Human Rights Watch issued a damning report yesterday offering new evidence that Saudi Arabia has been using U.S.-made and -supplied cluster munitions on civilians in war-torn Yemen, despite a nearly universal global ban on the weapons. Their use may violate both international and United States law, HRW pointed out.
The report, which includes photographs showing unexploded U.S. cluster bombs in Yemen, is putting new pressure on the United States over support for its close ally Saudi Arabia, at a time when an international campaign is growing for a moratorium on arms transfers to the human rights-abusing dictatorship.
“The Americans have sold arms and furnished training and expertise to a Saudi-led coalition that has faced widespread criticism for what rights groups call an indiscriminate bombing campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels in nearly a year of fighting,” the New York Times reported.
As Human Rights Watch documented:
Recently transferred US-manufactured cluster munitions are being used in civilian areas contrary to US export requirements and also appear to be failing to meet the reliability standard required for US export of the weapons. …
Human Rights Watch believes the Saudi Arabia-led coalition of states operating in Yemen is responsible for all or nearly all of these cluster munition attacks because it is the only entity operating aircraft or multibarrel rocket launchers capable of delivering five of the six types of cluster munitions that have been used in the conflict.
Cluster bombs contain submunitions, or bomblets, that disperse widely and kill indiscriminately, especially when used in civilian areas. Many bomblets can fail to explode, effectively becoming landmines that continue to pose a threat to civilians for years to come.
Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch and chair of the international Cluster Munition Coalition, noted that the use of these weapons violates international norms. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, as well as their US supplier, are blatantly disregarding the global standard that says cluster munitions should never be used under any circumstances,” he said. “The Saudi-led coalition should investigate evidence that civilians are being harmed in these attacks and immediately stop using them.”
John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, said in a statement Sunday night: “We have seen the Human Rights Watch report, and are reviewing it. Obviously we remain deeply concerned by reports of harm to civilians and have encouraged the Saudi-led coalition to investigate reports of civilian harm.”
While HRW points out that any use of any type of cluster munition should be condemned, there are two additional disturbing aspects to the use of the particular model being used in Yemen – CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons – which are notoriously unreliable, leaving unacceptable amounts of unexploded ordinance on the ground to terrorize civilians for years to come.
“First, U.S. export law prohibits recipients of cluster munitions from using them in populated areas, as the Saudi coalition has clearly been doing,” HRW said. “Second, U.S. export law only allows the transfer of cluster munitions with a failure rate of less than 1 percent. But it appears that Sensor Fuzed Weapons used in Yemen are not functioning in ways that meet that reliability standard.”
The Convention on Cluster Munitions was adopted in Dublin on May 30, 2008 by 107 states and signed in Oslo on Dec. 3, 2008. It became binding international law when it entered into force on Aug. 1, 2010. A total of 118 states have joined the Convention, as 98 States parties and 20 Signatories.
In the treaty, states parties have agreed to never use cluster munitions, nor “develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer to anyone, directly or indirectly, cluster munitions,” nor “assist, encourage or induce anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention.”
The U.S. is one of the few remaining holdouts, one of what the international community calls the “dirty dozen of cluster munitions.”
In a Jan. 12 letter to President Obama, Megan Burke, the director of the Cluster Munition Coalition urged him to “demand that Saudi-led coalition members stop using cluster munitions,” and said the United States “should investigate its own role in the recent strikes.”
To add your name to an Avaaz petition calling on world leaders “to stand up and say ‘NO’ to Saudi Arabia and their atrocities,” click here.
Another U.S.-based petition, calling on Washington to “Stop Supporting – and Start Punishing – Saudi Arabia” is available here.
If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged. – Noam Chomsky, 1990
In recent days, numerous commentators have criticized irresponsible discourse within the GOP presidential field over whether to reinstate torture and implement other war crimes – such as carpet bombing – as official U.S. policy. The 2008 Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain, even felt compelled to weigh in this week by calling out the “loose talk” in the Republican race.
