Police brutality, drone wars and international norms
The United States is coming under intense criticism for its policies on a range of issues, including drone strikes and the nationwide epidemic of police violence.
While at first glance, these issues might appear unrelated, in fact they are part and parcel of the U.S. government’s foreign and domestic policy, a generally lawless approach that has been greatly exacerbated by a decade-plus of the war on terror.
The violence perpetrated by the U.S. military on a global scale since 2001 is now increasingly being employed by security forces domestically, and the impunity that high-ranking U.S. officials have long enjoyed is now trickling down to the street level at home.
As a 2007 report prepared for the United Nations Human Rights Committee stated, the war on terror has “created a generalized climate of impunity for law enforcement officers, and contributed to the erosion of what few accountability mechanisms exist for civilian control over law enforcement agencies. As a result, police brutality and abuse persist unabated and undeterred across the country.”
“Systemic abuse of people of color by law enforcement officers has not only continued since 2001,” the report noted, “but has worsened in both practice and severity. According to a representative of the NAACP, ‘the degree to which police brutality occurs…is the worst I’ve seen in 50 years.’”
Even establishment publications such as the Wall Street Journal have noticed the troubling trend of rising police violence and its relationship to the war on terror, dubbing the new breed of U.S. police officers “the warrior cop.” As a feature article in WSJ put it in August 2013,
Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop—armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.
As the problem of police brutality and the lack of accountability continues to intensify, so too does popular resistance. A recent film produced by the U.S.-based Liberation News documents the budding grassroots movement against police violence in California and across the country, with heart-wrenching stories of innocent people routinely shot down by rogue cops who rarely if ever face justice for their crimes.
Tuesday, Oct. 22, marked the 18th annual national day of action against police violence, with demonstrators in dozens of cities across the U.S. protesting what they call an “epidemic of police brutality.” While most protests were peaceful, others saw violent clashes with police.
“Police view all blacks and Latinos as criminals that are allowed to be either stopped and frisked here in New York,” a protester in New York City said. “In LA, … three or more black or brown youth standing together are considered a gang with no rights and are allowed to be rounded up.”
“Hundreds every year are killed by the police, and the majority of them are unarmed, not involved in any criminal activity when they were killed. And also the majority of them were young, and either black or Latino,” said Carl Dix, representative for the October 22 Coalition.
At the heart of the issue are the lax standards that U.S. police forces employ in determining whether to use force. Much like the loose “rules of engagement” that govern U.S. military forces abroad, domestic police appear to operate under the belief that they are allowed to harass and even shoot innocent people with impunity, all in violation of international norms.
As Article 3 of the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials puts it, police “may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.”
The commentary on Article 3 further explains:
( a ) This provision emphasizes that the use of force by law enforcement officials should be exceptional; while it implies that law enforcement officials may be authorized to use force as is reasonably necessary under the circumstances for the prevention of crime or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders, no force going beyond that may be used.
( b ) National law ordinarily restricts the use of force by law enforcement officials in accordance with a principle of proportionality. It is to be understood that such national principles of proportionality are to be respected in the interpretation of this provision. In no case should this provision be interpreted to authorize the use of force which is disproportionate to the legitimate objective to be achieved.
( c ) The use of firearms is considered an extreme measure. Every effort should be made to exclude the use of firearms, especially against children. In general, firearms should not be used except when a suspected offender offers armed resistance or otherwise jeopardizes the lives of others and less extreme measures are not sufficient to restrain or apprehend the suspected offender. In every instance in which a firearm is discharged, a report should be made promptly to the competent authorities.
Much as these international obligations on domestic police are ignored in the U.S., so too are international obligations on use of force abroad. On the same day that Americans were marching across the country to protest police violence, two leading human rights groups were issuing major new reports on the use of drone strikes abroad.
In its report on Yemen, Human Rights Watch found that U.S. drone strikes against alleged terrorists have killed civilians in violation of international law and are creating a public backlash that undermines U.S. efforts against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The 102-page report examines six U.S. targeted killings in Yemen, one from 2009 and the rest from 2012-2013. “Two of the attacks killed civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war; the others may have targeted people who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civilian deaths,” said HRW.
Amnesty International’s report finds that many questionable killings in the U.S. drone wars in Pakistan may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes. Based on interviews with 60 survivors and eyewitnesses to these strikes, “Will I be next?” documents potentially unlawful killings, and offers recommendations to the U.S. government for upholding its obligations to protect the right to life and ensure accountability for any war crimes.
In an interview on Democracy Now, the report’s author Mustafa Qadri explained Amnesty International’s determination that at least some of the drone strikes constitute war crimes.
“We’re not saying that the entire program constitutes war crimes,” Qadri said.
What we’re saying is that particularly rescuer attacks may constitute war crimes. We’re talking here, for example, some laborers in a very impoverished village near the Afghanistan border, they get targeted, eight die instantly in a tent; those who come to rescue or to look for survivors are themselves targeted. In great detail, eyewitnesses, victims who survive tell us about, you know, the terror, the panic, as drones hovered overhead. There are other cases, as well, in the report where we talk about people who have been targeted for coming to be—to rescue people also killed. Those cases may constitute war crimes.
He went on to explain that under international law, only those who are actively taking part in hostilities may be legally targeted for killing:
The law is quite technical. But basically, it could be because of a spillover of the conflict in Afghanistan, so that, for example, if you have a military commander of the Afghan Taliban, he’s in hot pursuit from Afghanistan, he slips into the border into North Waziristan, in the right conditions—there’s a whole range of requirements—that might be lawful. Alternatively, Pakistan is itself fighting a non-international armed conflict in its own borders against the local insurgency; the U.S. has killed members of that insurgency, very senior members of that. Now, that might be lawful. But again, there are very strict requirements that have to be satisfied. One of the requirements is not that a person who is a militant is lawfully—can be lawfully killed. It’s not enough that a person is militant to say that it’s OK to kill them. They have to be taking active part in hostilities to be lawfully targeted.
Following the report’s release, Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesman Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry called it very timely and noted that its conclusions were essentially the same as what Pakistan has been saying for years.
Speaking to Geo News, Chaudhry said that it was being internationally recognized that the results of drone attacks have been counterproductive, a point that Malala Yousafzai, the Pakastani girl who was shot in the head on her school bus by Taliban gunmen for criticizing their rule, also made with President Obama during a meeting in the Oval Office on October 11.
“I thanked President Obama for the United States’ work in supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees,” she said after the meeting. “I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.”
Days after Malala’s remarks, a report was issued by United Nations Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns, which warned that the secretive drone program threatens international security due to a “lack of appropriate transparency and accountability.”
The report on ‘Extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions,’ also warns that so-called ‘signature strikes,’ based upon limited information regarding targets’ vague behavior patterns, are “clearly unlawful,” and condemns the practice of follow-up attacks on rescuers (so-called “double taps”) as a “war crime.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif added his voice to the growing international pressure on October 23 by calling on Barack Obama to end all strikes in his country. At the end of a visit to the White House, Sharif told reporters that he had “emphasized the need to end such strikes,” which are estimated to have killed between 2,525 and 3,613 people in Pakistan since 2004.
But even as international pressure grows on the United States to rein in its unlawful drone killings abroad, the U.S. is expanding the use of drone technology at home. In June, FBI Director Robert Mueller acknowledged to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the bureau uses unmanned drones for surveillance on U.S. soil. He added that such drone use is done in a “very, very minimal way, and very seldom.”
The ACLU, however, notes that “U.S. law enforcement is greatly expanding its use of domestic drones for surveillance” and says that “rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a ‘surveillance society’ in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the government.”
Drone manufacturers are also offering police the option of arming these flying robots with weapons like rubber bullets, Tasers, and tear gas, notes the ACLU. The group warns that drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.
Further, “domestic drones should not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons,” says the ACLU.
Considering the growing proclivity of U.S. police forces to engage in lethal force against civilians at home, and the U.S. military’s troubling track record abroad, it could be said that the ACLU’s mild admonitions could be considered understated at best.
The violence and impunity with which security forces operate are a clear danger to society both within the United States and overseas. Adding domestic drones to the arsenal of local police weapons is only inviting further tragedy.
Indeed, unless the American people and the world community begin to demand that the U.S. abides by the international norms that it demands of “rogue states” such as Syria or Iran, the United States will likely continue its slide into an authoritarian country in which human rights are cast aside as an irrelevant nuisance.