Archive | June 2015

Without prosecutions, Senate’s ‘reaffirmation’ of torture prohibition largely meaningless

cia torture report

Human rights groups are welcoming the Senate’s adoption yesterday of an anti-torture amendment as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2016, despite the fact that it doesn’t provide for any accountability to those who have authorized or committed torture in the past.

Officially called “the reaffirmation of the prohibition on torture,” the amendment, introduced last week by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), effectively prohibits U.S. officials from using torture techniques including mock executions, sexual humiliation, hooding prisoners and waterboarding by requiring they follow the U.S. Army Field Manual. It was adopted by a vote of 78-21.

“Without this amendment, abuses committed in the name of national security, such as forced rectal feeding and mock burials, would be all too easy for the CIA to repeat in a climate of fear-mongering about terrorism,” said Amnesty International USA’s executive director, Steven W. Hawkins.

Human Rights First praised what it called the “historic bipartisan amendment that prevents the future use of torture by any U.S. government agency.” The legislation, according to the group, will “ensure that the use of torture or cruel treatment is never again the official policy of the United States.”

But will it?

The fact remains that the torture techniques authorized by the White House and committed by the CIA in the years following 9/11 were already illegal – serious violations of both international law and domestic law – so it’s not entirely clear what is new about this “reaffirmation” of the prohibition on torture.

In fact, torture has long been banned by Common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions, which was further codified by the 1987 UN Convention Against Torture (CAT). The CAT provides a clear-cut definition of what constitutes the practice — which the U.S. is clearly guilty of as documented in the Senate report on torture released last year.

As stated in Article 1 of the CAT:

[T]orture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

The CAT further unambiguously states that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

As a state party to both the Geneva Conventions and the CAT, the United States has adopted domestic legislation to ensure compliance with the treaties’ provisions. The War Crimes Act punishes any grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, including any violation of Common Article 3.

The Torture Statute, formally known as Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113C of the U.S. Code, provides for life in prison, or even the death penalty if the victim dies, for anyone who commits, attempts, or conspires to commit torture outside the United States. (Domestic incidents of torture are covered by state criminal statutes.)

The law consists of three sections (2340, 2340A, and 2340B), which define the crime of torture.

(1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;

(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—

(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;

(C) the threat of imminent death; or

(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and

(3) “United States” means the several States of the United States, the District of Columbia, and the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States.

In other words, it is not enough for the Senate to simply “reaffirm” a so-called “torture ban.” There is a legally binding obligation under the Convention Against Torture, in fact, 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.”

For its part, Amnesty International did acknowledge yesterday – despite generally welcoming the Senate vote – that more must be done to bring the United States into compliance with its international obligations:

This legislation is one step of many that the U.S. government must take to guard against a return to torture and other ill-treatment and abide by its international human rights obligations. The U.S. government has not brought any criminal charges against those responsible for torture and enforced disappearances in the CIA secret detention program. Nor has the U.S. government withdrawn U.S. reservations to UN human rights treaties—reservations that the George W. Bush-era Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel exploited to write permission slips for torture and other ill-treatment.

The torturers in the CIA have for too long been protected by the Obama administration and U.S. Department of Justice, even while human rights defenders and whistleblowers such as John Kiriakou, Jeffrey Sterling and Chelsea Manning have been sent away for long prison terms for much less serious offenses. It is long past time for this double standard to be lifted and the committers (and authorizers) of torture to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

U.S. hypocritically touts territorial integrity, sovereignty and international norms

obama hypocrisy

President Barack Obama issued one of his most hypocritical statements in weeks when he scolded Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday for his alleged support of separatist rebels operating in eastern Ukraine.

“He’s got to make a decision,” Obama said of Putin. “Does he continue to wreck his country’s economy and continue Russia’s isolation in pursuit of a wrong-headed desire to re-create the glories of the Soviet empire? Or does he recognize that Russia’s greatness does not depend on violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries?”

Hearing the president of the United States lecture others about the importance of respecting countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity was a bit like listening to a serial rapist lecturing other men about the importance of respecting women’s rights.

Of course, as Obama was uttering these duplicitous platitudes – the hypocrisy of which went completely unchallenged by the journalists in attendance at the press conference – the United States was continuing to violate the sovereignty of multiple countries, including Syria and Pakistan.

On the same day that Obama insisted on Russia’s respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, the U.S. launched nine air strikes in Syria, attacks that are unauthorized by the UN Security Council and against the stated wishes of the Syrian government, rendering them a blatant violation of international law.

Six of the air strikes were concentrated around Kobani near the Turkish border and three near the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, according to the U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force. One of the air strikes apparently killed an entire family of seven, including five children, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In Pakistan, the U.S. has been carrying out drone strikes for years, in complete disregard of the repeated protests of the Pakistani government complaining about the violations of that country’s sovereignty. As recently as last month, Pakistan’s Foreign Office condemned a U.S. drone strike that killed at least five people in North Waziristan, reiterating its stance that such attacks are a violation of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“A drone strike on May 16, 2015 resulted in a number of casualties in the Mana area of North Waziristan agency,” said the Foreign Office in a statement.