McCain took the Senate floor Tuesday to condemn remarks by his Republican colleagues regarding the use of torture, stating that “these statements must not go unanswered because they mislead the American people about the realities of interrogation, how to gather intelligence, what it takes to defend our security and at the most fundamental level, what we are fighting for as a nation and what kind of nation we are.”
Indeed, with presidential frontrunner Donald Trump calling his chief rival Ted Cruz a “pussy” for hinting that he might show some degree of restraint in the use of torture, it’s clear that on the Republican side, the discussion has gone off the rails. This has led respected human rights groups to remind the U.S. of its moral and legal obligations not to engage in sadistic and cruel practices such as waterboarding.
“Waterboarding meets the legal definition of torture, and is therefore illegal,” recalled Human Rights First’s Raha Walla. “Torture under U.S. and international law means acts that cause severe mental or physical pain or suffering. There’s no question that waterboarding meets that definition.”
Amnesty International’s Naureen Shah also issued a rebuttal to the debate over waterboarding, which she described as “slow-motion suffocation.” She pointed out the obvious that “the atrocities of the armed group calling itself Islamic State and other armed groups don’t make waterboarding okay.” This was in response to statements by Trump and others that since Islamic State terrorists chop off people’s heads, the U.S. is right to respond with its own forms of brutality.
(“Do we win by being more like [the Islamic State]?” George Stephanopoulos asked Trump last Sunday. “Yes,” Trump responded. “I’m sorry. You have to do it that way.”)
Writing in The Guardian Wednesday, human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith observed:
There was once a consensus that torture was immoral; even today, any sensible person knows torture is of little use if you want accurate information. Yet the current crop of Republican presidential candidates have been trying to outbid one another with promises of barbarism: Senator Ted Cruz confirmed that he favours simulated drowning, which he classifies as an “enhanced interrogation technique” (EIT) that falls short of torture. (The Spanish Inquisition was rather more honest, and called it tortura del agua.) “The Donald” immediately trumped his rival: he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”.
In a similar vein, The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain and Dan Froomkin noted on Tuesday that the GOP is apparently competing over which candidate would commit the worst war crimes, including but not limited to torture and encompassing other atrocities such as carpet bombing. As the journalists pointed out:
In recent months, one candidate or another has promised to waterboard, do a “helluva lot worse than waterboarding,” repopulate Guantánamo, engage in wars of aggression, kill families of suspected terrorists, and “carpet bomb” Middle Eastern countries until we find out if “sand can glow in the dark.”
The over-the-top bombast plays well in front of self-selected Republican audiences — the crowd responded to the description of Cruz Monday night with full-throated chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” But such promises of future criminality from potential presidential nominees have outraged many legal experts.
While it is clearly troubling that the leading contenders for the Republican nomination are so eagerly trying to outdo each other on who would be the worst war criminal, what is perhaps equally troubling is that candidates on the Democratic side also seem committed to policies that could in fact qualify as war crimes.
It should be recalled that while the Republicans are speaking about hypothetical war crimes that they would like to commit if elected, there is a leading Democratic candidate who is already guilty of war crimes committed under her watch.
As Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a major proponent of armed intervention and regime change in Libya, which – despite occasional claims to the contrary – was in no way authorized by the UN Security Council, making it a breach of the UN Charter.
When the Libyan civil war began in mid-February 2011, Clinton stated unequivocally that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi “must go now, without further violence or delay.”
Despite Arab countries’ reservations about regime change, Clinton helped convince Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan that a simple no-fly zone would be insufficient and argued that aerial bombing would also be necessary. Clinton then persuaded Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that his country should abstain on the UN resolution authorizing force against Gaddafi, and she was instrumental in getting the rest of the Security Council members to approve Resolution 1973, which established a “no-fly zone.”
With this resolution secured, the U.S. promptly decided to overstep its authority, “interpreting” the authorization as carte blanche to implement a policy of regime change.
The Arab League, which had tentatively lent support to Resolution 1973, promptly objected to the bombing campaign. “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians,” said Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa on March 20, 2011.
