In speech dripping with hypocrisy, Obama touts U.S. leadership on international norms

As this blog has demonstrated for more than three years, the United States is probably the world’s leading serial violator of international norms. While other nations may have more troubling records in respecting certain aspects of these principles — such as human rights in North Korea or electoral practices in Belarus — one would be hard-pressed to find another country in the world that flouts international obligations as routinely and comprehensively as the United States.

With its indefinite detention and torture policies, its endless war on terror and drone warfare, its policies of mass suspicionless surveillance, its support for dictators around the world and its bullying of other nations, as well as domestic problems such as mass incarceration and unfair elections, the USA violates global rules in a way that only a hegemonic, technocratic superpower possibly could. It is certainly in no position to tout its adherence to international standards, nor to lecture others on the importance of such standards.

Just this past March, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a scathing report on the U.S. lack of compliance with the hallmark International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, calling 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.

Among other things, the committee criticized the United States’ climate of impunity 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 and the treatment of children as adults in the criminal justice system.

Another area of concern was U.S. violations of privacy rights. The committee highlighted the ongoing U.S. lack of compliance 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.

“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.

Despite these realities, the U.S. continues to boast of its purported leadership in the area of international norms. In a speech yesterday at West Point that was dripping with nationalist jingoism and hypocrisy, President Barack Obama criticized those who would dismiss the effectiveness of multilateral action. “For them, working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness,” Obama said. “I think they’re wrong.”

He went on to explain the importance adhering to global rules and leading by example:

You see, American influence is always stronger when we lead by example. We cannot exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else. We can’t call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if so many of our political leaders deny that it is taking place. It’s a lot harder to call on China to resolve its maritime disputes under the Law of the Sea Convention when the United States Senate has refused to ratify it – despite the repeated insistence of our top military leaders that the treaty advances our national security. That’s not leadership; that’s retreat. That’s not strength; that’s weakness. And it would be utterly foreign to leaders like Roosevelt and Truman; Eisenhower and Kennedy.

I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions. That’s why I will continue to push to close GTMO – because American values and legal traditions don’t permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders. That’s why we are putting in place new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence – because we will have fewer partners and be less effective if a perception takes hold that we are conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens. America does not simply stand for stability, or the absence of conflict, no matter what the price; we stand for the more lasting peace that can only come through opportunity and freedom for people everywhere.

The lies and half-truths Obama spouted off are maddeningly blatant. Speaking of efforts to shutter Guantanamo, for example, is particularly disingenuous considering the fact that he is four years overdue in his stated promise to have closed the prison by January 2010. With 154 prisoners languishing in Guantanamo’s cages – more than half of them cleared for release years ago – the failure to end indefinite detention policies belongs squarely with President Obama.

It was under Obama’s presidency that dozens of desperate men at Guantanamo launched a principled hunger strike more than a year ago demanding their rights. Rather than address those grievances, Obama’s policies have been to provide the men artificial sustenance through a tortuous force-feeding process that was rebuked earlier this month by federal judge Gladys Kessler who urged authorities to find a compromise that would spare a prisoner “the agony of having the feeding tubes inserted and removed for each feeding” and “the pain and discomfort of the restraint chair.”

Obama’s boasting of new policies on data collection was also disingenuous, since the new restrictions put in place earlier this year were widely considered inadequate in addressing the global privacy concerns, relying on extremely narrow definitions of what constitutes spying.

As the Washington Post reported on January 18,

President Obama said Friday, in his first major speech on electronic surveillance, that “the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security.”

Obama placed restrictions on access to domestic phone records collected by the National Security Agency, but the changes he announced will allow it to continue — or expand — the collection of personal data from billions of people around the world, Americans and foreign citizens alike.

Obama squares that circle with an unusually narrow definition of “spying.” It does not include the ingestion of tens of trillions of records about the telephone calls, e-mails, locations and relationships of people for whom there is no suspicion of relevance to any threat.

In his speech, and an accompanying policy directive, Obama described principles for “restricting the use of this information” — but not for gathering less of it.

The Post also pointed out that along with the invocation of privacy and restraint, Obama gave his plainest endorsement yet of “bulk collection,” a term he used more than once and authorized explicitly in Presidential Policy Directive 28. The directive defined the term to mean high-volume collection “without the use of discriminants.”

So, as usual when the president gives a major policy address such as yesterday’s at West Point, it is worth checking the rhetoric against the facts. The touting of international norms and U.S. leadership should be seen for what they are: empty platitudes and hypocritical bombast.

The president is right however when he says that “we cannot exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else.” It’s long past time that Obama starts recognizing those rules and applying to all U.S. policies, including ending the drone wars and the climate of impunity for torturers.


About The Compliance Campaign

Campaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: Facebook: Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at]

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