Archive | March 2013

The world’s worst weapons and the obligation to disarm

Obama as Dr. Strangelove

Obama as Dr. Strangelove

The United States continues to demonstrate double, triple and quadruple standards in its policies toward nuclear proliferation and disarmament. On the one hand, it flouts its own obligations to disarm — as spelled out in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — it tolerates its ally Israel defying this treaty by maintaining an undeclared nuclear arsenal, and it even adopts a policy of containment toward rogue state North Korea which is openly threatening war against U.S. ally South Korea and has recently threatened to use nukes against the U.S. mainland.

Meanwhile, when it comes to Iran, which insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and is continuing to engage in diplomatic negotiations — recently concluding what a Western official described as “useful” talks in the Kazakh city of Almaty — it is nothing but sanctions, threats of force and acts of war.

Speaking in Jerusalem last week, President Obama reiterated that U.S. policy is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, what Obama called “the world’s worst weapons,” at virtually any cost. Israel and the United States, he said,

agree that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to the region, a threat to the world, and potentially an existential threat to Israel. And we agree on our goal. We do not have a policy of containment when it comes to a nuclear Iran. Our policy is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

We prefer to resolve this diplomatically, and there’s still time to do so. Iran’s leaders must understand, however, that they have to meet their international obligations. And, meanwhile, the international community will continue to increase the pressure on the Iranian government. The United States will continue to consult closely with Israel on next steps. And I will repeat: All options are on the table. We will do what is necessary to prevent Iran from getting the world’s worst weapons.

On one hand it could be considered reassuring that the president is stating that the U.S. “prefers to resolve this diplomatically,” rather than militarily, but the flip side of that, of course, is the stated insistence that “all options are on the table,” including the military option.

Also implied is that the U.S. – as the inventor, leading stockpiler and only country to ever use nuclear weapons – could actually launch a nuclear assault in order to prevent Iran from obtaining these weapons. After all, if no option is off the table, supposedly that means that the nuclear option is also available.

While that might be considered too extreme even for the anything-goes standards of the United States, the implicit threat is indeed clear: if Iran continues to flout the will of the U.S. government, the U.S. retains the right to wipe that country off the map.

What is perhaps more interesting about Obama’s statement however is his explicit reference to nukes being “the world’s worst weapons.” The unstated implication is that these weapons are in a wholly different league than any other weapon on earth. While nuclear weapons may be considered too dangerous to be used, Obama hinted, nearly any other weapon ever devised is considered fair game.

It is noteworthy that as Obama was singling out nuclear weapons as uniquely horrific, new information was coming to light about the U.S.’s use of depleted uranium in its war against Iraq last decade. Significantly, in Fallujah – which was targeted mercilessly by U.S. forces in 2004 – the use of depleted uranium has led to birth defects in infants 14 times higher than in the Japanese cities targeted by U.S. atomic bombs at close of World War II, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As the Huffington Post reported last week, “ten years after the start of the U.S. invasion in Iraq, doctors in some of the Middle Eastern nation’s cities are witnessing an abnormally high number of cases of cancer and birth defects.”

Scientists blame  the use of depleted uranium and white phosphorus in the U.S. military assaults.

The babies and small children suffering horribly from the U.S. military’s reckless use of chemical weapons might take issue with Obama’s characterization of nukes as the world’s worst weapons. To these little victims, depleted uranium and white phosphorus might rightfully take that title.

Nevertheless, Obama is of course correct that nuclear weapons are indeed horrific and their effects too ghastly to truly comprehend, and due to their unique ability to deliver prompt and utter destruction might indeed qualify as the world’s worst. His implication though that they are nevertheless safe in certain hands, namely the world’s already existing nuclear powers such as the U.S. and Israel, is dubious.

Although Iran has not attacked another country in hundreds of years, the U.S. has launched dozens of covert actions and wars of aggression since rising to superpower status following World War II. Likewise, Israel has frequently attacked its neighbors, including Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, not to mention the regular assaults it commits against Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

If there are countries that truly can’t be trusted with the world’s worst weapons, some might say that it is the countries that actually launch aggressive wars on a regular basis.

Further, while nukes certainly have a unique capability of delivering devastation unlike any other weapon in the world, they have also long been considered a stabilizing force by nuclear security strategists. In short, because they are so uniquely destructive, they can provide a powerful deterrent to would-be aggressors. This, of course, is the primary reason why countries may seek to obtain nuclear weapons — and the main reason why only full disarmament can ever truly eliminate the threat of proliferation.

