that it has notified the Government of Bahrain that these units are ineligible to receive further U.S. taxpayer funded assistance until it takes the steps required by FAA 620M.
It further points out that Section 620M of the Foreign Assistance Act (the “Leahy Law”) stipulates that “No assistance shall be furnished under this Act or the Arms Export Control Act to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”
In offering such “credible information” to Secretary of State Clinton, the groups argue that attacks by the police and other security forces on unarmed, non-violent, pro-democracy activists rise to the level of “gross human rights violations,” particularly so when the attacks resulted in death.
Yet, the United States has continued supplying aid despite ongoing crackdowns in Bahrain, even amid the State Department expressing concern that the recommendations made by the BICI have not been fully implemented.
“I think we’re concerned that a year has gone – almost a year has gone by and we’ve only seen about half of the recommendations go forward and that dialogue is not going forward between the government and the opposition,” Nuland said earlier this month.
Amnesty International however offers a harsher assessment, stating in its new report that “a year on, the promise of meaningful reform has been betrayed by the government’s unwillingness to implement key recommendations around accountability, including its failure to carry out independent, effective and transparent investigations into allegations of torture and other ill-treatment and excessive use of force and to prosecute all those who gave the orders to commit human rights abuses.”
It calls on the U.S. to “immediately condemn human rights violations and match their condemnation with action, instead of satisfying themselves with the narrative of reform while ignoring the reality of repression.”
With the death toll of Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip continuing to rise, President Barack Obama is voicing the United States’ unconditional support for the bombing, raising questions of legality in relation to U.S. backing of potential Israeli war crimes.
In the latest news, three Palestinians were killed in two separate strikes in Gaza on Tuesday morning. The latest deaths pushed the Palestinian death toll to 112, with the number of injuries over 920, and came after a night of relative calm – the first to see no fatalities since the Israeli air campaign began nearly a week ago.
As the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reported yesterday,
The number of Palestinians killed by Israeli Occupation Forces in the course of the offensive on the Gaza Strip, that is ongoing for the sixth consecutive day, has increased to 87, including 58 civilians. The civilian deaths include 18 children and 12 women. Over the past 24 hours, many civilian casualties, mostly women and children, have been reported, as Israeli forces have bombarded populated houses, in the vast majority of cases without any prior warning. A number of houses have been destroyed over their residents, causing several civilian casualties. Additionally, Israeli forces have attacked civilian and governmental facilities located in densely-populated areas, and a number of civilian vehicles.
In a grave incident on Sunday afternoon, 18 November 2012, Israeli forces killed 8 members of the al-Dalu family in Gaza City. Another 2 members of the family are still missing, since Israeli warplanes bombarded the family home. 2 neighbours, including 1 elderly woman, were also killed, while 9 civilians, including 2 children and 3 women, were wounded.
As the killing intensified, President Obama weighed in to fully back Israel’s “right to defend itself” and placed the blame for the conflict squarely at the feet of Hamas. “There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders,” he said, referring to the homemade rockets fired by Hamas, not the high-tech weaponry used by Israel against the people of Gaza.
Despite the high civilian casualties inflicted by Israel compared to the relatively low death toll on Israel’s side (only three Israelis have been reported killed in the fighting so far) Obama reiterated the U.S.’s unwavering support for Israel. “We are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians,” he said. “And we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself.”
While not surprising considering the fact that Israel has long been the world’s number one recipient of U.S. military aid, the president’s unequivocal backing for potential Israeli war crimes could place the United States in violation of international law, and possibly domestic 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” 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.
As the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation points out,
Because Israel misuses U.S. weapons to commit human rights abuses of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, including, but not limited to: the injuring and killing of civilians, the destruction of Palestinian civilian infrastructure, the severe restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement, and the expropriation of Palestinian land and resources for Israeli settlements, it is pertinent to investigate whether Israel is violating U.S. laws aimed at ensuring that U.S. military aid and weapons are appropriately and legally used.
Given that U.S. military aid to Israel “directly contributes to Israel’s systematic human rights violations against Palestinians,” both Congress and the President “must utilize the investigative and reporting mechanisms found in these laws and hold Israel accountable for any and all violations of these laws as required,” concludes the U.S. Campaign.
While supporters of Israel and most American media outlets claim that Israel is simply retaliating against provocations from Hamas — choosing to begin the story of the latest round of violence in Gaza on November 10 when four Israeli soldiers were wounded by Palestinian fire — in fact, just two days before this incident, a 13 year old Palestinian boy was killed in an Israeli military incursion into Gaza.
Further, as respected scholar Phillis Bennis notes, the Israeli attacks did not begin as a response to rockets fired from Gaza, but rather with Israel’s assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari on November 14. “History is determined by when you start the clock,” Bennis points out.
Political dissident Noam Chomsky argues that there is no such thing as the concept of self-defense in the context of military occupation. “You can’t defend yourself when you are militarily occupying someone else’s land,” he says. “Call it what you like, it is not self-defense.”
When it comes to the legal issues of Israeli war crimes and U.S. complicity, as a backdrop to the current fighting, the 2009 UN Goldstone Report provides a stark reminder that Israel is responsible at least for “internationally wrongful acts,” if not wanton crimes against humanity.
The United Nations fact-finding mission on the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict (dubbed Operation Cast Lead by the Israeli military) found clear evidence that Israeli forces committed serious war crimes and breaches of humanitarian law, which in some cases may have amounted to crimes against humanity.
“We came to the conclusion, on the basis of the facts we found, that there was strong evidence to establish that numerous serious violations of international law, both humanitarian law and human rights law, were committed by Israel during the military operations in Gaza,” the head of the mission, Justice Richard Goldstone, said in September 2009.
Non-governmental organizations placed the overall number of persons killed by Israel between 1,387 and 1,417 during the operation.
The 575-page report found, inter alia, “that the conduct of the Israeli armed forces constitute grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in respect of wilful killings and wilfully causing great suffering to protected persons and as such give rise to individual criminal responsibility.”
It went on to criticize the “deliberate and systematic policy on the part of the Israeli armed forces to target industrial sites and water installations,” as well as the use of white phosphorus weapons:
Based on its investigation of incidents involving the use of certain weapons such as white phosphorous and flechette missiles, the Mission, while accepting that white phosphorous is not at this stage proscribed under international law, finds that the Israeli armed forces were systematically reckless in determining its use in built-up areas. Moreover, doctors who treated patients with white phosphorous wounds spoke about the severity and sometimes untreatable nature of the burns caused by the substance. The Mission believes that serious consideration should be given to banning the use of white phosphorous in built-up areas. As to flechettes, the Mission notes that they are an area weapon incapable of discriminating between objectives after detonation. They are; therefore, particularly unsuitable for use in urban settings where there is reason to believe civilians may be present.
Under intense pressure from Israel and the Jewish Lobby in the United States, Richard Goldstone issued a partial retraction and clarification of his report’s most controversial findings in April 2011. While his public disavowal of portions of the report received much fanfare from the Israel Lobby which hailed it as a total vindication of Israel’s actions in Operation Cast Lead, in fact it was a fairly limited retraction that also reaffirmed some of the original report’s important findings.
“The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion,” Goldstone wrote in the Washington Post. “While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee’s report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.”
Goldstone laid some of the blame for the report’s shortcomings on the fact that Israel refused to cooperate with his investigation: “Israel’s lack of cooperation with our investigation meant that we were not able to corroborate how many Gazans killed were civilians and how many were combatants.”
Nevertheless, Palestinian deaths over the past ten years are estimated in the thousands. According to the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which documents precisely which U.S.-supplied weapons are responsible for how many deaths, Israel killed at least 2,969 Palestinians from September 29, 2000 to December 31, 2009 – Palestinians who took no part in hostilities.
It is now clear that history is to some degree repeating itself in Israel’s current actions in the Gaza Strip (codenamed Operation Pillar of Defense). If anything, it could be said that the indications of intentional targeting of civilians are even stronger this time around than they were four years ago, with prominent Israeli leaders openly calling for war crimes and collective punishment to be inflicted on the people of Gaza.
Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, for example, was quoted by Haaretz as saying, “The goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages. Only then will Israel be calm for 40 years.”
Not to be outdone, Gilad Sharon, son of former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon wrote in an op-ed on Sunday that, “We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza…. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too…. This needs to end quickly – with a bang, not a whimper.”
For what it’s worth, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called today for an immediate ceasefire and said an Israeli ground operation in Gaza would be a “dangerous escalation” that must be avoided.
Unfortunately however, as we have seen in the past, the only real way to rein in Israel would be diplomatic pressure from its principle sponsor the United States – and with public pronouncements from the president granting Israel carte blanche to “defend itself,” this doesn’t look likely.
This is especially the case since Obama has steadily increased the amount of aid given to Israel during his presidency. In each of his budget requests to Congress between 2009 and 2012, Obama has asked for increases in U.S. military aid to Israel, with Congress obliging each year. President Obama’s FY2013 budget request includes a record $3.1 billion in military aid to Israel.
Nevertheless, public pressure is mounting to force the United States and Israel to de-escalate the conflict, with demonstrations taking place throughout the world against Israel’s aggression.
“All U.S. aid to Israel should be ended once and for all,” said the ANSWER Coalition in a statement.
The people of the United States stand against the government that speaks in our name and sends $3 billion of our tax dollars every year so that Israel can kill and colonize the people of Palestine. The fact that the Obama administration was briefed on Monday prior to the attack shows that these latest crimes are a joint U.S.-Israeli operation. The Pentagon immediately announced after the first wave of murderous assaults today that Israel was its ‘partner.’ Israel may be a partner of U.S. imperialism as it acts as an extension of Pentagon and CIA power in the Middle East. But it is absolutely not the partner of the people of this country who are horrified by its policy of endless war against the Palestinian people and all the peoples of the region.