Archive | December 2014

U.S. diplomacy with Cuba positive step, but embargo still breaches international law

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The restoring of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba is an historic and positive development, but with its economic blockade still in place against the island nation, the U.S. remains in violation of international law, as expressed 23 years in a row by nearly unanimous United Nations General Assembly votes against the embargo.

Most recently, on Oct. 28, the General Assembly adopted a resolution – as it has done every year since 1991 – calling for an end to the United States economic, commercial and financial embargo on Cuba. With only the United States and Israel voting against, and three small island states abstaining, a whopping 188 UN Member States voted in favor of ending the embargo. Few other issues on earth receive such universal support.

According to the text, the UN reiterated its call upon countries to refrain from applying laws and regulations, such as the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which impact the sovereignty of other nations, the legitimate interests of entities or persons under their jurisdiction and the freedom of trade and navigation.

Recalling its 22 previous resolutions on the subject, the UN expressed concern that since the adoption of those resolutions, “further measures of that nature aimed at strengthening and extending the economic, commercial and financial embargo against Cuba continue to be promulgated and applied, and concerned also about the adverse effects of such measures on the Cuban people and on Cuban nationals living in other countries.”

It once again urged nations that have applied such laws to repeal or invalidate them as soon as possible, in line with their obligations under the United Nations Charter and international law.

In a press release following the adoption of this resolution, the UN noted:

In recent times, the blockade imposed by the United States against Cuba had been tightened, and its extraterritorial implementation had also been strengthened through the imposition of unprecedented fines, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Cuba told the Assembly as he introduced the draft resolution. The accumulated economic damages of the blockade totalled $1.1 trillion, based on the price of gold.

Wednesday’s announcement about the change in U.S. policy was lauded around the world, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcoming the “very important step” taken by the leaders of the United States and Cuba towards normalizing relations.

“This news is very positive,” Ban said. “I’d like to thank President Barack Obama of the United States and President Raúl Castro for taking this very important step towards normalizing relations.”

The Secretary General of the Organization of American States, José Miguel Insulza, also welcomed the announcement, congratulating Obama “for having taken these historic steps, as necessary as they are courageous, to restore diplomatic relations broken off in 1961.”

He added that “the measures announced today open a path to normalization from which there is no return,” and urged the United States Congress to “take the necessary legislative measures to lift the embargo against Cuba, which remains in force.”

“President Obama has been clear about the need to change a policy that produced neither benefits nor results for 50 years, and only complicated the lives of millions of citizens. We hope that Congress understands this as well,” Insulza said.

Although the U.S. Constitution gives considerable latitude to the president in making foreign policy, which Obama exercised in a big way in moving to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, lifting the embargo would require legislative action by Congress.

As Obama indicated in his remarks announcing the policy on Wednesday, he has taken virtually all steps that he can take as president to change U.S. policy towards Cuba, short of lifting the economic blockade.

“The embargo,” he said, “that’s been imposed for decades is now codified in legislation. As these changes unfold, I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.”

To add your name to an Avaaz petition calling on Congress to lift the embargo, click here.

A cacophony of demands for accountability follows long-delayed release of CIA ‘torture report’

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From the United Nations and the European Union to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to the governments of China and Afghanistan, voices are being raised around the world demanding accountability in response to the long-delayed release of the U.S. Senate’s CIA torture report.

The report’s 500-page executive summary — the full 6,000 pages are still classified — details gruesome techniques used against prisoners detained for suspected ties to terrorism, including practices such as near drowning, forcing detainees to stand on broken legs, threatening to kill or rape detainees’ family members, forced “rectal feeding” and “rectal hydration,” and disturbing details on a medieval “black site” prison in Afghanistan known as the Salt Pit, where at least one detainee froze to death.

hoodedprisonersThe brutal interrogation sessions lasted in many cases non-stop for days or weeks at a time, leading to effects such as “hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm and self-mutilation,” and produced little to no useful information – raising serious questions about whether the torturers were motivated by genuine intelligence-gathering concerns or were simply acting out of sadism and cruelty.

While some voices being raised, such as those of the UN and Amnesty International, have been explicit in their calls for criminal prosecutions of the architects of the torture policies detailed in the report, others such as the EU and the governments of U.S. allies such as Great Britain are a bit more muted and conciliatory to the U.S. government.

Nevertheless, virtually all are unequivocally condemning the U.S. regime of enforced disappearances, extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention and torture that has defined U.S. counter-terrorism policies since Sept. 11, 2001.