North Korea has made this perfectly clear in its ongoing bluster issued against the United States. Earlier this month, North Korea’s foreign ministry said the country will exercise its right to “pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the headquarters of the aggressors” because Washington is pushing to start a nuclear war against it.

While this threat was roundly – and rightly – condemned by the international community, in substance it is not drastically different than official U.S. policy, which indicates that the United States retains the right to a first nuclear strike.

The Obama administration’s own defense strategy published last year clearly states that the U.S. will maintain its nuclear arsenal as long as these weapons exist, and if necessary, will use them.

“As long as nuclear weapons remain in existence,” it says, “we will field nuclear forces that can under  any  circumstances confront an adversary with the prospect of unacceptable damage, both to deter potential adversaries and to assure U.S. allies and other security partners that they can count on America’s security commitments.”

Although North Korea boasts of nuclear bombs and pre-emptive strikes, it is not thought to have mastered the ability to produce a warhead small enough to put on a missile capable of reaching the United States.

It is nevertheless striking how different the U.S. treats this semi-nuclear power in comparison to countries that don’t have the ability to inflict damage against the United States, such as Iran.

When it comes to Iran, Obama insists that “they have to meet their international obligations,” and if they don’t, the U.S. just might launch a military assault. Left unsaid, of course, is that the U.S., as a nuclear power, also has international obligations, namely to move towards complete nuclear disarmament.

As the most recent Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference reminded states parties to the treaty in 2010:

The Conference recalls that the overwhelming majority of States entered into legally binding commitments not to receive, manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices in the context, inter alia, of the corresponding legally binding commitments by the nuclear-weapon States to nuclear disarmament in accordance with the Treaty.

The Conference further regretted that nuclear-armed countries such as the United States have failed to live up to their end of the NPT bargain:

The Conference, while welcoming achievements in bilateral and unilateral reductions by some nuclear-weapon States, notes with concern that the total estimated number of nuclear weapons deployed and stockpiled still amounts to several thousands. The Conference expresses its deep concern at the continued risk for humanity represented by the possibility that these weapons could be used and the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons.

When it comes to disputes over compliance with the treaty, however, for example Western suspicions that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons or Iranian complaints that the U.S. is failing to disarm, the Review Conference reiterated the obligation that only diplomatic means should be pursued, and that “attacks or threats of attacks” must be avoided:

The Conference emphasizes that responses to concerns over compliance with any obligation under the Treaty by any State party should be pursued by diplomatic means, in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty and the Charter of the United Nations. …

The Conference considers that attacks or threats of attack on nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes jeopardize nuclear safety, have dangerous political, economic and environmental implications and raise serious concerns regarding the application of international law on the use of force in such cases, which could warrant appropriate action in accordance with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations. The Conference notes that a majority of States parties have suggested a legally binding instrument be considered in this regard.

While the United States continues to flout its NPT obligations to disarm, other nations of the world continue to press for the nuclear powers to live up to their promises. As the Inter Press Service reported on March 7,

For the first time, ‘humanitarian diplomacy’ is being deployed to drive home the need for banning nukes – though under the self-imposed exclusion of the P5, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, who own a crushing majority of the 19,000 nuclear weapons capable of destroying the world many times over.

A first step toward humanitarian diplomacy was taken in Oslo at a Mar. 4-5 conference convened by the government of Norway. Mexico will host a follow-up meeting “in due course” and “after necessary preparations,” Juan José Gómez Camacho, the country’s ambassador to the UN announced.

Participants in the conference included representatives of 127 states, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and civil society, with the International Campaign for Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in the forefront.

While this is indeed a hopeful step, it’s difficult to say how successful it can be without the United States and the other nuclear powers. The P5, not Iran, should be the primary targets of nuclear non-proliferation efforts, as there are no other countries on earth that have flouted the NPT as routinely since the treaty was signed.

Pressure needs to be brought to bear particularly on the United States, as the inventor of nuclear weapons, the country with the least scruples about using military force (including the use of horrific weapons such as depleted uranium, white phosphorus and cluster bombs), and the world’s leading exporter of conventional weapons.

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A decade later, still no justice for Iraq War aggressors

Ten years ago today, the United States and a handful of allies launched a military assault on the sovereign nation 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 the 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

A frightened young Iraqi girl in the early days U.S. bombing in 2003.