“These (strikes) generate distrust among the local populace at a time when Operation Zarb-e-Azb is moving ahead decisively and the focus of the government is shifting towards rehabilitation of the civilian population. We reiterate our call for a cessation of such strikes,” the Foreign Office said.

But the U.S. can’t be bothered to acknowledge or apologize for its blatant violations of international law, or its routine, tragic killings of innocent people. It is now being sued in fact by the families of two Yemeni men killed in 2012, alleging they were innocent bystanders hit by missiles from a U.S. drone strike and calling for an acknowledgement of their unlawful deaths.

In a wrongful death lawsuit filed June 7, the families of Salem bin Ali Jaber and Waleed bin Ali Jaber said their deaths “violated the laws of war and norms of customary international law” and “provide a case study of the failures of the drone war.”

The strike on Aug. 29, 2012 “killed two innocent members of a prominent local family, Salem bin Ali Jaber and Waleed bin Ali Jaber,” according to the complaint. “By this complaint, the estates of Salem and Waleed seek to hold accountable those responsible for their wrongful deaths.”

The lawsuit does not seek any monetary relief, but rather a declaratory judgement and an apology. As the complaint points out,

Rarely but occasionally, the U.S. government addresses the reality that its drones kill innocents, and expresses official regret. Only weeks ago the President addressed the nation about two other innocents killed by a U.S. drone: an Italian citizen and an American, who were mistakenly hit in a drone strike in Pakistan while being held hostage by al Qaeda. In his televised statement, the President explained that “the [victims’] families deserve to know the truth,” and claimed that his apology showed the U.S. is willing “to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”

There is a simple question at the heart of this claim. The President has now admitted to killing innocent Americans and Italians with drones; why are the bereaved families of innocent Yemenis less entitled to the truth?

Even as the United States does occasionally concede that it sometimes kills innocent people, which is at least a tacit confirmation that its actions are not exactly in accordance with international law, it still can’t resist the temptation to point its bloody finger at others for doing the same thing.

Not only did President Obama just issue that hypocritical warning to Russia, but a number of “progressive” lawmakers have just published an op-ed in the journal Foreign Affairs expressing the urgent need to confront Russia and China over their alleged violations of international norms.

In “Principles for a Progressive Foreign Policy,” Democratic senators Chris Murphy, Brian Schatz, and Martin Heinrich warn that “traditional powers such as Russia and China are challenging international norms and pushing the boundaries of their influence.”

In response to these new challenges, as well as threats such as pandemic disease and global climate change, “the United States [must] think anew about the tools that it will use to lead the world, including reaching beyond the military budget to rediscover the power of non-kinetic statecraft.”

To their credit, these senators acknowledged that in order for the U.S. to have any credibility on the world stage, it “should practice what it preaches regarding civil and human rights, and defend its values internationally.”

“Actions abroad that are illegal under U.S. law and out of step with American values, such as torture, must be prohibited,” they continued. “Human rights and gender equality should not be viewed as secondary to security issues, but appropriately recognized as essential to long-term global stability.”

The senators are only partially right, and they left unsaid the most important thing – namely that violations must not only be “prohibited” but also prosecuted and punished. Torture of course is already “prohibited,” as is murder and violations of countries’ territorial integrity, so what the U.S. really needs to do is punish those who violate the law.

And please, stop hypocritically blaming others for doing the same thing.

Sanders’ candidacy exposes fundamental flaws in U.S. electoral system

Sanders speaks to low-wage federal contract workers on Dec. 4, 2014, during a protest where the workers demanded presidential action to win an increase to $15-an-hour wage.  - Win McNamee / Getty Images

Sanders speaks to low-wage federal contract workers on Dec. 4, 2014, during a protest where the workers demanded presidential action to win an increase to $15-an-hour wage. – Win McNamee / Getty Images

A long-time independent and self-described socialist, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders recently decided to run for president within the confines of the two-party system under heavy pressure from Democratic Party loyalists not to be a third party “spoiler” candidate.

For months, Sanders was the target of public appeals from groups such as Progressive Democrats of America that implored him to seek the nomination of the Democratic Party rather than run as an independent, as he has done in numerous Vermont elections since the 1970s.

As a PDA petition pointed out, in 2004 Sanders “understood the very real danger of total Republican control of the U.S. Government” and “supported Democratic nominee John Kerry for President over his long-time friend and ally, Ralph Nader.”

Similarly, in order “to prevent the current crazed, mean, and dangerous incarnation of the Republican Party from seizing total power,” it is important that Sanders “commit[s] to running in the 2015/2016 Presidential primaries as a Democrat,” PDA insisted.