Despite the narrow limitations placed on the U.S. and NATO forces by the Security Council to enforce a no-fly zone in order to protect civilians, the Western powers soon made it clear that their objective was not simply to protect civilians, but to aid the rebels in the their efforts to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.
This initial breach of international law was then compounded by subsequent war crimes, as documented by Amnesty International in the war’s aftermath.
“Scores of Libyan civilians who were not involved in the fighting were killed and many more injured, most in their homes, as a result of NATO airstrikes” in the bombing campaign to depose Gaddafi, Amnesty noted. “Regrettably,” continued Amnesty, “NATO has yet to address these incidents appropriately, including by establishing contact and providing information to the victims and their relatives about any investigation which might have been initiated.”
The war also led to an exacerbation of the security crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, fueling the civil war in nearby Syria and facilitating the rise of the Islamic State, as well as directly contributing to the refugee and migrant crisis that began to destabilize Europe.
Besides that disastrous foreign policy blunder, Clinton was also a primary supporter of the 21st century’s first major war of aggression, the 2003 unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq.
For years, Clinton was a vocal supporter of this war despite its numerous documented atrocities, defending her 2002 vote as senator to authorize the invasion as necessary to counter Saddam Hussein’s alleged (but ultimately nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction program. It wasn’t until last year – 13 years after the U.S. invasion – that she finally acknowledged that her support for that war had been a “mistake.”
The other Democratic presidential contender, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, has been much more consistent in his opposition to both the Iraq war and the Libya intervention, but unfortunately has embraced other policies with questionable status under international law. He has said, for example, that as president, he would be willing to use drone strikes as liberally as President Obama has, despite serious questions about this policy’s legality.
In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press last October, host Chuck Todd asked Sanders if drones or special forces would play a role in his counter-terror plans.
“All of that and more,” Sanders said. “Look, a drone is a weapon. When it works badly, it is terrible and it is counterproductive. When you blow up a facility or a building which kills women and children, you know what? … It’s terrible.”
Collateral damage by drones is not only terrible, but the very use of drones has been shown to lower the threshold for use of force, as demonstrated by a recent study by two U.S. academics.
In ‘The Ethics of Drone Strikes: Does Reducing the Cost of Conflict Encourage War?’ James Walsh and Marcus Schulzke report on how public attitudes towards the use of armed force change when unmanned drones are used in comparison to the deployment of other types of force. Analysis of the results show, write Walsh and Schulzke, “that participants are more willing to support the use of force when it involves drone strikes.”
This in turn makes U.S. military intervention more likely, as it does the inevitable collateral damage and war crimes that go along with it.
Besides drone strikes, it also appears that Sanders is committed to a Middle East policy that would empower one of the world’s worst human rights abusers to take a leading role in the region.
Saudi Arabia, despite its record as an egregious violator of human rights both at home and in neighboring countries such as Bahrain and Yemen, has long relied on the United States as its leading arms supplier.
As explained in a Congressional Research Service background paper published earlier this month:
Obama Administration officials have referred to the Saudi government as an important regional partner, and U.S. arms sales and related security cooperation programs have continued with congressional oversight. Since October 2010, Congress has been notified of proposed sales to Saudi Arabia of fighter aircraft, helicopters, naval vessels, missile defense systems, missiles, bombs, armored vehicles, and related equipment and services, with a potential value of more than $100 billion.
Since March 2015, the U.S.-trained Saudi military has used U.S.-origin weaponry, U.S. logistical assistance, and shared intelligence to carry out strikes in Yemen. Some Members of Congress have expressed skepticism about Saudi leaders’ commitment to combating extremism and the extent to which they share U.S. policy priorities. Nevertheless, U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism ties reportedly remain close, and Saudi forces have participated in some coalition strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria since 2014.
Thousands of civilians have been killed by coalition airstrikes since March of last year, according to the UN, and Human Rights Watch field investigations have uncovered evidence that many airstrikes were unlawfully indiscriminate, hitting residential homes, markets, healthcare facilities, and schools where there was no military target.
To make matters worse, Saudi Arabia has been dropping cluster bombs on residential neighborhoods, which HRW describes as “serious violations of the laws of war” due to “the inherently indiscriminate nature of cluster munitions.”
“The deliberate or reckless use of cluster munitions in populated areas amounts to a war crime,” HRW said in a statement last month.
Despite these violations, Sanders has urged Saudi Arabia to become more involved in the fight against ISIS, specifically stating that the brutal dictators of Riyadh should “get their hands dirty” – prompting peace activist David Swanson to ask, “Who has dirtier hands than Saudi Arabia?”
While Sanders is still probably the least likely of the U.S. presidential contenders to embrace war crimes should he win the election this November – and certainly deserves points for calling out Hillary Clinton’s friendly relationship with Henry Kissinger, one of the most notorious American war criminals of the 20th century – he should keep in mind that even enabling atrocities of a third party such as Saudi Arabia can make a president culpable for these crimes.
According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,
A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State” (Article 16 of the International Law Commission, “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts,” (2001) which were commended by the General Assembly, A/RES/56/83).
Further, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and the Arms Export Control Act authorizes the supply of U.S. military equipment and training only for lawful purposes of internal security, “legitimate self-defense,” or participation in UN peacekeeping operations or other operations consistent with the UN Charter.
If Sanders wants to truly distinguish himself from Clinton – not to mention the blood-thirsty would-be war criminals on the Republican side – he should make clear that he would not only refrain from torture and wars of aggression, but also the enabling of war crimes by dubious allies such as Saudi Arabia, or for that matter Israel.
To add your name to a petition calling on the United States and other governments of the world to stop providing Saudi Arabia with weaponry until the Saudi government ends its military aggression and abuse of human rights, click here.
In the clown show known as the Republican presidential primary race, candidates are providing a clear – if, albeit, unintentional – case as to why prosecutions of the Bush-era CIA torture program are absolutely essential, and why it is so damaging that the Obama administration has shirked its responsibilities in this regard for more than seven years.
As human rights groups have long maintained, prosecuting Bush administration and CIA officials involved with the torture of terrorism suspects in the post-9/11 period is necessary so that torture is not repeated in the future by subsequent administrations who – because of previous decisions not to prosecute – may consider themselves above the law.
Indeed, this is precisely why there is a requirement under international law for allegations of torture to be investigated and prosecuted – so that torture does not become a “policy option” to be utilized or shelved depending on the political whims of the day.
This is a point that Amnesty International, for one, drove home following the release in late 2014 of a portion of the U.S. Senate’s report on the use of torture by the CIA during the Bush administration. In a statement entitled “Senate summary report on CIA detention programme must not be end of story,” Amnesty lamented that limited Justice Department investigations into CIA interrogations were ended in 2012 with no charges.
Human Rights Watch concurred, noting that unless the release of the Senate report leads to prosecutions, torture will remain a “policy option” for future presidents.
Needless to say, these exhortations have largely fallen on deaf ears, with no prosecutions launched whatsoever. Instead, the U.S. Congress responded with a largely meaningless and toothless “reaffirmation” of the ban on the torture – a totally redundant and unnecessary piece of legislation since torture has long been unambiguously banned under international law, the United States Constitution and U.S. statutory law.
Now, just as HRW, Amnesty and others have warned, this lack of law enforcement is having the predictable effects: contenders for the Republican nomination – including very possibly the next president of the United States – are making clear their plans to bring back waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques, and to once again make torture the official policy of the United States government.
In the presidential debate on Jan. 28, for example, Sen. Marco Rubio insinuated that under his administration, indefinite detention and torture would be most welcome. “If we capture terrorists,” he said, “they’re going to Guantánamo, and we will find out everything they know.” Despite this rather oblique allusion to bringing back the policy of torture which officially ended in 2006, none of the other candidates, or the debate moderators, even raised an eyebrow.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the debate on Feb. 6 included a virtual competition among candidates Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump to see who would be the most brutal and lawless in the treatment of suspected terrorists. All three candidates voiced support for waterboarding, with Trump pledging to reintroduce the technique – and introduce even more draconian and lawless techniques – if elected: “I would bring back waterboarding, and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” he said.