A frightened young Iraqi girl in the early days U.S. bombing in 2003.

“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 Saddam 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.

Failing 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

A victim of U.S. torture at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

A victim of U.S. torture at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

Possibly anticipating a 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.

Supporting Death Squads

As part of its counterinsurgency campaign, the United States also played a key role in training and overseeing U.S.-funded special police commandos who ran a network of torture centers in Iraq and engaged in a brutal sectarian civil war. A 15-month investigation by the Guardian and BBC Arabic reveals how retired U.S. colonel James Steele, a veteran of American dirty wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and another special forces veteran, Colonel James Coffman, worked with Steele and reported directly to General David Petraeus, who had been sent into Iraq to organize the Iraqi security services.

As the Guardian reported earlier this month:

The Pentagon sent a US veteran of the “dirty wars” in Central America to oversee sectarian police commando units in Iraq that set up secret detention and torture centres to get information from insurgents. These units conducted some of the worst acts of torture during the US occupation and accelerated the country’s descent into full-scale civil war. …

The allegations, made by US and Iraqi witnesses in the Guardian/BBC documentary, implicate US advisers for the first time in the human rights abuses committed by the commandos. It is also the first time that Petraeus – who last November was forced to resign as director of the CIA after a sex scandal – has been linked through an adviser to this abuse.

The full hour-long documentary can be seen here.

While there had long been allegations that the U.S. was involved in fueling the sectarian violence as a way to curtail the Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation through classic divide-and-conquer techniques, the Guardian investigation is the first conclusive evidence that the U.S. was in fact involved in supporting the violence. At its height, the sectarian civil war between Shia and Sunni was claiming 3,000 victims a month.

Other Crimes

These are just a few of the more blatant 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. There are of course, many others that we know about and others that we don’t.

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 in 2010. (To name a few.)

While each of the above-mentioned crimes should be dealt with individually, it is important not to lose sight of the forest through the trees, to remember 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.”

Or, as the ANSWER Coalition’s Brian Becker, who organized some of the U.S.’s largest antiwar demonstrations throughout the Iraq War, put it in a recent column,

The Iraq invasion was a criminal enterprise. Millions of Iraqis died, more than five million were forced into the miserable life of refugees, thousands of U.S. troops were killed and tens of thousands of others suffered life-changing physical and mental injuries.

Today, Bush and Cheney are writing books and collecting huge speaking fees. They are shielded from prosecution by the current Democratic-led government.

The war in Iraq was not simply a “mistake” nor was it the consequence of a hoodwinked public. It was rather a symptom of the primary reality of the modern-day political system in the U.S. This system is addicted to war. It relies on organized violence, or the threat of violence, to maintain the dominant position of the United States all over the world. The U.S. has invaded or bombed one country after another since the end of the so-called Cold War. It has military bases in 130 countries and spends more on lethal violence than all other countries combined. Yes, in the United States the adult population is encouraged to vote every two or four years for one of two ruling-class parties that enforce the global projection of U.S. empire with equal vigor when they take turns at the helm. And this is labeled the exercise of “democracy” and proof that the United States is indeed the land of the free.

The invasion of Iraq succeeded in creating mass human suffering and death. What Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld failed to anticipate was that the Iraqi people, like all people everywhere, would never willingly accept life under occupation. It was the unanticipated resistance of the Iraqi people that eventually forced the withdrawal of the occupation forces nine long years later.

Still pressing for justice a decade after the launching of this criminal war, several organizations, including Iraq Veterans Against the War, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq, and the Center for Consitutional Rights, held a demonstration at the White House today under the banner of “demanding the right to heal.”

The groups are working to highlight the lack of accountability for the ongoing human rights violations of Iraqis, Afghans, and U.S. military veterans. In a petition to Dr. Santiago Canton, Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the organizations call for a hearing to bring forth U.S. government officials to respond to several grave matters of concern, including war crimes that have gone unaddressed, the U.S. military’s use of certain munitions, and failure to treat the physical and mental injuries suffered by service members.

To add your name to the petition, click here. To find opportunities to personally confront and protest U.S. war criminals from the Bush administration, click here.

Opposition grows against drones as U.S. attempts to dictate global rules

A recent drone protest in Pakistan

A recent drone protest in Pakistan

With various countries developing drone technology and threatening to break the U.S. monopoly on the ability drop bombs by remote control, the Obama administration is reportedly seeking to influence global rules on the use of weaponized drones.

As Reuters reported March 17,

President Barack Obama, who vastly expanded U.S. drone strikes against terrorism suspects overseas under the cloak of secrecy, is now openly seeking to influence global guidelines for their use as China and other countries pursue their own drone programs.

The United States was the first to use unmanned aircraft fitted with missiles to kill militant suspects in the years after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

But other countries are catching up. China’s interest in unmanned aerial vehicles was displayed in November at an air show. According to state-run newspaper Global Times, China had considered conducting its first drone strike to kill a suspect in the 2011 murder of 13 Chinese sailors, but authorities decided they wanted the man alive so they could put him on trial.

“People say what’s going to happen when the Chinese and the Russians get this technology? The president is well aware of those concerns and wants to set the standard for the international community on these tools,” said former White House spokesman Tommy Vietor.

The hypocrisy and double standards on display regarding this issue are truly stunning. For one thing, the irony of the fact that China – no paragon of human rights or the rule of law – has apparently foregone using this technology (so far) in favor of pursuing justice in the courts should not be lost on anyone. Secondly, the audacity of a White House spokesman preaching the value of the U.S. “set[ting] the standard for the international community on these tools” is dripping with such duplicity that it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around.

The international community, of course, has been raising objections to the U.S. war on terror in general, and the drone wars in particular, for years. A 2010 United Nations report on extrajudicial assassinations stated that a targeted killing outside of an actual battlefield “is almost never likely to be legal,” rejecting the U.S. doctrine of “pre-emptive self-defense” as a justification for killing terrorism suspects far from combat zones.

In a section dealing specifically with drones, the report noted that “a missile fired from a drone is no different from any other commonly used weapon, including a gun fired by a soldier or a helicopter or gunship that fires missiles.” However, “the critical legal question is the same for each weapon: whether its specific use complies with international humanitarian law.”

Rather than dwelling on the specific technology used to carry out extrajudicial assassinations, the UN pointed out that “the greater concern with drones is that because they make it easier to kill without risk to a State’s forces, policy makers and commanders will be tempted to interpret the legal limitations on who can be killed, and under what circumstances, too expansively.”

The expansive interpretation that the U.S. has applied to its targeting killing program “goes a long way towards destroying the prohibition on the use of armed force contained in the UN Charter,” said Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, in June 2010. “If invoked by other states, in pursuit of those they deem to be terrorists and to have attacked them, it would cause chaos.”

The UN is now investigating in detail 25 drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine where civilian deaths are credibly alleged. Announced on Jan. 24, it is the first official international inquiry into the drone program.

UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson, who is leading the investigation, has made clear that he’s not shying away from exposing U.S. “war crimes.”

On March 15, Emmerson told the Associated Press that, at the very least, the attacks violate Pakistan’s sovereignty. The Pakistani government made clear to him that it does not consent to the strikes, which have killed at least 400 civilians, Emmerson said. The statement was released following the investigator’s three-day visit to the country last week.

Yemen, another frequent target of U.S. drone strikes, has also made clear that it wants the bombings to end. Following an attack in January that killed three suspected terrorists, a Yemeni cabinet minister criticized Obama’s drone war in Yemen, noting that innocent civilians are often killed in these strikes.

“To have an innocent person fall, this is a major breach,” Yemeni Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour told Reuters. “I am in favor of changing the anti-terrorism strategy, I think there are more effective strategies that can be applied on the ground without harming civilians and without leading to human rights violations.”

Despite these criticisms, Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, says that the White House is refining the decision-making process for who gets targeted for aerial assassination, mindful of the possibility that other nations are pursuing this this technology.

“We are constantly working to refine, clarify, and strengthen the process for considering terrorist targets for lethal action,” Hayden said.

The administration recognizes “we are establishing standards other nations may follow,” she said.

I don't always order drones strikes agains children

But Zeke Johnson, Director of Amnesty International USA’s Security with Human Rights Campaign, pointed out in a recent blog post that the number one priority in the campaign to rein in the use of drones is to ensure that “the Obama administration must follow existing law on the use of lethal force.”

While Senator Dick Durbin has stated that the administration is willing to work with Congress to pass new legislation regarding the use of drones, the fact is, laws already exist governing any state’s use of lethal force regardless of the weapon: international human rights law and, in some circumstances, international humanitarian law. “The U.S. government must follow the law,” wrote Johnson, and “recognize that ALL people are equal in rights.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu expressed the thoughts of many around the world when he recently wrote regarding the U.S. drone program,

Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours? That President Obama can sign off on a decision to kill us with less worry about judicial scrutiny than if the target is an American? Would your Supreme Court really want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the 19th century, are not as human as you are? I cannot believe it.

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In April, a series of protest actions will be held around the United States calling attention to the criminality of U.S. drone policy. The protests are being organized around the following principles:

  • Armed drones are weapons of terror. They kill combatants and civilians, children and adults, men and women, alike. Their presence overhead terrorizes entire communities.
  • Extrajudicial assassinations by killer drones violate U. S. and international law.
  • Surveillance drones threaten our liberties, spying on communities and borders, invading our personal privacy.
  • Drones make our families less secure by making it easier for military and paramilitary agencies (like the CIA) to continue endless war without limits in either space or time.

Kicking off on April 4, the 45th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader and peace advocate Martin Luther King, the demonstrations will specifically target drone manufacturers, including General Atomics, maker of the Predator and Reaper drones.

Protests will also be held at Air Force and National Guard bases that control the U.S. military drone program in their regions.

A national march and rally will also be held at the White House on April 13, calling for an end to the U.S. drone wars. As the call to action reads,

Over 3,000 people have been murdered by U.S. drone strikes in the last few years, including a large number of children among the many civilians who have been slaughtered by these robotic killing machines.

Sitting in offices thousands of miles away from their targets, U.S. operators routinely decide to “push the button” and kill their unsuspecting targets on the ground with hellfire missiles fired from unseen drone aircraft. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, villagers have staged mass protests against drone strikes after their kids were incinerated while they were collecting firewood or farming in nearby fields.

The demonstration is being organized by the ANSWER Coalition, which held some of the country’s largest protests against the Iraq War last decade, and has been endorsed by CODEPINK, the Council on American Islamic Relations, Veterans for Peace and others.

“Join us at the White House for a march and rally on Saturday, April 13,” reads the call to action, “to let the world know that the people of this country are demanding ‘Drones Out of Africa and Everywhere!’”

Amnesty International is also organizing a campaign to demand that the Obama administration follows international law in the use of drones. “Amnesty International is deeply concerned that the Obama administration’s so-called ‘targeted killing’ program allows for the use of lethal force, including with drones, that violates the right to life under international law,” Amnesty states.

Another campaign, organized by Veterans for Peace, details a ten-point program for the new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Point number four states, “Stop the illegal use of combat drones that are responsible the extrajudicial assassinations of thousands of civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.”

To add your name, click here.

U.S. austerity flouts a growing international consensus

Austerity Ahead

With a series of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts going into effect in the United States, Americans appear to be on the verge of their own experiment in European-style austerity, which has many in Europe wondering why.

Just as Europeans have begun to turn their backs on the harsh austerity measures once championed by international institutions such as the IMF and EU, the U.S. seems inclined to give them a chance. This is especially curious considering that a consensus has emerged not only among economists but most major international organizations that austerity is economically counterproductive and places an undue burden on the most vulnerable members of society.

The economic committee of the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), which counts the U.S. as a member, adopted a resolution last July condemning austerity measures and calling instead for greater economic investment in green growth.

Stating that “excessive austerity [is] economically counter‑productive, destructive for the most vulnerable members of society and destabilizing for democracy,” the OSCE PA’s Monaco Declaration encouraged governments of OSCE participating States to carefully analyze the long‑term effects of austerity-driven budget cuts.

Since that resolution was adopted a growing chorus has emerged against austerity measures and fiscal consolidation as remedies for the economic crisis. Indeed, many international organizations – even those such as the IMF that have historically been the strongest proponents of austerity – now concede that austerity is having negative impacts on overall economic recovery and are advocating new approaches in dealing with the crisis.

A report issued by the International Monetary Fund in January 2013 concluded that the growth-dampening effects of austerity-driven spending cuts had been previously underestimated and that the IMF’s earlier prescriptions for tough austerity measures as a solution to the sovereign debt crisis are not having the desired economic effects. In the report, the IMF’s chief economist Olivier Blanchard conceded that the IMF had, in particular, underestimated the multiplier effects of the austerity measures it had urged governments to adopt. Specifically, the IMF found that every dollar that governments cut from their budgets actually reduced economic output by 1.50 USD.