Some of the strongest words have come from the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism Ben Emmerson, who stated unequivocally on Tuesday that senior officials from the Bush administration who sanctioned crimes, as well as the CIA and U.S. government officials who carried them out, must be prosecuted.

In a statement issued following the release of the report, the UN rapporteur said:

It is now time to take action. The individuals responsible for the criminal conspiracy revealed in today’s report must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes.

The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorised at a high level within the US Government provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability.

International law prohibits the granting of immunities to public officials who have engaged in acts of torture. This applies not only to the actual perpetrators but also to those senior officials within the US Government who devised, planned and authorised these crimes.

He further emphasized the United States’ international obligation to criminally prosecute the architects and perpetrators of the draconian torture methods described in the report:

As a matter of international law, the US is legally obliged to bring those responsible to justice. The UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances require States to prosecute acts of torture and enforced disappearance where there is sufficient evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction. States are not free to maintain or permit impunity for these grave crimes.

It is no defence for a public official to claim that they were acting on superior orders. CIA officers who physically committed acts of torture therefore bear individual criminal responsibility for their conduct, and cannot hide behind the authorisation they were given by their superiors.

In particular, “The U.S. attorney general is under a legal duty to bring criminal charges against those responsible,” he added.

Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that it’s “crystal clear” under international law that the United States has an obligation under the UN Convention against Torture to ensure accountability.

“In all countries, if someone commits murder, they are prosecuted and jailed. If they commit rape or armed robbery, they are prosecuted and jailed. If they order, enable or commit torture — recognized as a serious international crime — they cannot simply be granted impunity because of political expediency,” he said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed hope that the torture report is the “start of a process” toward prosecutions, because the “prohibition against torture is absolute,” Ban’s spokesman said.

The UN’s calls were echoed by those of Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, who in separate statements demanded that the individuals responsible for these policies be brought to justice.

Noting that the Senate report “must not be end of story,” Amnesty International lamented that limited Justice Department investigations into CIA interrogations were ended in 2012 with no charges. “Access to justice for those who endured abuses has been systematically blocked by U.S. authorities, including on the grounds of state secrecy,” noted Amnesty.

Said Erika Guevara, Americas Director of Amnesty International:

The declassified information contained in the summary, while limited, is a reminder to the world of the utter failure of the USA to end the impunity enjoyed by those who authorized and used torture and other ill-treatment. This is a wake-up call to the USA, they must disclose the full truth about the human rights violations, hold perpetrators accountable and ensure justice for the victims. This is not a policy nicety, it is a requirement under international law.

The ACLU’s Hini Shamsi stated:

The release of the Senate’s torture report summary is a tipping point and a reminder that the United States has never fully reckoned with a past that includes waterboarding, stress positions, beatings, sleep deprivation, threats of harm to children and other family members, among many devastatingly cruel acts. Once again, Americans, all of us, have an opportunity to choose how we end this story, whether that’s responsibly, with a full return to our laws and values, or shamefully, by failing to act now that the report summary is released. A conclusion that begins to heal wounds and rebuild U.S. credibility as a defender of rights instead of a perpetrator of rights violations consists of five parts, all of which work together to ensure that our nation never tortures again.

Shamsi offered a blueprint for accountability that includes the appointment of a special prosecutor, CIA reform, apologies to victims, and full disclosure.

Human Rights Watch said that President Obama should use his last two years in office to prosecute the crimes that the report has revealed. HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth noted that “the Senate report summary should forever put to rest CIA denials that it engaged in torture, which is criminal and can never be justified.”

In an op-ed published by Reuters, Roth called out the lawyers of the Bush administration who provided legal rationales for torture, noting that “it is regrettable that those senior George W. Bush administration lawyers have escaped accountability for their complicity in torture, given their obligation as public officials and their ethical duty as lawyers to uphold the law.”

Their twisted justifications were not impartial interpretations of legal provisions but rather a judicial cover for criminality. “At minimum, they should have been disciplined for malpractice, if not prosecuted as accomplices,” wrote Roth.

He added:

Prosecution should also include the senior Bush officials who authorized torture and oversaw its use. To President Obama’s credit, he stopped the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” from the moment he took office six years ago. But he has steadfastly refused to permit a broad investigation of the use of torture after 9/11, allowing only a narrow investigation into unauthorized interrogation techniques that resulted in no prosecutions.

Unless the Senate report’s revelations lead to prosecution of officials, torture will remain a “policy option” for future presidents, noted HRW.