As the Huffington Post explained, “Trump was out-brutalizing Cruz, who said he would only use waterboarding sparingly, in emergency scenarios.”
Rubio also reiterated his support for waterboarding, saying that terrorism cases should not be held to the same humane legal standards of traditional law enforcement. In fact, he explicitly stated that interrogating suspected terrorists is not a law enforcement function:
Well, when people talk about interrogating terrorists, they’re acting like this is some sort of law enforcement function. Law enforcement is about gathering evidence to take someone to trial, and convict them. Anti-terrorism is about finding out information to prevent a future attack so the same tactics do not apply.
And, it is true, we should not be discussing in a widespread way the exact tactics that we’re going to use because that allows terrorist to know to practice how to evade us.
He also made it clear that the travesty of justice of Guantanamo should be kept open indefinitely:
But, here’s the bigger problem with all this, we’re not interrogating anybody right now. Guantanamo’s being emptied by this president. We should be putting people into Guantanamo, not emptying it out, and we shouldn’t be releasing these killers who are rejoining the battlefield against the United States.
As for Trump, when pressed this weekend on his statements about bringing back waterboarding and devising even more brutal torture methods, he decided to double down rather than backtrack.
On Sunday, the real-estate-mogul-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-presidential-contender appeared on “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos. The appearance included this remarkable exchange on torture:
STEPHANOPOULOS: As president, you would authorize torture?
TRUMP: I would absolutely authorize something beyond waterboarding. And believe me, it will be effective. If we need information, George, you have our enemy cutting heads off of Christians and plenty of others, by the hundreds, by the thousands.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Do we win by being more like them?
TRUMP: Yes. I’m sorry. You have to do it that way. And I’m not sure everybody agrees with me. I guess a lot of people don’t. We are living in a time that’s as evil as any time that there has ever been. You know, when I was a young man, I studied Medieval times. That’s what they did, they chopped off heads. That’s what we have …
STEPHANOPOULOS: So we’re going to chop off heads …
TRUMP: We’re going to do things beyond waterboarding perhaps, if that happens to come.
Interestingly, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – the only two remaining candidates for the Democratic Party – appeared on the same programs as Trump on Sunday, and while they commented freely on other aspects of the Republican debate, neither said anything about Trump’s call for torture.
Although it is only a matter of speculation, perhaps they were a bit reticent to comment on the torture question because they know that the only reason that this is even up for debate in the year 2016 is because for nearly eight years under Obama, the torture question has been systematically swept under the rug.
While Democrats may like to claim the moral high ground in “opposing torture,” they have in fact actively enabled torture by preventing prosecutions of torturers to take place. This is why the international community has been so adamant on the matter of prosecutions and has issued such rare public denunciations of the United States on this issue.
Following the release of the Senate torture report’s executive summary over a year ago, there was a veritable cacophony of demands for prosecutions, with some of the strongest words coming from the United Nations.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism Ben Emmerson stated unequivocally 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 investigated and prosecuted:
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, he added, “The U.S. attorney general is under a legal duty to bring criminal charges against those responsible.”
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 partial release of the torture report is the “start of a process” toward prosecutions, because the “prohibition against torture is absolute,” Ban’s spokesman said.
Well, a year has passed and it is all too clear that there was no process being started with the release of the Senate torture report — and in fact, it was probably hoped by official Washington that this would be the end of the story.
But following the one-year anniversary of the Senate torture report being released, Human Rights Watch reiterated its calls for prosecutions in a 153-page report, “No More Excuses: A Roadmap to Justice for CIA Torture.” The HRW report, released Dec. 1, 2015, challenges claims that prosecutions are not legally possible and outlines U.S. legal obligations to provide redress to victims of torture. It also details actions that other countries should take to pursue criminal investigations into CIA torture.
Of course, this report, like virtually all other calls for justice on the torture question over the past seven years, has been studiously ignored by the Obama administration and official Washington. And with the Republicans now falling over each other to pledge their allegiance to illegal policies of torture and brutality, we are seeing the fruits of Obama’s refusal to uphold the laws of the land.