The findings suggested that economies with larger planned fiscal consolidations tended to have lower economic growth and that because of the binding zero lower bound on nominal interest rates, central banks could not cut interest rates to offset the negative short-term effects of a fiscal consolidation on economic activity. Further, lower economic output and lower income, combined with a poorly functioning financial system, implied that consumption may have depended more on current than on future income, and that investment may have depended more on current than on future profits, with both effects leading to larger multipliers.

Speaking at the “Social Care in Times of Crisis” event in Brussels on Nov. 15, 2012, the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion László Andor conceded that austerity and fiscal consolidation alone could not solve the economic crisis. Rather than focusing solely on austerity, he said, governments need to seek new paths to growth particularly by improving governance, increasing co-ordination and growing competitiveness, as well as by improving innovation in the area of social policies.

In this respect, Andor emphasized that austerity measures and longer-term consolidation efforts must be combined with comprehensive and ambitious social policy agendas for sustainable and comprehensive growth, as well as with concrete guidance for the modernization of Europe’s welfare systems.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s latest Economic Outlook Report, released Nov. 27, 2012, concluded that the global economy is once again in decline, identifying several causes for the diminished outlook, including a significant drop in confidence, simultaneous fiscal consolidation across countries, as well as contracted global trade.

High unemployment is depressing confidence and spending, the OECD noted, and the lack of confidence largely reflects insufficient or ineffective policy responses, both in terms of inadequate short-term action and a lack of credible long-term strategies. “This, in turn, seems to be determined not so much by a lack of understanding of the policy requirements,” according to the OECD analysis, “but rather by failure to reach consensus on the policy response.” In particular, the OECD noted that “fiscal consolidation, while necessary, has affected growth.”

The annual UN report, World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) 2013, released on Jan. 17, concluded that the euro area is in recession and projected that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the region is expected to reach only 0.3 percent in 2013. This growth could strengthen marginally to 1.4 percent in 2014, but the euro area sovereign debt crisis and attendant fiscal austerity programs are nevertheless continuing to depress growth in the region.

The WESP report warned that the current economic policies of Western European governments are failing to address key short-term issues of restoring growth in the region or how to put the crisis countries on a firmer footing to promote fiscal sustainability. At least five economies are now in recession, the WESP concluded, with Italy’s GDP expected to decline by 2.4 percent in 2012 and 0.3 percent in 2013 and Spain’s by 1.6 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively. The other countries in recession are Cyprus, Greece and Portugal, with poor prospects going forward. The WESP warned that the sovereign debt crisis could erupt this year, impacting on bank solvency and depressing confidence, and forcing governments to make up for growth shortfalls by introducing new austerity measures.

Noting that consumption levels are expected to remain weak in the outlook, the WESP points out that austerity programs are compounding the problem by reducing consumer confidence and depressing consumption. Further, the unemployment rate in the euro area climbed to 11.6 percent in September (up 1.3 percentage points from one year ago), with significant regional differences. Countries undergoing austerity have some of the highest unemployment rates, with Spain and Greece suffering unemployment levels above 25 per cent and Portugal at 15.7 percent.

The UN has also warned that austerity is leading to diminished respect for human rights.

In an address to the UN General Assembly on Oct. 23, 2012, the Chairperson of the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Ariranga Govindasamy Pillay, noted that harsh austerity measures may be violating Member States’ legal obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. “All States Parties should avoid at all times taking decisions which lead to the denial or infringement of economic, social and cultural rights,” Pillay said.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay also weighed in on the austerity question, with particular focus on the effects on migrants, refugees and minorities, as well as on governments’ responses to widespread protests against austerity. Speaking on Oct. 18, the High Commissioner said that while governments “may be compelled to take decisive action to improve their economic situation,” they should not do so at the expense of “the hard-won rights of their populations, and in particular those of the most vulnerable, including minorities, migrants and the poorest sectors of society who were already struggling to make ends meet.”

Austerity must respect the principle of equality, avoid discrimination, and be accompanied by measures to mitigate the effect of the crisis on the most vulnerable, Pillay said. She expressed concern that the debate about migrants, refugees and minorities “may lead to further discrimination and marginalization as dominant groups look to secure their own futures and search for scapegoats.” Further, she noted that in some countries social tensions inflamed by the economic crisis have led to violent attacks on migrants, and that the police have responded excessively to demonstrations against austerity measures.

As the U.S. prepares to embark on its own trial with austerity, it should bear in mind these conclusions that have been so painfully reached by the international community in response to the last several years of European austerity.

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