Archive | April 2014

Obama rejects growing international concern over drones, unleashes carnage in Yemen

Anti-drone graffiti in Yemen

Anti-drone graffiti in Yemen

Despite a recent flurry of international criticism of the U.S. drone assassination program and some tentative domestic attempts to force more transparency regarding the program, no significant policy changes are being made to bring drone strikes in line with U.S. and international law. In fact, the Obama administration seems intent on demonstrating its continued obstinacy by intensifying the use of killer drones in counter-terrorist operations in Yemen, killing scores of people recently in the bloodiest spate of strikes since March 2012.

As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported on April 22,

The Yemeni Ministry of Interior said air strikes had killed dozens of suspected al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants, including several allegedly high-ranking militants.

‘The security authorities stated that the air strikes, which lasted for several hours, killed around 55 terrorists from [AQAP], including three movement leaders,’ the interior ministry said. Unnamed US officials told the New York Times CIA drones were used in the airstrikes.

But as Rooj Alwazir of the Support Yemen media collective pointed out, there is no way of really knowing how many of the victims obliterated by U.S. drones were actually militants and how many were innocent civilians.

The Yemeni government “is saying pretty much what the US government wants to hear, which is that 55 militants were killed over the weekend in southern province of Yemen,” said Alwazir on the Unauthorized Disclosure podcast.

What you’re not hearing is that included in these 55 are civilians. What you’re not hearing are the names of people who were killed. The Ministry of Interior in particular has come out and claimed that the strike in al Bayda, south of the Yemeni capital, killed ten militants and he actually for the first time acknowledged three civilians were killed. In al Marib and al Shabwah they claimed that over 23-30 militants were killed. When asked who they were, when asked who their names were and if any investigations have happened, they don’t comment. They’re still saying that they are doing DNA tests and etc.

What’s interesting about these particular air strikes that happened over the weekend is that this is the first time that we actually saw special operations on the ground, meaning when air strikes had happened in the past in Yemen air strikes are usually just laying there. No investigations are happening ever. This is the first time where the military came after the air strikes and picked up the dead bodies. So this is what’s really getting us activists and journalists, etc, people we question what happened this time around.

Yemeni human rights researcher Baraa Shiban noted that “the Yemeni government has not provided any names, or at least any names even to the public, to show that those people who are targeted in those drone strikes are an imminent threat to the security of the country.”

He said that neither the United States nor the Yemeni government knows who they are killing in these attacks. “These drone strikes and the drone programs inside Yemen violate both the Yemeni constitution and the international law,” he pointed out.

An April 21 BIJ report provided some detail on confirmed civilian casualties in the recent Yemeni attacks:

Multiple sources including military officials and eyewitnesses described how a US drone attacked a truck that was carrying alleged members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and also hit a vehicle carrying civilians. At least 10 – and possibly as many as 21 – were reportedly killed in the attack, including at least three civilians. They were described as ‘construction workers‘ or ‘labourers’ by some reports.

This is the highest death toll of any confirmed drone strike in Yemen so far this year.

Cautious attempts at forcing more transparency and disclosure from the White House on these matters have recently been abandoned by the U.S. Congress, which apparently has caved to pressure from the military and intelligence establishment.

“At the behest of the director of national intelligence,” the Guardian reported on Monday, “U.S. senators have removed a provision from a major intelligence bill that would require the president to publicly disclose information about drone strikes and their victims.”

When it passed out of the Senate intelligence committee in November, the bill originally required the president to issue an annual public report clarifying the total number of “combatants” and “noncombatant civilians” killed or injured by drone strikes in the previous year.

But after receiving a letter from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who assured them that the Obama administration was seeking its own ways to increase transparency about its highly controversial drone strikes, Senate leaders meekly removed the language as they prepare to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. The senators evidently took Clapper’s word, despite the fact that he is a known perjurer who has been caught lying to Congress in relation to NSA surveillance activities.

The fresh carnage in Yemen was unleashed in spite of a number of recent attempts by the international community to rein in the lawless U.S. drone assassination program, obviously to no avail.

For example, in a report issued February 28 by Ben Emmerson, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, the U.S. was urged to ensure that “any measures taken to counter terrorism, including the use of remotely piloted aircraft, comply with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, in particular the principles of precaution, distinction and proportionality.”