Two_party_system_diagram-cc-565x423The fear of rank-and-file Democrats is that having a third party/independent challenger in a general election between a Democrat and Republican would siphon votes from the Democratic nominee, and hand the election to the Republican nominee. It is a fundamental flaw of the U.S. electoral system that perennial third party candidate Ralph Nader recently spoke about on Democracy Now.

Asked why Sanders may have decided to forgo his longtime independent status in favor of seeking the Democratic nomination, Nader replied:

Well, that’s always been a dilemma he’s been deliberating for the last year or so. If he runs as an independent, he can go to November. If he runs as a registered Democrat, he’s done in April or May, assuming he doesn’t defeat Hillary Clinton or others, but he gets on the televised primaries. Where as an independent he could be marginalized, as a Democrat he’s going to get on quite a few debates and in the primary.

While what Nader said about the likelihood of being marginalized as an independent is certainly true, what he failed to mention is that it’s not only a candidate’s independent or third-party status that leads to media marginalization, but also – perhaps more importantly – what it is that the candidate has to say.

With his message of income inequality, corporate corruption and environmental sustainability, Sanders was pegged early on as an unserious fringe candidate by the media establishment, which is dominated by the very business interests that he rails against.

Just as Ron Paul’s antiwar message was systematically sidelined from mainstream media coverage in the 2012 presidential campaign – notwithstanding the fact that he ran as a Republican and boasted some traditional early indicators of a vibrant campaign – it seems that the media establishment has already made a determination that Sanders’ candidacy is not to be taken seriously.

msnbc-fox-sIn an analysis for Media Matters for America, Eric Boehlert noted that despite Sanders’ campaign rallies drawing thousands of people – making them some of the largest campaign events of 2015 by either Democrats or Republicans – the media has decided not to cover them as major news events. Sanders’ first major campaign rally since announcing his presidential candidacy last month, for example, was completely ignored by the Washington Post and New York Times, while the network news programs night covered the event sparsely.

According to Boehlert, “At a time when it seems any movement on the Republican side of the candidate field produces instant and extensive press coverage, more and more observers are suggesting there’s something out of whack with Sanders’ press treatment. And they’re right.”

When Sanders does get reported on in the media, much of the coverage portrays him as outside the mainstream of American politics, or views him solely through the prism of Hillary Clinton. “It’s all about how his campaign might affect her strategy and her possible policy shifts, instead of how his campaign will affect voters and public policy,” Boehlert writes. “On the Republican side, candidates are generally covered as stand-alone entities, not as appendages to a specific rival.”

Beyond that, much of the coverage specifically declares that he has no chance of winning, an odd role for the media to play in covering a nomination campaign. The press, after all, is supposed to be covering the nomination process, not determining the nomination process. Yet, this is what a few prominent news outlets have had to say in recent weeks: “Bernie Sanders isn’t going to be president,” declared a Washington Post headline. “He Won’t Win,” said Newsweek, “So Why Is Bernie Sanders Running?” MSNBC: “Why Bernie Sanders matters, even if he can’t win.”

The clear consensus among the media elite is that Sanders’ candidacy is little more than an annoyance, sort of like ants at a picnic. Sanders is to be tolerated at best but certainly not to be welcomed or treated with the respect and reverence that a “real” presidential candidate like Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush are to receive.

This media bias is infuriating to those who would like to see the press perform its role as a reporter of the news rather than as a shaper of the news, but beyond being aggravating it is also arguably a violation of international commitments on holding free and fair, democratic elections.

As a signatory to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s 1990 Copenhagen Document, the United States has agreed to certain commitments to ensure genuinely democratic elections, one of which being equal media access for election stakeholders. Specifically, OSCE countries must ensure “unimpeded access to the media on a non-discriminatory basis for all political groupings and individuals wishing to participate in the electoral process.”

As the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) further explains in its handbook for election observation,

Equal conditions should be ensured for all participants in the election process so that they compete on a level playing field. … Candidates and political parties should have unimpeded access to the media on a non-discriminatory basis, and state or public media should meet their special responsibility for providing sufficient, balanced and impartial information to enable the electorate to make well-informed choices.

This requirement for media access and balance goes for both major party candidates and minor party candidates, and besides media access, OSCE countries must also “respect the right of citizens to seek political or public office, individually or as representatives of political parties or organizations, without discrimination.”

Both the endemic media bias in the United States and the two-party system itself – which systematically discriminates against parties other than the Democrats and Republicans – are likely violations of these obligations, which also include respecting “the right of individuals and groups to establish, in full freedom, their own political parties or other political organizations and provide such political parties and organizations with the necessary legal guarantees to enable them to compete with each other on a basis of equal treatment before the law and by the authorities.”

These are all areas in which the U.S. is failing to live up to democratic standards for elections, despite its frequent claims of being the greatest democracy in the world, and could do much better.

%d bloggers like this: