In a recent interview with Democracy Now!, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange provided an inside account of the controversial grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane by the United States in July 2013.
WikiLeaks had been providing logistical support and legal advice to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in his quest to reach Latin America for political asylum in the wake of his massive disclosures of the NSA’s bulk surveillance programs, and to keep the U.S. manhunt for Snowden off-track, was using various decoys and distractions, recounted Assange.
There was an international oil conference in Moscow at the time, Assange recalled, and because several presidential jets were departing the Russian capital at around the same time, there were discussions within the WikiLeaks organization whether to utilize one of those planes in order to ferry Snowden out. In their coded language WikiLeaks referred to Bolivia in order to confuse U.S. investigators who were hunting down Snowden (and presumably tapping WikiLeaks’ phones and reading their emails to do so).
This coded language was picked up by the U.S. intelligence community and was combined with a statement that President Morales had made publicly that was generally supportive of Snowden, and as Assange describes it, they “put two and two together and made 22.” As he told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman in an interview aired Thursday:
A number of presidential jets are flying back, and we are considering one of these. And so, we then—our code language that we used deliberately swapped the presidential jet that we were considering for the Bolivian jet. And so we just spoke about Bolivia in order to distract from the actual candidate jet. And in some of our communications, we deliberately spoke about that on open lines to lawyers in the United States. And we didn’t think much more of it. We had engaged in a number of these distraction operations in the asylum maneuver from Hong Kong, for example, booking him on flights to India through Beijing and other forms of distraction, like Iceland, for example. We didn’t think this was anything more than just distracting.
But the U.S. picked up a statement, a supportive statement made in Moscow by President Evo Morales, and appears to have picked up our codeword for the actual operation, and put two and two together and made 22, and then pressured France—successfully pressured France, Portugal and Spain to close their airspace to President Evo Morales’s jet in its flight from Moscow to the Canary Islands for refueling and then back to Bolivia. And as a result, it was forced to land in Vienna. And then, once in Vienna, there was pressure to search the plane.
Although Morales refused to let the authorities board the plane, which under international law functions as a “flying embassy” with all of the rights, privileges and immunities guaranteed by the 1961 Vienna Convention, the fact that the United States forced the plane to land at all was a serious breach of diplomatic protocol and international law, for which Washington has still refused to apologize.
It also demonstrated the intense arrogance and contempt that the United States shows to Latin America in general and the subservient nature of European countries to the superpower across the pond.
At the time, a livid Evo Morales stated that “We have had enough humiliation at the hands of the Americans,” arguing that the incident revealed a “neo-colonial” attitude to his entire continent.
“It is a crime not against Evo Morales, but against the people of South America and the Caribbean. It is utter discrimination,” he said, insisting that no head of state should be treated as a “second-rate president.”
The incident also demonstrated that despite occasional grumblings from Europe about U.S. misconduct on the world stage, Europeans will always kowtow to Washington when pressured.
Although European leaders were humiliated by the United States when it was revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks that the NSA had been tapping the telephone lines and computer networks of EU offices in Brussels, New York and Washington — as well as the governments of Germany, France, Greece, Italy and others — Europe fell into line in submitting to U.S. dictates regarding Snowden’s asylum requests, and then agreed to cooperate in the illegal grounding of Morales’ plane.
Just like forcing down the Bolivian president’s plane, the U.S. spying on diplomatic missions of the EU and European nations was a violation of the Vienna Convention which states that “the official correspondence” as well as “the premises” of diplomatic missions “shall be inviolable.”
When Snowden’s leaks revealed the NSA snooping into the emails and phone conversations of European nations, European leaders feigned outrage. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, described the disclosures of massive U.S. spying in Europe as unacceptable.
Her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said, “If it is confirmed that diplomatic representations of the European Union and individual European countries have been spied upon, we will clearly say that bugging friends is unacceptable.”
The French president, François Hollande, also called the spying intolerable.
“We cannot accept this kind of behaviour between partners and allies,” Hollande said. “We ask that this stop immediately.” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that if confirmed, the activities would be “totally unacceptable.”
Yet, when push came to shove, European leaders fell over each other to do the bidding of the United States, even when they were asked to violate international law in forcing down the plane of a sitting head of state, an act that was described at the time as “an act of air piracy and state terrorism.”
As Assange explained it on Democracy Now!:
So, it’s really a quite extraordinary situation that reveals the true nature of the relationship between Western Europe and the United States and what it claims are its values of human rights and asylum and the rights to asylum and so, and respecting the rule of law, the Vienna Convention. Just a phone call from U.S. intelligence was enough to close the airspace to a booked presidential flight, which has immunity. And they got it wrong. They spent all that political capital in demanding this urgent favor to close the airspace, which was humiliating to those Western European countries, and they got it wrong.
Assange recommends that the appropriate thing to do at this point is issue apologies all around. “The U.S. should apologize to Evo Morales, to Portugal, to Spain, to France” Assange said. “Portugal, Spain and France should apologize to Evo Morales for not following the law.”
He pointed out though that while the grounding was unfortunate for President Morales, it was a good thing to see because “it revealed the arrogance and hypocrisy of the United States in pressuring Western Europe in that way. It revealed the nature of the relationship between Western Europe and the United States.”
In a practical sense, it also led directly to Russia’s decision to grant Snowden’s asylum request. After this incident, “at a legal level, in terms of asylum law, it was very clear that there could not be a fair process,” explained Assange. Further, not only was it very clear he could not receive asylum in Western Europe, but at a political level, the Russian government had to respond.
As Assange points out, Russia couldn’t react by handing him over, because it would look “weak and unprincipled.” The only other card that Russia had was to grant him asylum.
And two years later, despite one of the largest manhunts in world history, Snowden is still living in the Russian Federation under political asylum. So, not only were the U.S. actions in summer 2013 illegal and arrogant, they were ultimately counterproductive.
Far from being the global champion of human rights that it fancies itself as, the United States is in fact a flagrant violator of international human rights standards as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other landmark human rights treaties – some of which the U.S. refuses to ratify. This was the unmistakable conclusion of the U.S.’s Universal Periodic Review for compliance on human rights norms at the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this week.
Delegates from many of the 117 countries taking part in the UPR lambasted the United States’ record of civil rights violations in the context of the nationwide epidemic of police brutality. The representative from Nambia, for example, said U.S. officials must “collaborate closely with marginalized communities to fix the broken justice system that continues to discriminate against them, despite recent waves of protest over racial profiling and police killings of unarmed black men.”
“Chad considers the United States of America to be a country of freedom, but recent events targeting black sectors of society have tarnished its image,” said Awada Angui, the delegate from that country.
The barrage of criticism led James Cadogan, senior counselor in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, to concede that the United States has a problem with police violence.
“We must rededicate ourselves to ensuring that our civil rights laws live up to their promise,” he said at the review on Monday. “The tragic deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Ohio, and Walter Scott in South Carolina have… challenged us to do better and to work harder for progress.”
But even while admitting its own shortcomings, the U.S. couldn’t resist the instinctual temptation to tout its record. As Mary McLeod, acting legal adviser to the U.S. Dept of State, put it, “We’re proud of the work we’ve done since our last UPR.”
Most UN Human Rights Council delegations and civil society observers strongly disagreed. One of the recurring themes in the interventions that took place on Monday was the U.S.’s failure to ratify a number of key human rights treaties and protocols, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, since its last periodic review in 2010. As Human Rights Watch noted,
In its 2010 review, the United States agreed to “consider” ratifying ICESCR, CEDAW, CRC, and CRPD (92.10, 92.11, 92.20, 92.21); ratifying ILO Convention Nos. 100 and 111 (92.22 and 92.26); ratifying the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (92.28); signing the Migrant Worker Treaty (92.30); lifting reservations to the ICCPR and other ratified human rights treaties (92.47, 92.48, 92.49); and establishing a national human rights institution (NHRI) at the federal level (92.74). To date, however, no new human rights treaty has been signed or ratified, no reservations, understandings or declarations have been lifted, and no NHRI established. The UPR is ineffective if limited to a conceptual exercise, and no country should claim success by accepting recommendations that require no identifiable outcomes or even proof of a deliberative process. The United States has failed to implement a number of other recommendations from its prior review. These include recommendations involving national security, criminal justice and policing, treatment of immigrants, and privacy, as detailed below, as well as overarching recommendations, such as agreeing to incorporate human rights training and education strategies in public policies (92.87). This submission also touches on issues that the United States did not address in its prior UPR but should consider in its upcoming review.
“The U.S. has little progress to show for the many commitments it made during its first Universal Periodic Review,” U.S. advocacy director at Human Rights Watch Antonio Ginatta told VOA News.
Brazil raised objections to the United States’ mass surveillance program, urging that all surveillance polices and measures comply with human rights law regardless of nationality, noting the importance of the principle of proportionality. The Brazilian delegation also criticized the U.S. record on migrant rights, and called for the elimination of police brutality.
The U.S. also heard criticism over the continued use of the death penalty.
The Belgian delegation said the U.S. should take specific measures to eliminate racial bias and wrongful convictions leading to executions. Swedish UN representative Anna Jakenberg Brinck called for a “national moratorium on the death penalty aiming at complete abolition.” Other countries, including France, pushed for “full transparency” in the types of drugs being administered to kill prisoners, following news that some death row inmates experienced inordinate pain and suffering during their executions.
The U.S.-led war on terror and the ongoing impunity related to the crimes of torture committed by the CIA were other areas of concern. One of the key demands of the UN delegations was for Washington to take measures to prevent acts of torture, to prosecute perpetrators, and to ensure that victims of torture were afforded redress and assistance.
Guantanamo was also raised, with some delegations including the United Kingdom recalling the pledge to close the prison by President Barack Obama back in January 2009 and regretting that it hasn’t happened yet. The UK called for an expedited effort to shut down the detention facility once and for all. More than 100 NGOs submitted reports on various aspects of U.S. human rights shortcomings, which are collected at the website UPR Info.
“Today was a demonstration of the no confidence vote that world opinion has made of the United States as a country that considers itself a human rights champion,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the Human Rights Program of the American Civil Liberties Union. “I think that there was a clear message from today’s review that the United States needs to do much more to protect human rights and to bring its laws and policies in line with human rights standards.”
The UPR takes place every four years to scrutinize the human and civil rights practices of each of the UN’s 193 member nations.
The United States is scheduled to undergo its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on May 11, with UN member countries raising past U.S. human rights pledges and new concerns. The review comes five years after the last U.S. UPR, and in the context of a generally deteriorating human rights situation in the United States.
Human Rights Watch noted on May 7 that in its first review in 2010, the United States accepted 171 recommendations out of 240 from other member countries. “However,” HRW stated, “the U.S. has largely failed to follow through on these recommendations.”
The rights group stressed several primary areas in which the U.S. has failed to deliver:
- Take measures to “improve living conditions through its prison system,” “increase its efforts to eliminate alleged brutality and use of excessive force by law enforcement officials” against Latinos, African Americans, and undocumented migrants, and study racial disparities in the application of the death penalty. Five years later, the US has done little on these recommendations;
- “[I]nvestigate carefully each case” involving the detention of migrants and ensure immigration detention conditions meet international standards. While UN bodies oppose all detention of immigrant children, the US has in the past year embraced the detention of immigrant children and their mothers; and
- Seek the ratification of core international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Obama administration submitted only the Disability Rights Convention to the Senate for its consent, and was unable to muster the two-thirds majority necessary for ratification.
Regarding the last point, as an outlier on these key human rights treaties, the United States now faces an even more embarrassing situation, being one of just two countries that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Earlier this week, South Sudan ratified the Convention, leaving just the United States and Somalia as the only two countries in the world not having ratified the treaty. However, the UN notes that “Somalia is in the process of finalizing the process to ratify the Convention,” which would leave the U.S. in the awkward position of being the only country in the world standing against children’s rights to health, education and freedom from discrimination.
“At the UN rights review, the US has been strong on process and short on substance,” said Antonio Ginatta, U.S. advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The U.S. has little progress to show for the many commitments it made during its first Universal Periodic Review.”
During the current UN review process, HRW has flagged concerns over mass surveillance programs, longstanding concerns over indefinite detention without trial at Guantanamo Bay, and the lack of accountability for torture under the previous administration.
In March, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Hussein said that the rights abuses permitted by the U.S. government as part of counter-terrorism activities have encouraged radical extremism, citing the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group.
The review also comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of police brutality, with six police officers just charged in Baltimore for the murder of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. Regarding privacy rights, in the context of an appeals court decision just handed down declaring the NSA phone surveillance program illegal, the U.S. could be forced to take a public stand on the legitimacy of intercepting private communications around the world.
As Sarah St. Vincent of the Center for Democracy and Technology explained,
The US has committed to upholding human rights under several treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”), the Convention against Torture, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The ICCPR, in particular, contains rights to privacy and free expression. During the session, every other UN Member State will have the right to ask the US questions about its respect for the human rights enshrined in these treaties and make recommendations as to what the country should do differently in order to comply with its obligations.
The US (represented by its Geneva diplomatic mission and other members of the executive branch) will have the opportunity to respond to these points during the session, and will also need to declare shortly afterward whether it accepts each of the recommendations. In other words, if (for example) a country recommends that the US discontinue any indiscriminate interception of private communications, the Obama administration will be required to take a public position as to whether it accepts this recommendation.
The UN established the UPR process in 2006. Countries under review submit written reports on their human rights situation and respond to the questions and recommendations put forward by UN member countries at the Human Rights Council. All 193 UN member states undergo these reviews.
The remarkable announcement last Friday by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby that she had filed charges against the six officers connected to Freddie Gray’s arrest and transport on April 12, saying they illegally arrested the 25-year-old without probable cause, then ignored his pleas for medical help, came to some as a surprise.
After similar cases had resulted in no charges nor prosecutions of police officers – such as those responsible for the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO – many seemed resigned to the reality that police in America essentially have free reign to kill with impunity, particularly when the victims are African American. Last week, Mosby proved these doubters wrong, leading to cries of jubilation from some quarters.
In announcing her decision to level 28 counts against the six police officers responsible for Gray’s death, Mosby said, “As the city’s chief prosecutor, I’ve been sworn to uphold justice and to treat every individual within the jurisdiction of Baltimore City equally and fairly under the law.”
While this statement should be considered uncontroversial to any sixth-grader learning the principle of America being “a nation of laws, not men” in civics class, the irrefutable reality of late has been the opposite – that some people are indeed above the law, in practice if not principle.
However, not everyone was equally impressed with the developments last week. Interviewing several demonstrators in Baltimore following the decision, journalist Amy Goodman found some people still expressing skepticism that the police will really face justice.
“I mean, it’s a good start,” said protester Hooley Shelone. “It’s a good start. But it’s just the beginning, you know? That’s why it’s important for us, everybody, to get out here and vote, when it’s time to vote, you know? So we can get people like the Marilyn Mosbys in office, you know what I’m saying?”
“I’m going to say like this,” added Ashton True Nichols:
It’s been times where as though people get 20 and 30 charges and might end up with one. So, what she said sounds good, but we want to see the work, because you go to court, you can have 20 charges and end up with one or end up free. So, if people on the streets do it, imagine what’s going to happen when the police is involved. Now that the police is involved and the police got to do it, you don’t think they got top-notch lawyers? A lot of them charges going to be dropped. Because I ain’t hear the right charge: first degree. They knew what they was doing. Yeah, they knew.
These anecdotal accounts are in line with general opinion, as determined by a poll released yesterday by Pew Research Center. Nearly eight-in-ten blacks (78%), Pew found, and 60% of whites said that the decision to bring charges was right, but far fewer expressed confidence that the investigations into the police will result in justice being served:
While the public generally supports the decision to charge the police officers, most Americans do not have a great deal of confidence into the ongoing investigations into Gray’s death. Just 13% say they have a great deal of confidence into the investigations while 35% say they have a fair amount of confidence. About four-in-ten (44%) have little or no confidence in the investigations. However, the share expressing confidence in the investigations rose during the latter part of the survey period: 40% expressed a great deal or fair amount of confidence on April 30, while 50% expressed at least a fair amount of confidence from May 1-3, after the charges were announced.
Despite the lingering – and understandable – skepticism, it is still significant that these charges were leveled against the six Baltimore cops. According to international norms on law enforcement, when police abuse their power and arbitrarily use excessive force, their actions must be treated as criminal offenses in the justice system, which is what Mosby has done in filing these charges.
As Mosby said in her announcement:
The findings of our comprehensive, thorough and independent investigation, coupled with the medical examiner’s determination that Mr. Gray’s death was a homicide, which we received today, has led us to believe that we have probable cause to file criminal charges. […]
While each of these officers are presumed innocent until proven guilty, we have brought the following charges:
Officer Caesar Goodson is being charged with second-degree depraved-heart murder, involuntary manslaughter, second-degree negligent assault, manslaughter by vehicle by means of gross negligence, manslaughter by vehicle by means of criminal negligence, misconduct in office for failure to secure a prisoner, failure to render aid.
Officer William Porter is being charged with involuntary manslaughter, assault in the second degree, misconduct in office.
Lieutenant Brian Rice is being charged with involuntary manslaughter, assault in the second degree, assault in the second degree, misconduct in office, false imprisonment.
Officer Edward Nero is being charged with assault in the second degree, intentional; assault in the second degree, negligent; misconduct in office; false imprisonment.
Officer Garrett Miller is being charged with intentional assault in the second degree; assault in the second degree, negligent; misconduct in office; and false imprisonment.
Sergeant Alicia White is being charged with manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office.
This development could go a long way into bringing the United States more closely in line with global standards on policing. These standards include the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers, which state,
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.
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;
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.”
There is still a long way to go before a punishment is leveled against the officers responsible for Gray’s death, but the filing of criminal charges is a promising first step.