The Special Rapporteur also urged the U.S. to ensure that, “in any case in which there is a plausible indication from any apparently reliable source that civilians have been killed or injured in a counter-terrorism operation, including through the use of remotely piloted aircraft, the relevant authorities conduct a prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry, and provide a detailed public explanation.”

Needless to say, this recommended inquiry is not taking place in relation to the civilians recently incinerated by U.S. drones in Yemen.

Another UN report, issued by the UN Human Rights Committee in late March, expressed grave concern about the U.S.’s practice of targeted killings by drones, particularly “the lack of transparency regarding the criteria for drone strikes, including the legal justification for specific attacks, and the lack of accountability for the loss of life resulting from such attacks.”

According to the Human Rights Committee’s concluding observations on the United States’ periodic review on its compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,

The Committee remains concerned about the State party’s very broad approach to the definition and geographical scope of “armed conflict”, including the end of hostilities, the unclear interpretation of what constitutes an “imminent threat”, who is a combatant or a civilian taking direct part in hostilities, the unclear position on the nexus that should exist between any particular use of lethal force and any specific theatre of hostilities, as well as the precautionary measures taken to avoid civilian casualties in practice (arts. 2, 6 and 14).

Due to these concerns, the UN Committee urged the U.S. to “revisit its position regarding legal justifications for the use of deadly force through drone attacks.”

In particular, it should:

(a)          Ensure that any use of armed drones complies fully with its obligations under article 6 of the Covenant, including, in particular, with respect to the principles of precaution, distinction and proportionality in the context of an armed conflict;

(b)          Subject to operational security, disclose the criteria for drone strikes, including the legal basis for specific attacks, the process of target identification and the circumstances in which drones are used;

(c)           Provide for independent supervision and oversight of the specific implementation of regulations governing the use of drone strikes;

(d)          In armed conflict situations, take all feasible measures to ensure the protection of civilians in specific drone attacks and to track and assess civilian casualties, as well as all necessary precautionary measures in order to avoid such casualties;

(e)          Conduct independent, impartial, prompt and effective investigations of allegations of violations of the right to life and bring to justice those responsible;

(f)           Provide victims or their families with an effective remedy where there has been a violation, including adequate compensation, and establish accountability mechanisms for victims of allegedly unlawful drone attacks who are not compensated by their home governments.

On the domestic front, a U.S. court has ordered the release of key portions of a classified Justice Department memorandum that provided the legal justification for the targeted killing of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki. U.S. intelligence officials contend al-Awlaki had joined Al Qaeda and Obama ordered his assassination without trial in a September 2011 drone strike in Yemen. Two weeks later, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, another U.S. citizen was assassinated in a separate strike.

As the ACLU explained the April 21 opinion,

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit roundly rejected the government’s extreme claims of official secrecy over information about the program. In ordering the release of a 2010 legal memorandum by the Office of Legal Counsel analyzing the potential targeted killing of an American citizen, as well as other information about records the government has previously refused to describe at all, the Second Circuit became the first court to order the release of a document related to the government’s targeted killing program. It also became the second federal appeals court in the last 13 months to hold that the government has pushed its secrecy claims surrounding the targeted killing program past their breaking point.

In today’s opinion, the Second Circuit panel held that the government’s repeated public assurances that the targeted killing program is lawful, and its disclosure of a “white paper” that summarized its legal conclusions, had waived its right under the Freedom of Information Act to keep secret its legal analysis authorizing the killing of U.S. citizens. This is a victory for common sense, and a reminder that the courts have an important role to play in scrutinizing government claims about national security.

Also somewhat promising in terms of increasing transparency over these strikes is the fact that more and more individuals – including a number of drone operators themselves – are stepping forward to reveal their inside knowledge about this controversial program. As Heather Linebaugh, a former drone operator, recently wrote in the Guardian,

What the public needs to understand is that the video provided by a drone is not usually clear enough to detect someone carrying a weapon, even on a crystal-clear day with limited cloud and perfect light. This makes it incredibly difficult for the best analysts to identify if someone has weapons for sure. One example comes to mind: “The feed is so pixelated, what if it’s a shovel, and not a weapon?” I felt this confusion constantly, as did my fellow UAV analysts. We always wonder if we killed the right people, if we endangered the wrong people, if we destroyed an innocent civilian’s life all because of a bad image or angle.

She also discussed the heavy emotional toll of launching missiles and ending human lives on a daily basis, even when operating the drones from thousands of miles away:

I know the feeling you experience when you see someone die. Horrifying barely covers it. And when you are exposed to it over and over again it becomes like a small video, embedded in your head, forever on repeat, causing psychological pain and suffering that many people will hopefully never experience. UAV troops are victim to not only the haunting memories of this work that they carry with them, but also the guilt of always being a little unsure of how accurate their confirmations of weapons or identification of hostile individuals were.

As the Obama administration continues to ignore the pleas from the international community to rethink the lawless approach to drone strikes, these haunting memories will only continue to grow for the drone operators like Heather Linebaugh tasked with deciding whether to end someone’s life based on grainy, pixelated images.

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DOJ report on Albuquerque police brutality a halting step towards accountability

Protest in Albuquerque against the March 16 police shooting of homeless man James Boyd

Protest in Albuquerque against the March 16 police shooting of homeless man James Boyd

Following a wide-ranging investigation of the Albuquerque Police Department (APD), the U.S. Justice Department said last Thursday that the APD has for years engaged in a pattern of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law.

The investigation, launched in November 2012, examined whether APD engages in an unconstitutional pattern or practice of excessive force, including deadly force, specifically identifying three general patterns of police abuse:

  • APD officers too frequently use deadly force against people who pose a minimal threat and in situations where the conduct of the officers heightens the danger and contributes to the need to use force;
  • APD officers use less lethal force, including tasers, on people who are passively resisting, non-threatening, observably unable to comply with orders or pose only a minimal threat to the officers; and
  • Encounters between APD officers and persons with mental illness and in crisis too frequently result in a use of force or a higher level of force than necessary.

The DOJ’s findings come on the heels of the recent police murder of a homeless man that has sparked a wave of demonstrations in Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city.

APD officers gunned down 38-year-old James Boyd on March 16 in the Sandia foothills following a standoff and after he allegedly threatened officers with a small knife, authorities said. But a helmet-camera video showed Boyd agreeing to walk down the mountain with them, gathering his things and taking a step toward officers just before they fired.

“It’s a tremendous injustice,” said community leader Ralph Arellanes of the shooting. “This was something that caught the attention of the world.”

Indeed, the world has been taking notice, not just of this particular incident, but in general the ongoing epidemic of police violence and the criminalization of homeless people in the United States.

Just last month, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a scathing report documenting serious human rights abuses in the United States, including the nationwide problem of police brutality, in particular against people of color and the homeless.

In a section called “Criminalization of homelessness,” the Human Rights Committee expressed concern about reports of “criminalization of people living on the street for everyday activities such as eating, sleeping, sitting in particular areas etc.”

The Committee noted that such criminalization raises concerns of discrimination and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment under articles 2, 7, 9, 17,and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and urged the U.S. to “abolish criminalization of homelessness laws and policies at state and local levels.”

In another section on “Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials,” the Human Rights Committee found that across the country, there is an unacceptably “high number of fatal shootings by certain police forces, including, for instance, in Chicago, and reports of excessive use of force by certain law enforcement officers including the deadly use of tasers, which have a disparate impact on African Americans.”

In order to bring its practices in line with international norms on law enforcement, the UN recommended that the U.S. government should:

(a) step up its efforts to prevent the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers by ensuring compliance with the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers; (b) ensure that the new CBP directive on use of deadly force is applied and enforced in practice; and (c) improve reporting of excessive use of force violations and ensure that reported cases of excessive use of force are effectively investigated, alleged perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions, that investigations are re-opened when new evidence becomes available, and that victims or their families are provided with adequate compensation.

The Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers that the Human Rights Committee referenced contains a number of guidelines that the U.S. would do well to implement in the interest of avoiding the unnecessary killings of civilians by police. For example,

Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.

5. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall:

(a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved;

(b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life;

(c) Ensure that assistance and medical aid are rendered to any injured or affected persons at the earliest possible moment;

(d) Ensure that relatives or close friends of the injured or affected person are notified at the earliest possible moment.

When tragedies do occur and police unnecessarily kill innocent people, the UN Basic Principles call for governments to “ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law.”

This is one area that is sorely lacking in the United States, with a general climate of impunity across the country for killer cops.

As a 2007 report prepared for the UN 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, 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.

In this context, while the new Justice Department report issued last week is certainly a welcome step towards some accountability, the fact is, much more is needed to bring U.S. police departments in line with international norms on law enforcement. A more comprehensive effort – including federal prosecutions of rogue cops – may be necessary if the United States is to bring itself into compliance with international policing norms.

Time for an international tribunal on CIA torture

anti-torture-protest-006

Thanks to a number of intrepid journalists working to learn the details of the still-classified 6,300-page report on the CIA’s torture and rendition program, we now know that the human rights abuses committed in the war on terror have included clear-cut cases of law-breaking, even going beyond the overly permissive interrogation guidelines of the Bush White House and Justice Department.

As Jason Leopold reported yesterday at Al Jazeera America,

According to the Senate report, Al Jazeera’s sources said, a majority of the more than 100 detainees held in CIA custody were detained in secret prisons in Afghanistan and Morocco, where they were subject to torture methods not sanctioned by the Justice Department. Those methods are recalled by the report in vivid narratives lifted from daily logs of the detention and interrogation of about 34 high-value prisoners. The report allegedly notes that about 85 detainees deemed low-value passed through the black sites and were later dumped at Guantánamo or handed off to foreign intelligence services. More than 10 of those handed over to foreign intelligence agencies “to face terrorism charges” are now “unaccounted for” and presumed dead, the U.S. officials said.

To be clear, what we are talking about here are not policy disputes, but unambiguous incidents of abduction, torture, forced disappearances and homicide. It has long been apparent that these actions have been conducted in violation of international law, but what is new about the revelations coming to light from the Senate torture report is that the harsh interrogation techniques used by the CIA have gone well beyond what was sanctioned by the Justice Department.

This is significant because for years, the justification that the Obama administration has used in avoiding criminal prosecutions of CIA officers implicated in torture is that they were operating under legal guidelines provided by the Department of Justice and White House Office of Legal Counsel.

As president-elect Obama indicated just before taking office in 2009, there should be prosecutions if “somebody has blatantly broken the law” but that in general, the CIA should have no fear of “looking over their shoulders and lawyering up.”

Speaking on ABC’s This Week on Jan. 11, 2009, he said:

We’re still evaluating how we’re going to approach the whole issue of interrogations, detentions, and so forth. And obviously we’re going to look at past practices. And I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards. And part of my job is to make sure that for example at the CIA, you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders and lawyering up. …

[W]e have not made any final decisions but my instinct is for us to focus on how do we make sure that moving forward, we are doing the right thing. That doesn’t mean that if somebody has blatantly broken the law, that they are above the law. But my orientation’s going to be to move forward.

The Bush administration had authorized interrogation tactics like waterboarding that likely went beyond what is permitted under federal laws and international treaties, but the defenders of the torture program had always said their actions were legal under a president’s wartime powers.

Now, however, that we know that the torture and abductions went beyond the legal guidelines offered to provide CIA officers with “the color of law” in carrying out their brutal interrogations, this argument no longer holds water. But rather than following up on his earlier pledges to hold those accountable who had “blatantly broken the law,” Obama is now obliquely implying that there will likely be no prosecutions for blatant law-breaking.

In a statement regarding the controversy, Obama said on March 12:

The first day I came into office, I ended the practices that are subject to the investigation by the Senate committee, and have been very clear that I believed they were contrary to our values as a country. Since that time, we have worked with the Senate committee so that the report that they are putting forward is well informed and what I have said is that I am absolutely committed to declassifying that report as soon as the report is completed. In fact, I would urge them to go ahead and complete the report and send it to us and we will declassify those findings so that the American people can understand what happened in the past and that can help guide us as we move forward.

With respect to the issues that are going back and forth between the Senate committee and the CIA, John Brennan has referred them to the appropriate authorities and they are looking into it and that’s not something that is an appropriate role for me and the White House to wade into at this point. But the one thing that I want to emphasize is that the substantive issue, which is how do we operate even when we are threatened, even when even gone through extraordinary trauma has to be consistent with the rule of law and our values. And I acted on that on the first day and that hasn’t changed.

What is conspicuously absent from that statement is any indication that prosecutions may ensue for the violations of the law that we now know have occurred.

For this reason, it is becoming painfully obvious that the only possibility for accountability may be an international tribunal to take the lead in prosecuting these crimes.

It should be pointed out that there is a legally binding obligation under the Convention Against Torture to “take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction” and to “make these offences punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature.”

This provision recognizes that it is only in a climate of impunity – such as the climate that currently exists in the United States – that the crime of torture is able to take place.

In order to prevent this climate of impunity from being institutionalized, under the terms of the Convention (which the U.S. has ratified), a state party that is not fulfilling its obligations to prosecute torture may be referred to a committee to adjudicate the matter.

It’s time for this adjudication to take place. If it doesn’t, CIA criminality and impunity will become even further entrenched, with ominous implications for the whole world.

Senate vote on torture report spurs renewed calls for accountability

torture_policy

Last week’s vote by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to declassify part of a 6,300-page report on the CIA’s rendition and torture program is being hailed by some as an important step towards greater transparency, yet criticized by others as a rather meaningless gesture that will ultimately continue to provide CIA torturers with the impunity that they have long enjoyed.

Meg Satterthwaite, writing at Just Security, called the vote “a crucial milestone in the quest for transparency concerning U.S. extraordinary rendition and torture.” Blogger Marcy Wheeler, however, noted that the SSCI did not vote to declassify the whole report, but just certain sections including the executive summary and conclusions:

What we’re going to get will be the Executive Summary, Findings, and Additional and Dissenting Views. Because we’ll get just the Executive Summary, we won’t get much hard detail — aside from that which has been public for years — about the allegations that will appear in the Executive Summary, which will make it harder to rebut any claims CIA’s defenders make.

And this is assuming that even these sections are released in their entirety. After all, the SSCI did not actually declassify anything; it simply voted to send the report to the CIA for redactions and then to the president for declassification review and possible eventual public release. Until the declassification process is complete and that portion of the report is released (which could take months or even years), it will remain under wraps.

With these concerns in mind, a coalition of human rights groups sent a letter to the White House calling for President Obama’s staff to expeditiously lead the declassification of the report, rather than leaving it to the CIA. The groups welcomed CIA Director John Brennan’s pledge “not … to stand in the way” of the report’s release, but noted that the agency has an inherent conflict of interest that cannot be ignored.

“The recent allegations that the CIA searched computers made available to the SSCI, removed documents from them, triggered potential criminal proceedings against congressional staff and took other troubling steps make this inherent conflict of interest very vivid,” the letter says.

This conflict of interest is even more vivid considering that what is at stake is not simply a policy dispute, but legal issues as well. As media reports based on leaked sections of the report have indicated, CIA agents had illegally detained 26 of the 119 individuals in CIA custody, and the interrogation techniques used on detainees went beyond the methods that had been approved by the Bush Justice Department or CIA’s headquarters (guidelines that were likely overly permissive in the first place).

Also at issue are potential crimes committed including murder and obstruction of justice. As McClatchy reported on April 1, “In the case of the death of Gul Rahman, an Afghan who was shackled, doused with cold water and left in a cold cell partially clothed until he died of hypothermia, the CIA’s internal documents reviewed by the Senate confirm the agency’s culpability.”

A Department of Justice inquiry concluded in August 2012 that there was insufficient evidence to push for the prosecution of individuals in Rahman’s death. As Attorney General Eric Holder said at the time, “Based on the fully developed factual record … the Department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Amnesty International criticized this decision in its annual report on the USA, saying that in 2012:

The absence of accountability for crimes under international law committed under the administration of President George W. Bush in relation to the CIA’s programme of secret detention was further entrenched.

On 30 August, the US Attorney General announced the closure of criminal investigations into the death of two individuals in US custody outside the USA. He stated that no one would face criminal charges in relation to the deaths, believed to have occurred in Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003. This followed the announcement in June 2011 that a “preliminary review” conducted into interrogations in the CIA programme was at an end and that, apart from in relation to the two deaths, further investigation was not warranted.

But according to evidence uncovered by the SSCI regarding the death of Rahman, the agency may have tried to “minimize or sanitize that case” – in other words, to obstruct justice. “The documents initially make it seem like it was an accident,” a former official told McClatchy. “However, evidence pointed to what it actually was: willful negligence or even negligent homicide.”

So, despite the fact that possible criminal charges including homicide are at stake, potentially implicating individual interrogators as well as their superiors, the CIA is being offered the opportunity to redact any sections of the executive summary that it considers too damaging. The term “conflict of interest” is probably an understatement.

As the United Nations Human Rights Committee put it in its recent report on U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,

The State party should ensure that all cases of unlawful killing, torture or other ill-treatment, unlawful detention, or enforced disappearance are effectively, independently and impartially investigated, that perpetrators, including, in particular, persons in command positions, are prosecuted and sanctioned, and that victims are provided with effective remedies. The responsibility of those who provided legal pretexts for manifestly illegal behavior should also be established. The State party should also consider the full incorporation of the doctrine of ‘command responsibility’ in its criminal law and declassify and make public the report of the Senate Special Committee on Intelligence into the CIA secret detention programme.

Or, as the Center for Constitutional Rights tweeted following the Senate vote last week, “White House must ensure that US officials responsible for torture described in #SSCI report are prosecuted & held accountable for crimes.”

Welcoming UN observations, civil society urges greater U.S. commitment to human rights

A demonstrator protests against Guantanamo Bay prison during a Stop the War rally in Trafalgar Square, central LondonFollowing last week’s release of the UN Human Rights Committee’s “concluding observations” on the compliance of the United States with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), U.S. civil society groups have urged greater commitment by the U.S. government in meeting its international obligations.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that the “scathing report” called into question the legitimacy of a wide range of current U.S. policies, including counterterrorism operations, immigrants’ rights, voting rights, and the criminal justice system.

“The committee’s recommendations highlight the gaps between U.S. human rights obligations and current laws and practices,” said ACLU Human Rights Program Director Jamil Dakwar.

“The Human Rights Committee rightly called out the United States for setting dangerous examples from counterterrorism operations to an unfair criminal justice system to inhumane treatment of migrants. President Obama now has an opportunity to reverse course and reshape his human rights legacy by taking concrete actions like declassifying the Senate report on CIA torture and ending dragnet surveillance and unlawful targeted killings,” Dakwar said.

Writing at the ACLU’s Blog of Rights, Astrid Reyes noted the extremely serious nature of the U.S.’s ICCPR violations:

The committee condemned the United States’ lack of accountability for disappearance, torture, and unlawful killings of terrorism suspects, and its failure to apply the ICCPR to international operations. In addition, the committee denounced racial disparities in law enforcement that have led to the incarceration of a disproportionate number of minorities (particularly Blacks and Latinos), effectively denying them basic human rights throughout the criminal justice process. This includes severe sentencing such as the death penalty and life without parole for juveniles; improper use of solitary confinement; and denial of civil rights following incarceration (most notably, the right to vote).

While the committee noted several areas where the U.S. record has improved since its last review in 2006, the Concluding Observations include important structural recommendations, such as creating an independent human rights monitoring body and expanding existing mechanisms to monitor the implementation of human rights at federal, state, local and tribal levels – providing them with adequate human and financial resources.

The U.S. Human Rights Network (USHRN), which has long been advocating for full implementation of the ICCPR at the federal, state and local levels, called the UN’s concluding observations “a strong reflection of the important work being done by human rights defenders across the country.”

“We welcome the UN Human Rights Committee’s recommendation that the U.S. ensure effective remedies for violations under the ICCPR and to take steps to bring U.S. domestic law in line with its human rights obligations,” said Ejim Dike, Executive Director of USHRN.

“We urge the Administration to follow up on the recommendations by the Committee which make clear that the US has significant work to do to fully comply with its human rights obligations in a broad range of issues including racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, gun violence, excessive use of force by law enforcement in communities of color and on the border, access to healthcare for immigrants, criminalization of the homeless, and forced psychiatric treatment,” she said.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) “applaud[ed] the UN and the international community for holding the US accountable to its international obligations and shedding a necessary light on areas where it is falling short,” describing the UN report as “highly critical.”

The UN’s main areas of concern, CCR noted, included:

  • the U.S. “targeted killing” program;
  • the lack of progress in the closure of Guantánamo, urging the U.S. to expedite the process of transferring detainees out of the prison, including to Yemen, and reiterating its position that the U.S. must end its practice of indefinite detention without charge or trial;
  • the secrecy and lack of accountability around Bush-era abuses, including the limited number of investigations, prosecutions and convictions of contractors and high ranking U.S. officials for killings and torture of detainees;
  • the imposition of the death penalty in a racially discriminatory manner and the conditions on death row;
  • reports of criminalization of people living on the street for everyday activities such as eating, sleeping, and sitting in particular areas, raising concerns of discrimination and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment;
  • the use of prolonged solitary confinement, particularly for at-risk people and those in pretrial detention, urging the abolition of solitary for people under 18 and for people with serious mental illness, and strict limitations on its use, overall; and
  • the targeting of Muslims by the NYPD, and racial profiling overall (while underlining its support for recent plans to reform the use of stop and frisk).

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said “the United States should heed calls issued on March 27, 2014, by an important UN human rights body to ensure that its surveillance activities are consistent with the right to privacy, both within and outside its borders.”

HRW noted that the UN Human Rights Committee’s “conclusions address a wide range of serious human rights problems in the US, but the findings on surveillance are notable, as they are the committee’s first statement on the extent to which privacy rights are affected by widespread communications surveillance.”

The committee called on the United States to comply with privacy requirements set forth in article 17 of the ICCPR, particularly to respect the right to privacy, regardless of the nationality or location of individuals being monitored. It also criticized the lack of transparency in U.S. laws, urging the United States to reform its system of oversight of surveillance to protect the rights of those affected.

“The US insists it has no international legal obligations to respect the privacy rights of foreigners outside its borders, but one of the UN’s most important human rights bodies has now made clear it disagrees,” said Andrea Prasow, HRW’s senior U.S. national security counsel. “It’s time for the U.S. to recognize that people outside the country have just as much right to have their privacy respected as those inside the US, and that any surveillance must be strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) concurred, with EFF’s International Rights Director, Katitza Rodriguez, welcoming the Committee’s observations on U.S. violations of privacy rights.  “It’s imperative the United States comply with its human rights treaty obligations, specifically Article 17 of the ICCPR, which protect the right of privacy for everyone in the same manner, within or outside US borders, regardless of nationality or place of residence,” Rodriguez said.

According to an EFF statement:

It’s very disappointing that the United States maintain its views that its human rights obligations under the ICCPR do not extend to its actions abroad, a view that defeats the object and purpose of the treaty. The Committee agreed and reiterates that the United States has an extraterritorial duty to protect human rights—including the right to privacy— to its action abroad regardless of the nationality or location of the individuals.

The Committee rightly criticized the current system of oversight for NSA surveillance activities, highlighting concern with the judicial interpretations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and secret rulings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). These secret rulings prevent individuals from knowing the law with sufficient precision. Knowledge of and clarity in the law is a crucial principle that is clearly defined in our 13 Necessary and Proportionate Principles.

The NAACP, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, applauded the concluding observations, noting that the UN report identifies issues of felony disenfranchisement, stand your ground laws, the death penalty and more.

“This report reiterated what those in the civil rights community have known for too long – the United States has more work to do to meet its human rights obligations,” stated Lorraine C. Miller, NAACP Interim President and CEO.

“From felony disenfranchisement and stand your ground laws to voter suppression and the school to prison pipeline, we are pleased the Human Rights Committee has elevated these issues on the international stage. This gives us leverage in the United States to more aggressively address these issues at home,” she said.

While the reaction to the UN report was overwhelmingly positive, the U.S. human rights community was not entirely satisfied with the concluding observations. The Center for Constitutional Rights, for example, regretted that the Human Rights Committee failed to question the U.S. government on the devastation the invasion and occupation of Iraq has brought to both Iraqi civilians and U.S. veterans.

A “shadow report” submitted by CCR to the Human Rights Committee, entitled “US Veterans and Iraqi Organizations Seek Accountability for Human Rights Crisis Resulting from a Decade of US-Led War,” noted “the lack of any recognition whatsoever by the US government of the disastrous and tragic consequences” caused by the war against Iraq.

“Despite having waged an illegal war based on false justifications, no civilian or military official has been investigated or held accountable for their role in fabricating the justification to go to war in Iraq. In fact, the current administration recently argued in a legal case brought by victims of the Iraq war that officials responsible for planning and waging the war in violation of international law should be afforded immunity and shielded from suit,” CCR noted in its shadow report.

The full concluding observations of the UN Human Rights Committee are available here. For more information about U.S. obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, see the ACLU’s FAQ page.

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