The group described in detail U.S. hypocrisy on the issue of torture, providing an annotated table consisting of past statements of the U.S. government condemning other governments for the very same tactics that it has defended when employed by the CIA and U.S. military.

Noting that for years the U.S. denied that these techniques constituted torture, HRW noted plainly that many clearly do. “International bodies and U.S. courts have repeatedly found that ‘waterboarding’ and other forms of mock execution by asphyxiation constitute torture and are war crimes,” the group pointed out.

Further,

Other authorized techniques, including stress positions, hooding during questioning, deprivation of light and auditory stimuli, and use of detainees’ individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress, violate the protections afforded all persons in custody – whether combatants or civilians – under the laws of armed conflict and international human rights law, and can amount to torture or “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.” Accordingly, the United Nations Committee against Torture and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture have clearly stated that these techniques are torture.

The European Union added its two cents on Wednesday saying that the Senate report “raises important questions about the violation of human rights by the U.S. authorities,” according to a statement by European Commission spokeswoman Catherine Ray. Despite the lack of accountability for these violations, Ray essentially praised President Barack Obama for ending the program in 2009 when he took office and for allowing the publication of the Senate’s findings.

“This report is a positive step in confronting publicly and critically the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation program,” she said.

EU member states “recognize President Obama’s commitment to use his authority to ensure that these methods are never used again,” she added.

Not to be outdone in this exercise in diplomatic fellatio, the United Kingdom seemed to go out of its way to downplay the seriousness of the crimes described by the Senate report. UK Prime Minister David Cameron said that “after 9/11 there were things that happened that were wrong,” when he was asked about the report.

“Those of us who want to see a safer, more secure world, who want to see this extremism defeated, we won’t succeed if we lose our moral authority, if we lose the things that make our systems work and our countries successful,” Cameron said.

The German government welcomed the report and said that “torture can never be justified.” However, Obama has clearly spoken out against torture and in favor of human rights, according to the statement.

Other governments were less kind.

Asraf Ghani, president of Afghanistan – the site of some of the most deplorable acts of torture and maltreatment detailed in the report – called the report “shocking” and said that the CIA’s brutal interrogation program “violated all accepted norms of human rights in the world.”

President Ghani, who assumed his position in September, added, “There is no justification for such acts and human torturing in the world.”

Frequent targets of U.S. criticism such as China and North Korea also weighed in, using the opportunity to point out that the U.S. is being hypocritical for highlighting their human rights abuses while whitewashing its own.

“As Human Rights Day approaches, high-profile cases of violations within American borders and by its agencies abroad are being scrutinised, especially as it pertains to be a defender of civil liberties globally,” the Chinese state-owned Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary on Tuesday.

North Korea condemned the CIA’s “inhuman torture” methods highlighted in the Senate report. Pyongyang said the revelations posed a major test to the credibility of the UN Security Council, which it accused of “shutting its eyes” to rights violations by one of its permanent members while criticizing North Korea’s rights record.

Newspapers around the world have also raised harsh objections to the U.S. torture program and its attendant impunity that has seemingly become official United States policy. As the International Business Times reported on Wednesday,

Several international media outlets covered the extensive report of the five-year Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into the harsh techniques used to interrogate terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

In Europe, columnists were angry with the U.S. for broadcasting an image of fairness and freedom while conducting torture behind the scenes. Bild, Germany’s leading tabloid, wrote that the torture report’s verdict that the CIA torture techniques ultimately didn’t work “cannot be beat for uniqueness.” Austria’s Kleine Zeitung ran a front-page photo with a superimposed headline reading “America’s Shame.”

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The IBT article continued:

In the United Kingdom, a headline in the Daily Mail summed up its reaction to the report: “A truly black day for the ‘civilized’ West.” The opinion piece said the Senate committee’s release, “demolished the boast of the world’s most powerful democracy that it inhabits a higher moral universe than the terrorists it condemns as barbarians.” …

Spain’s prominent newspaper El País led its homepage with the CIA torture report Wednesday, with multiple stories chronicling what role the Bush administration played in allowing the enhanced interrogation tactics, as well as criticism of the report from former spies. Its main headline read in Spanish: “US uncovers the dirty war of the Bush era.”…

Colombia’s El Tiempo published multiple stories about the CIA torture report, its top headline blasting “The ‘unholy’ methods of the CIA after September 11.” …

Ecuador’s El Universo focused on how the CIA misled Congress. Its top headline read, “The CIA acted ‘more brutal’ than what it told Congress, says report.” Cuba’s official Granma newspaper followed a similar path. It’s website carried the CIA story toward the bottom of its homepage with the headline: “CIA interrogations, more brutal than thought.” …

The privately owned Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm featured a report detailing the methods used by the CIA to torture prisoners, highlighting the use of diapers and anal feeding. The Israeli daily Haaretz focused its coverage on the CIA’s citation of an Israeli Supreme Court ruling to justify its legal case for torture.

whitewashSeemingly oblivious to the worldwide condemnations of the CIA’s torture program and the seriousness of the international calls for accountability and justice, President Obama used the publication of the Senate report as an opportunity to tout the virtues of the United States, and actually praised the Central Intelligence Agency for its professionalism in carrying out its responsibilities.

In a stomach-turning, hypocrisy-laden statement focused on the well-worn but highly discredited notion of “American Exceptionalism,” Obama said:

Throughout our history, the United States of America has done more than any other nation to stand up for freedom, democracy, and the inherent dignity and human rights of people around the world. As Americans, we owe a profound debt of gratitude to our fellow citizens who serve to keep us safe, among them the dedicated men and women of our intelligence community, including the Central Intelligence Agency. Since the horrific attacks of 9/11, these public servants have worked tirelessly to devastate core al Qaeda, deliver justice to Osama bin Laden, disrupt terrorist operations and thwart terrorist attacks. Solemn rows of stars on the Memorial Wall at the CIA honor those who have given their lives to protect ours. Our intelligence professionals are patriots, and we are safer because of their heroic service and sacrifices.

In the years after 9/11, with legitimate fears of further attacks and with the responsibility to prevent more catastrophic loss of life, the previous administration faced agonizing choices about how to pursue al Qaeda and prevent additional terrorist attacks against our country. As I have said before, our nation did many things right in those difficult years. At the same time, some of the actions that were taken were contrary to our values. That is why I unequivocally banned torture when I took office, because one of our most effective tools in fighting terrorism and keeping Americans safe is staying true to our ideals at home and abroad.

He went on to trumpet his own commitment to human rights in rather misleading and self-serving statements about how he supposedly ended torture and pushed for the publication of the Senate report:

I will continue to use my authority as President to make sure we never resort to those methods again.

As Commander in Chief, I have no greater responsibility than the safety and security of the American people. We will therefore continue to be relentless in our fight against al Qaeda, its affiliates and other violent extremists. We will rely on all elements of our national power, including the power and example of our founding ideals. That is why I have consistently supported the declassification of today’s report. No nation is perfect. But one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better.

These comments are almost completely false. Obama has neither used his full “authority as President to make sure we never resort to those methods again,” nor “consistently supported the declassification” of the Senate report. In fact, as many Senate Democrats have complained, he has fought tooth and nail to prevent the publication of the report, and more substantially, by blocking prosecutions of the architects and practitioners of the CIA’s torture program, he has virtually ensured that torture will remain a “policy option” for future presidents, as Human Rights Watch has warned.

Rejecting these claims as the empty platitudes and self-serving obfuscations that they are, several grassroots organizations are holding a series of nationwide demonstrations over the next week to demand accountability from the CIA, as well as its sister organization and partner in crime, the NSA.

For a full list of events, click here.

International community and civil society call for human rights accountability in USA

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On the heels of a scathing report issued by the United Nations detailing the U.S. government’s lack of compliance with its international obligations on torture, several grassroots campaigns are increasing pressure on the United States to bring its human rights practices more closely in line with international norms.

In issuing its “concluding observations” on the U.S. torture record following the periodic review of U.S. compliance last month, the United Nations Committee against Torture noted that the U.S.’s lack of a specific law at the federal level prohibiting torture is out of step with article 1 of the Convention against Torture (CAT).

The Committee also regretted that the U.S. maintains a restrictive interpretation of the provisions of the CAT, particularly regarding the concept of “prolonged mental harm” related to torture that is prohibited under the treaty. In its concluding observations, issued on November 28, “the Committee recalls that under international law, reservations that are contrary to the object and purpose of a treaty are impermissible.”

Further,

The Committee expresses its grave concern over the extraordinary rendition, secret detention and interrogation programme operated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) between 2001 and 2008, which involved numerous human rights violations, including torture, ill-treatment and enforced disappearance of persons suspected of involvement in terrorism-related crimes. While noting the content and scope of Presidential E.O. 13491, the Committee regrets the scant information provided by the State party with regard to the now shuttered network of secret detention facilities, which formed part of the high-value detainee programme publicly referred to by President Bush on 6 September 2006.

3430722_370The Committee further regretted “the lack of information provided on the practices of extraordinary rendition and enforced disappearance; and, on the extent of the CIA’s abusive interrogation techniques used on suspected terrorists, such as water-boarding.” In this regard, it noted particular interest in the long-stalled declassification process of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.

The panel called on the Obama administration to release the Senate report on CIA torture “in the most complete and comprehensible form possible.” This comes as Senate Democrats have accused the White House of trying to censor key portions.

Other issues addressed by the UN included the treatment of migrants, including children held in “prison-like detention facilities,” as well as the “widespread prevalence of sexual violence, including rape, in prisons, jails and other places of detention by staff and by other inmates.” The Committee also expressed concern over “the notable gaps in the protection of juveniles in the State party’s criminal justice system.”

Concern was also raised over the high number of preventable deaths of inmates that take place in local jails and prisons in the United States. As the Committee noted,

958 inmates died while in the custody of local jails during 2012, an 8 percent increase from the 889 deaths in 2010. During the same year State prison deaths remained stable with 3,351 reported deaths. The Committee is particularly concerned about reports of inmate deaths occurred as a result of extreme heat exposure while imprisoned in unbearably hot and poor ventilated prison facilities in Arizona, California, Florida, New York, Michigan and Texas (arts. 2, 11 and 16).

To talk more about the UN’s findings, Dr. Jens Modvig, a co-author of the report, appeared on Democracy Now this week. Among other issues, Modvig discussed the topic of police brutality in the USA and the significance of the parents of Michael Brown – the unarmed black youth gunned down by a white police officer in August – testifying to the Committee against Torture.

The Committee “takes an interest in the measures that United States has in place to control excessive use of force and police brutality,” Modvig said. “When we look at the statistics,” he pointed out, “we heard from the United States delegation that during the last five years, a little over 300 hundred cases have been criminally prosecuted of police officers.”

However,

We asked for the resource of these prosecutions but we have not received this information. So, where there’s still doubt as to whether the mechanisms to hold police officers accountable for excessive use of force, police brutality and even police shootings are probably in place. Another issue of importance is whether there is independent oversight bodies that can check up on the way that the power’s administered in the law enforcement. And also here we have some doubts whether police review boards are sufficiently independent. So, these are some of the concerns that committee has expressed vis-a-vis the United States Delegation.

In an effort to increase the level of accountability in the U.S. when it comes to widespread police violence, demonstrations have been taking place across the country, with protests picking up in recent days in response to the failure to indict a white cop in New York who choked to death an innocent black man by the name of Eric Garner last summer.

Civil rights leaders are also calling for a national march on Washington to demand that the federal government intervene in prosecutions of police officers facing criminal charges. The march will take place Saturday, Dec. 13, and the families of both Eric Garner and Michael Brown will attend, according to the Huffington Post.

“We’ll be in Washington, demanding redress,” Al Sharpton said, speaking at the headquarters of the National Action Network in Harlem. He was joined by representatives of the NAACP, the National Urban League and 14 other groups, all of whom are mobilizing for the march on Washington.

When it comes to the issue of CIA torture and the Obama administration’s official policy of impunity that shields human rights abusers from accountability, civil society groups from across the U.S. are organizing a week of grassroots action to highlight CIA crimes, as well as violations of privacy rights being carried out by the National Security Agency.

According to the call to action, “Vigils, protests, workshops, and other events will start nationwide on International Human Rights Day (December 10th) and conclude on Bill of Rights Day (December 15th).”

Events are currently planned in following cities:

— San Francisco, CA (12/15): http://on.fb.me/1yVv0mq
— Oakland, CA
— San Jose, CA (12/10): http://on.fb.me/1rW0mJs
— Berkeley, CA (12/6): http://on.fb.me/1BhbG5y
— Richmond, CA (12/8): http://on.fb.me/1yjiVDS
— Cleveland, OH
— Washington, DC (12/10): http://on.fb.me/1ysOOOg
— Chapel Hill, NC: (12/15) http://on.fb.me/1FQdujW
— Raleigh-Durham, NC:
. — 12/9: http://on.fb.me/1yjiWry
. — 12/10: http://on.fb.me/1FQcGeM
— Miami, FL

Other grassroots initiatives underway include a petition urging Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) to submit the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report to the Congressional Record. Add your name to the petition here.

Also, the Witness Against Torture campaign will gather in Washington, DC on January 11, 2015, to mark the anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo indefinite detention facility, also known as “Obama’s Forever Prison,” and the13 years of torture that have taken place there. More information here.

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