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Obama rejects growing international concern over drones, unleashes carnage in Yemen

Anti-drone graffiti in Yemen

Anti-drone graffiti in Yemen

Despite a recent flurry of international criticism of the U.S. drone assassination program and some tentative domestic attempts to force more transparency regarding the program, no significant policy changes are being made to bring drone strikes in line with U.S. and international law. In fact, the Obama administration seems intent on demonstrating its continued obstinacy by intensifying the use of killer drones in counter-terrorist operations in Yemen, killing scores of people recently in the bloodiest spate of strikes since March 2012.

As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported on April 22,

The Yemeni Ministry of Interior said air strikes had killed dozens of suspected al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants, including several allegedly high-ranking militants.

‘The security authorities stated that the air strikes, which lasted for several hours, killed around 55 terrorists from [AQAP], including three movement leaders,’ the interior ministry said. Unnamed US officials told the New York Times CIA drones were used in the airstrikes.

But as Rooj Alwazir of the Support Yemen media collective pointed out, there is no way of really knowing how many of the victims obliterated by U.S. drones were actually militants and how many were innocent civilians.

The Yemeni government “is saying pretty much what the US government wants to hear, which is that 55 militants were killed over the weekend in southern province of Yemen,” said Alwazir on the Unauthorized Disclosure podcast.

What you’re not hearing is that included in these 55 are civilians. What you’re not hearing are the names of people who were killed. The Ministry of Interior in particular has come out and claimed that the strike in al Bayda, south of the Yemeni capital, killed ten militants and he actually for the first time acknowledged three civilians were killed. In al Marib and al Shabwah they claimed that over 23-30 militants were killed. When asked who they were, when asked who their names were and if any investigations have happened, they don’t comment. They’re still saying that they are doing DNA tests and etc.

What’s interesting about these particular air strikes that happened over the weekend is that this is the first time that we actually saw special operations on the ground, meaning when air strikes had happened in the past in Yemen air strikes are usually just laying there. No investigations are happening ever. This is the first time where the military came after the air strikes and picked up the dead bodies. So this is what’s really getting us activists and journalists, etc, people we question what happened this time around.

Yemeni human rights researcher Baraa Shiban noted that “the Yemeni government has not provided any names, or at least any names even to the public, to show that those people who are targeted in those drone strikes are an imminent threat to the security of the country.”

He said that neither the United States nor the Yemeni government knows who they are killing in these attacks. “These drone strikes and the drone programs inside Yemen violate both the Yemeni constitution and the international law,” he pointed out.

An April 21 BIJ report provided some detail on confirmed civilian casualties in the recent Yemeni attacks:

Multiple sources including military officials and eyewitnesses described how a US drone attacked a truck that was carrying alleged members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and also hit a vehicle carrying civilians. At least 10 – and possibly as many as 21 – were reportedly killed in the attack, including at least three civilians. They were described as ‘construction workers‘ or ‘labourers’ by some reports.

This is the highest death toll of any confirmed drone strike in Yemen so far this year.

Cautious attempts at forcing more transparency and disclosure from the White House on these matters have recently been abandoned by the U.S. Congress, which apparently has caved to pressure from the military and intelligence establishment.

“At the behest of the director of national intelligence,” the Guardian reported on Monday, “U.S. senators have removed a provision from a major intelligence bill that would require the president to publicly disclose information about drone strikes and their victims.”

When it passed out of the Senate intelligence committee in November, the bill originally required the president to issue an annual public report clarifying the total number of “combatants” and “noncombatant civilians” killed or injured by drone strikes in the previous year.

But after receiving a letter from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who assured them that the Obama administration was seeking its own ways to increase transparency about its highly controversial drone strikes, Senate leaders meekly removed the language as they prepare to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. The senators evidently took Clapper’s word, despite the fact that he is a known perjurer who has been caught lying to Congress in relation to NSA surveillance activities.

The fresh carnage in Yemen was unleashed in spite of a number of recent attempts by the international community to rein in the lawless U.S. drone assassination program, obviously to no avail.

For example, in a report issued February 28 by Ben Emmerson, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, the U.S. was urged to ensure that “any measures taken to counter terrorism, including the use of remotely piloted aircraft, comply with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, in particular the principles of precaution, distinction and proportionality.”

The Special Rapporteur also urged the U.S. to ensure that, “in any case in which there is a plausible indication from any apparently reliable source that civilians have been killed or injured in a counter-terrorism operation, including through the use of remotely piloted aircraft, the relevant authorities conduct a prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry, and provide a detailed public explanation.”

Needless to say, this recommended inquiry is not taking place in relation to the civilians recently incinerated by U.S. drones in Yemen.

Another UN report, issued by the UN Human Rights Committee in late March, expressed grave concern about the U.S.’s practice of targeted killings by drones, particularly “the lack of transparency regarding the criteria for drone strikes, including the legal justification for specific attacks, and the lack of accountability for the loss of life resulting from such attacks.”

According to the Human Rights Committee’s concluding observations on the United States’ periodic review on its compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,

The Committee remains concerned about the State party’s very broad approach to the definition and geographical scope of “armed conflict”, including the end of hostilities, the unclear interpretation of what constitutes an “imminent threat”, who is a combatant or a civilian taking direct part in hostilities, the unclear position on the nexus that should exist between any particular use of lethal force and any specific theatre of hostilities, as well as the precautionary measures taken to avoid civilian casualties in practice (arts. 2, 6 and 14).

Due to these concerns, the UN Committee urged the U.S. to “revisit its position regarding legal justifications for the use of deadly force through drone attacks.”

In particular, it should:

(a)          Ensure that any use of armed drones complies fully with its obligations under article 6 of the Covenant, including, in particular, with respect to the principles of precaution, distinction and proportionality in the context of an armed conflict;

(b)          Subject to operational security, disclose the criteria for drone strikes, including the legal basis for specific attacks, the process of target identification and the circumstances in which drones are used;

(c)           Provide for independent supervision and oversight of the specific implementation of regulations governing the use of drone strikes;

(d)          In armed conflict situations, take all feasible measures to ensure the protection of civilians in specific drone attacks and to track and assess civilian casualties, as well as all necessary precautionary measures in order to avoid such casualties;

(e)          Conduct independent, impartial, prompt and effective investigations of allegations of violations of the right to life and bring to justice those responsible;

(f)           Provide victims or their families with an effective remedy where there has been a violation, including adequate compensation, and establish accountability mechanisms for victims of allegedly unlawful drone attacks who are not compensated by their home governments.

On the domestic front, a U.S. court has ordered the release of key portions of a classified Justice Department memorandum that provided the legal justification for the targeted killing of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki. U.S. intelligence officials contend al-Awlaki had joined Al Qaeda and Obama ordered his assassination without trial in a September 2011 drone strike in Yemen. Two weeks later, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, another U.S. citizen was assassinated in a separate strike.

As the ACLU explained the April 21 opinion,

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit roundly rejected the government’s extreme claims of official secrecy over information about the program. In ordering the release of a 2010 legal memorandum by the Office of Legal Counsel analyzing the potential targeted killing of an American citizen, as well as other information about records the government has previously refused to describe at all, the Second Circuit became the first court to order the release of a document related to the government’s targeted killing program. It also became the second federal appeals court in the last 13 months to hold that the government has pushed its secrecy claims surrounding the targeted killing program past their breaking point.

In today’s opinion, the Second Circuit panel held that the government’s repeated public assurances that the targeted killing program is lawful, and its disclosure of a “white paper” that summarized its legal conclusions, had waived its right under the Freedom of Information Act to keep secret its legal analysis authorizing the killing of U.S. citizens. This is a victory for common sense, and a reminder that the courts have an important role to play in scrutinizing government claims about national security.

Also somewhat promising in terms of increasing transparency over these strikes is the fact that more and more individuals – including a number of drone operators themselves – are stepping forward to reveal their inside knowledge about this controversial program. As Heather Linebaugh, a former drone operator, recently wrote in the Guardian,

What the public needs to understand is that the video provided by a drone is not usually clear enough to detect someone carrying a weapon, even on a crystal-clear day with limited cloud and perfect light. This makes it incredibly difficult for the best analysts to identify if someone has weapons for sure. One example comes to mind: “The feed is so pixelated, what if it’s a shovel, and not a weapon?” I felt this confusion constantly, as did my fellow UAV analysts. We always wonder if we killed the right people, if we endangered the wrong people, if we destroyed an innocent civilian’s life all because of a bad image or angle.

She also discussed the heavy emotional toll of launching missiles and ending human lives on a daily basis, even when operating the drones from thousands of miles away:

I know the feeling you experience when you see someone die. Horrifying barely covers it. And when you are exposed to it over and over again it becomes like a small video, embedded in your head, forever on repeat, causing psychological pain and suffering that many people will hopefully never experience. UAV troops are victim to not only the haunting memories of this work that they carry with them, but also the guilt of always being a little unsure of how accurate their confirmations of weapons or identification of hostile individuals were.

As the Obama administration continues to ignore the pleas from the international community to rethink the lawless approach to drone strikes, these haunting memories will only continue to grow for the drone operators like Heather Linebaugh tasked with deciding whether to end someone’s life based on grainy, pixelated images.

Obama’s speech: Sidestepping key questions on Gitmo, torture and drones

emperor obama big

In a wide-ranging speech Thursday on U.S. counter-terrorism policies, President Obama made a number of encouraging remarks regarding respect for the rule of law and renewed promises to ensure that the United States respects international norms – especially by finally closing the Guantanamo prison camp and guaranteeing that U.S. drone warfare complies with domestic and international law.

Notably, he also pledged that “this war, like all wars, must end,” a relief to many who might be under the impression that the U.S. is in an endless state of war.

Like most Obama speeches, the president touched on many of the right notes and made pledges that most reasonable people would welcome, especially the promise that the war on terror will indeed someday come to an end. But also like most Obama speeches, it is worth weighing the lofty rhetoric against the actual record, and comparing his claims against the facts.

This is true broadly, for example, when it comes to his pledge to someday bring the war on terror to an end, considering that as Commander in Chief he is in charge of the armed forces and has ultimate authority to hasten the war’s end. It is also true more narrowly on specific issues such as his renewed pledge to close Guantanamo.

In his speech, Obama announced the appointment of a new special envoy to focus on Guantanamo transfers and called for Congress’s cooperation:

I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from GTMO. I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions. I am appointing a new, senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries. I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case by case basis. To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.

But as the Center for Constitutional Rights pointed out on Twitter, he has had ample time to do what he is now promising to do. “Obama wants to review #Guantanamo transfers on ‘case-by-case basis,’” CCR tweeted. “Didn’t he have 4yrs to do that? Over half the men were cleared yrs ago.”

CCR has long argued that Obama possesses a great deal of authority to make specific transfers and that by failing to show the needed leadership, he may be forever tarnishing his legacy. As the group put it in a statement:

The president’s stated reengagement on Guantanamo is welcome, but long overdue.  However, unless he takes immediate steps to resume transfers and ultimately close the prison, his administration will not escape the “harsh judgment” of history he anticipated in his speech.  We welcome his decision to lift the ban on transfers to Yemen, which has trapped more than half of the men at the prison.  However, we are disappointed by the president’s comment that cleared men will only be released “to the greatest extent possible.”  While more than 100 men continue to starve themselves in a principled protest for their freedom, the president’s equivocation is troubling. After eleven years of detention without charge or trial, all of the men President Obama does not intend to give fair trials should be released and reunited with their families. Anything short of that threatens to worsen a potentially deadly crisis unfolding a Guantanamo.

Amnesty International has also questioned the president’s commitment to closing Guantanamo, noting in a report released yesterday that “At the end of 2012, nearly three years after President Obama’s deadline for closure of the Guantánamo detention facility, 166 men were still held at the base, the vast majority without charge or criminal trial.”

In light of the ongoing hunger strike at Guantanamo, Amnesty has renewed its longstanding demands for the president to use his authority to close the prison camp, urging its supporters to “grab your phone and help us flood the White House with calls demanding action.”

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In its annual report on the U.S. human rights situation, Amnesty also questioned the Obama administration’s commitment to holding accountable those who broke the law in the previous administration. In a section entitled “Impunity,” Amnesty lamented:

The absence of accountability for crimes under international law committed under the administration of President George W. Bush in relation to the CIA’s programme of secret detention was further entrenched.

On 30 August, the US Attorney General announced the closure of criminal investigations into the death of two individuals in US custody outside the USA. He stated that no one would face criminal charges in relation to the deaths, believed to have occurred in Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003. This followed the announcement in June 2011 that a “preliminary review” conducted into interrogations in the CIA programme was at an end and that, apart from in relation to the two deaths, further investigation was not warranted.

Despite this questionable record enabling torture impunity, Obama felt confident enough to brag about his record Thursday in supposedly returning the United States to the rule of law after eight lawless years of the Bush administration’s approach to the war on terror:

I believe we compromised our basic values – by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.

After I took office, we stepped up the war against al Qaeda, but also sought to change its course. We relentlessly targeted al Qaeda’s leadership. We ended the war in Iraq, and brought nearly 150,000 troops home. We pursued a new strategy in Afghanistan, and increased our training of Afghan forces. We unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress.

While talking about his renewed interest in closing Gitmo, Obama was repeatedly interrupted by Medea Benjamin, an activist with the antiwar group Code Pink:

“Excuse me, President Obama, you are commander in chief,” Benjamin said. Rejecting his attempts to blame the failure to close Guantanamo on Congress, Benjamin shouted, “It’s you, sir!”  She admonished him to “Abide by the rule of law,” reminding him that he’s a constitutional lawyer.

To his credit, Obama stood up for her First Amendment rights and called her passion commendable. “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to,” he said. “Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said. But these are tough issues. And the idea that we can gloss over them is wrong.”

However, glossing over the issues is precisely what Obama was doing, in some respects. During his talk on drone warfare, for example, he focused narrowly on “one instance when we targeted an American citizen: Anwar Awlaki, the chief of external operations for AQAP.”

Explaining this controversial action, Obama said,

When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America – and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens; and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot – his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team

That’s who Anwar Awlaki was – he was continuously trying to kill people. He helped oversee the 2010 plot to detonate explosive devices on two U.S. bound cargo planes. He was involved in planning to blow up an airliner in 2009. When Farouk Abdulmutallab – the Christmas Day bomber – went to Yemen in 2009, Awlaki hosted him, approved his suicide operation, and helped him tape a martyrdom video to be shown after the attack. His last instructions were to blow up the airplane when it was over American soil. I would have detained and prosecuted Awlaki if we captured him before he carried out a plot. But we couldn’t. And as President, I would have been derelict in my duty had I not authorized the strike that took out Awlaki.

Awlaki was killed in September 2011 along with Samir Khan, another U.S. citizen who was not specifically targeted but was traveling with him. Two weeks later, another drone attack killed Awlaki’s son, 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen born in Denver, along with his 17-year-old cousin and seven others.

When confronted about this killing last year, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs rather callously blamed the victim for his “choice” of a father:

I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children. I don’t think becoming an al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.

In his speech, Obama did not provide any additional insight into the killing of the two teenagers – whether they were specifically targeted for assassination or on what grounds. What is known, however, is that Obama has approved not only “personality” strikes aimed at identified, high-value terrorists, but also “signature” strikes that target suspicious compounds in areas allegedly controlled by militants.

In fact, according to an analysis by the New America Foundation, of the thousands who have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, only 37 – or two percent – were leaders of al-Qaeda or affiliated organizations.

In a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder officially acknowledged for the first time that drone strikes have killed at least four U.S. citizens, only one of whom was specifically targeted however. “Since 2009,” Holder wrote,

the United States, in the conduct of U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qa’ida and its associated forces outside of areas of active hostilities, has specifically targeted and killed one U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi. The United States is further aware of three other U.S. citizens who have been killed in such U.S. counterterrorism operations over that same time period: Samir Khan, ‘Abd al-Rahman Anwar al-Aulaqi, and Jude Kenan Mohammed. These individuals were not specifically targeted by the United States.

What “not specifically targeted by the United States” means is unclear, but the concept fits in well with what is known about signature strikes, which may target large groups of people based on suspicious activity or perceived associations with “known terrorists.”

“Signature strikes in Pakistan were killing a large number of terrorist suspects, even when C.I.A. analysts were not certain beforehand of their presence,” reported the New York Times last year. The Times revealed that there has been substantial disagreement in Washington regarding the standards being applied for these attacks:

But some State Department officials have complained to the White House that the criteria used by the C.I.A. for identifying a terrorist “signature” were too lax. The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers — but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued.

Obama’s speech did not address the specific concerns over signature strikes, skirted the issue of the attacks on Awlaki’s 16-year-old son and glossed over the issue of innocent civilian deaths. Noting that “there is a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties, and non-governmental reports,” he did however acknowledge that “U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars.”

Nevertheless, Obama claimed that the strikes comply with international law, citing the “Authorization to Use Military Force” that Congress adopted in the days after 9/11.

“Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces,” Obama said. “We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”

Claiming that the war is broadly in compliance with international law, Obama failed to address the many specific concerns that have been raised by international organizations and officials regarding drone warfare.

Testifying to the UN the Human Rights Council’s following her visit to Pakistan last summer, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay criticized the use of drone strikes by the United States, noting in particular that they “raise questions about compliance with distinction and proportionality.”

“I also expressed serious concern over the continuing use of armed drones for targeted attacks,” she said,

in particular because it is unclear that all persons targeted are combatants or directly participating in hostilities. The Secretary-General has expressed concern about the lack of transparency on the circumstances in which drones are used, noting that these attacks raise questions about compliance with distinction and proportionality. I remind States of their international obligation to take all necessary precautions to ensure that attacks comply with international law. I urge them to conduct investigations that are transparent, credible and independent, and provide victims with effective remedies.

A 2010 United Nations report stated that a targeted killing outside of an actual battlefield “is almost never likely to be legal.” It rejected “pre-emptive self-defense” as a justification for killing terrorism suspects far from combat zones.

“This expansive and open-ended interpretation of the right to self-defense goes a long way towards destroying the prohibition on the use of armed force contained in the UN Charter,” said Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. “If invoked by other states, in pursuit of those they deem to be terrorists and to have attacked them, it would cause chaos.”

As the 2010 UN report states: “Whether or not a specific targeted killing is legal depends on the context in which it is conducted: whether in armed conflict, outside armed conflict, or in relation to the interstate use of force.”

Under the rules of international humanitarian law, the report points out, “targeted killing is only lawful when the target is a ‘combatant’ or ‘fighter’ or, in the case of a civilian, only for such time as the person ‘directly participates in hostilities.’”

In addition, the killing must be militarily necessary, the use of force must be proportionate so that any anticipated military advantage is considered in light of the expected harm to civilians in the vicinity, and everything feasible must be done to prevent mistakes and minimize harm to civilians. These standards apply regardless of whether the armed conflict is between States (an international armed conflict) or between a State and a non-state armed group (non-international armed conflict), including alleged terrorists.

Since the U.S. drone strikes are being carried out far from any battlefield, it is inconceivable that they conform with the “military necessity” requirement under international law, a question that Obama sidestepped in his speech, along with so many other issues.

Opposition grows against drones as U.S. attempts to dictate global rules

A recent drone protest in Pakistan

A recent drone protest in Pakistan

With various countries developing drone technology and threatening to break the U.S. monopoly on the ability drop bombs by remote control, the Obama administration is reportedly seeking to influence global rules on the use of weaponized drones.

As Reuters reported March 17,

President Barack Obama, who vastly expanded U.S. drone strikes against terrorism suspects overseas under the cloak of secrecy, is now openly seeking to influence global guidelines for their use as China and other countries pursue their own drone programs.

The United States was the first to use unmanned aircraft fitted with missiles to kill militant suspects in the years after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

But other countries are catching up. China’s interest in unmanned aerial vehicles was displayed in November at an air show. According to state-run newspaper Global Times, China had considered conducting its first drone strike to kill a suspect in the 2011 murder of 13 Chinese sailors, but authorities decided they wanted the man alive so they could put him on trial.

“People say what’s going to happen when the Chinese and the Russians get this technology? The president is well aware of those concerns and wants to set the standard for the international community on these tools,” said former White House spokesman Tommy Vietor.

The hypocrisy and double standards on display regarding this issue are truly stunning. For one thing, the irony of the fact that China – no paragon of human rights or the rule of law – has apparently foregone using this technology (so far) in favor of pursuing justice in the courts should not be lost on anyone. Secondly, the audacity of a White House spokesman preaching the value of the U.S. “set[ting] the standard for the international community on these tools” is dripping with such duplicity that it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around.

The international community, of course, has been raising objections to the U.S. war on terror in general, and the drone wars in particular, for years. A 2010 United Nations report on extrajudicial assassinations stated that a targeted killing outside of an actual battlefield “is almost never likely to be legal,” rejecting the U.S. doctrine of “pre-emptive self-defense” as a justification for killing terrorism suspects far from combat zones.

In a section dealing specifically with drones, the report noted that “a missile fired from a drone is no different from any other commonly used weapon, including a gun fired by a soldier or a helicopter or gunship that fires missiles.” However, “the critical legal question is the same for each weapon: whether its specific use complies with international humanitarian law.”

Rather than dwelling on the specific technology used to carry out extrajudicial assassinations, the UN pointed out that “the greater concern with drones is that because they make it easier to kill without risk to a State’s forces, policy makers and commanders will be tempted to interpret the legal limitations on who can be killed, and under what circumstances, too expansively.”

The expansive interpretation that the U.S. has applied to its targeting killing program “goes a long way towards destroying the prohibition on the use of armed force contained in the UN Charter,” said Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, in June 2010. “If invoked by other states, in pursuit of those they deem to be terrorists and to have attacked them, it would cause chaos.”

The UN is now investigating in detail 25 drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine where civilian deaths are credibly alleged. Announced on Jan. 24, it is the first official international inquiry into the drone program.

UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson, who is leading the investigation, has made clear that he’s not shying away from exposing U.S. “war crimes.”

On March 15, Emmerson told the Associated Press that, at the very least, the attacks violate Pakistan’s sovereignty. The Pakistani government made clear to him that it does not consent to the strikes, which have killed at least 400 civilians, Emmerson said. The statement was released following the investigator’s three-day visit to the country last week.

Yemen, another frequent target of U.S. drone strikes, has also made clear that it wants the bombings to end. Following an attack in January that killed three suspected terrorists, a Yemeni cabinet minister criticized Obama’s drone war in Yemen, noting that innocent civilians are often killed in these strikes.

“To have an innocent person fall, this is a major breach,” Yemeni Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour told Reuters. “I am in favor of changing the anti-terrorism strategy, I think there are more effective strategies that can be applied on the ground without harming civilians and without leading to human rights violations.”

Despite these criticisms, Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, says that the White House is refining the decision-making process for who gets targeted for aerial assassination, mindful of the possibility that other nations are pursuing this this technology.

“We are constantly working to refine, clarify, and strengthen the process for considering terrorist targets for lethal action,” Hayden said.

The administration recognizes “we are establishing standards other nations may follow,” she said.

I don't always order drones strikes agains children

But Zeke Johnson, Director of Amnesty International USA’s Security with Human Rights Campaign, pointed out in a recent blog post that the number one priority in the campaign to rein in the use of drones is to ensure that “the Obama administration must follow existing law on the use of lethal force.”

While Senator Dick Durbin has stated that the administration is willing to work with Congress to pass new legislation regarding the use of drones, the fact is, laws already exist governing any state’s use of lethal force regardless of the weapon: international human rights law and, in some circumstances, international humanitarian law. “The U.S. government must follow the law,” wrote Johnson, and “recognize that ALL people are equal in rights.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu expressed the thoughts of many around the world when he recently wrote regarding the U.S. drone program,

Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours? That President Obama can sign off on a decision to kill us with less worry about judicial scrutiny than if the target is an American? Would your Supreme Court really want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the 19th century, are not as human as you are? I cannot believe it.

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In April, a series of protest actions will be held around the United States calling attention to the criminality of U.S. drone policy. The protests are being organized around the following principles:

  • Armed drones are weapons of terror. They kill combatants and civilians, children and adults, men and women, alike. Their presence overhead terrorizes entire communities.
  • Extrajudicial assassinations by killer drones violate U. S. and international law.
  • Surveillance drones threaten our liberties, spying on communities and borders, invading our personal privacy.
  • Drones make our families less secure by making it easier for military and paramilitary agencies (like the CIA) to continue endless war without limits in either space or time.

Kicking off on April 4, the 45th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader and peace advocate Martin Luther King, the demonstrations will specifically target drone manufacturers, including General Atomics, maker of the Predator and Reaper drones.

Protests will also be held at Air Force and National Guard bases that control the U.S. military drone program in their regions.

A national march and rally will also be held at the White House on April 13, calling for an end to the U.S. drone wars. As the call to action reads,

Over 3,000 people have been murdered by U.S. drone strikes in the last few years, including a large number of children among the many civilians who have been slaughtered by these robotic killing machines.

Sitting in offices thousands of miles away from their targets, U.S. operators routinely decide to “push the button” and kill their unsuspecting targets on the ground with hellfire missiles fired from unseen drone aircraft. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, villagers have staged mass protests against drone strikes after their kids were incinerated while they were collecting firewood or farming in nearby fields.

The demonstration is being organized by the ANSWER Coalition, which held some of the country’s largest protests against the Iraq War last decade, and has been endorsed by CODEPINK, the Council on American Islamic Relations, Veterans for Peace and others.

“Join us at the White House for a march and rally on Saturday, April 13,” reads the call to action, “to let the world know that the people of this country are demanding ‘Drones Out of Africa and Everywhere!’”

Amnesty International is also organizing a campaign to demand that the Obama administration follows international law in the use of drones. “Amnesty International is deeply concerned that the Obama administration’s so-called ‘targeted killing’ program allows for the use of lethal force, including with drones, that violates the right to life under international law,” Amnesty states.

Another campaign, organized by Veterans for Peace, details a ten-point program for the new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Point number four states, “Stop the illegal use of combat drones that are responsible the extrajudicial assassinations of thousands of civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.”

To add your name, click here.

Obama’s dismal human rights legacy in focus as Trump takes the helm

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President Barack Obama’s human rights record is under criticism once again as he prepares to step down after eight years leading the United States government. His record has been a major disappointment to many in the human rights community, who now genuinely worry how much worse U.S. policies will become under President Donald J. Trump.

As this blog has documented since 2011, the U.S. government’s human rights record has been dismal under Obama, with troubling policies including his lack of prosecutions of torturers – effectively institutionalizing a system of legal impunity for war crimes – his utter failure to follow through on closing the travesty of justice known as Guantanamo Bay, waging a “war on whistleblowers” and suppressing freedom of information, codifying illegal policies of extrajudicial assassinations, expanding mass surveillance programs in violation of individual privacy, and failing to take effective action to ensure accountability for a nationwide epidemic of police brutality.

In terms of promoting fundamental freedoms abroad, his administration has “treated human rights as a secondary interest – nice to support when the cost was not too high, but nothing like a top priority,” according to Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth.

In a recent article for Foreign Policy, Roth writes:

Obama took office with great promise, announcing on his second day that he would stop CIA torture immediately and close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. By all accounts, the torture did stop. But Obama has steadfastly refused to prosecute those responsible or even to allow the release of much more than the summary of a comprehensive Senate Intelligence Committee report that documented it. As a result, rather than reaffirming the criminality of torture, Obama leaves office sending the lingering message that, should future policymakers resort to it, prosecution is unlikely. Given Trump’s campaign rhetoric about reinstating waterboarding (“or worse”), this is hardly an academic point, even considering the opposition of his nominee for defense secretary.

With respect to surveillance, Roth notes that “Obama seems to have continued and expanded programs begun by George W. Bush that lead to massive invasions of privacy.” When whistleblower Edward Snowden alerted the public to these programs, Obama supported legislation to limit the National Security Agency’s ability to collect phone records in bulk under one program, but “most of the mass privacy violations that Snowden disclosed remain unaddressed,” Roth notes.

When it comes to closing Guantanamo, Roth says the president’s efforts have been halfhearted:

Early in his tenure, he moved slowly, enabling Congress to adopt legislation — which he refused to veto — imposing various obstacles to transferring detainees overseas and barring their transfer to the United States even for trial. Facing political resistance, he reversed early plans to try the accused 9/11 plotters in a federal district court in New York, where their trials would long ago have been completed. Instead, the suspects were placed before Guantánamo’s military commissions — made-from-scratch tribunals replete with procedural problems. Seemingly designed to avoid public revelation of the details of the suspects’ torture, the commissions have made virtually no progress toward actual trials, which will not begin until long after Obama leaves office, if ever.

close-gitmoRoth notes that Obama has slowly reduced the number of prisoners held at Guantanamo by transferring many abroad, but “his insistence on holding some two dozen detainees indefinitely without charge makes it easier for Trump to repopulate Guantánamo, as he has threatened.”

When it comes to Guantanamo, Amnesty International is imploring Obama to do whatever he can in his last days in office to close the legal abomination before Trump – who has threatened to repopulate the prison and reinstate a torture regime – takes over as president on January 20. In an open letter to Obama, Amnesty International USA Executive Director Margaret Huang begs the president, “Don’t Leave Guantánamo to Trump.”

“Dear President Obama,” she writes:

On behalf of Amnesty International’s 1.2 million supporters in the United States, I write to make a final plea that you use all the powers of your office to close the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay. We are gravely concerned that if you fail to do so, President-elect Trump may attempt to bring dozens or even hundreds of people there, to be held in unlawful detention for decades and possibly subjected to torture and other forms of cruel treatment.

Despite your positive actions to date, your legacy will include failing to cure this corruption of our country’s ideals of justice and fairness. You will leave behind Guantánamo as a system of injustice that—having survived for 15 years, two political parties and four presidential terms of office—may remain open for the foreseeable future.

Our concern is heightened by the sharp rise in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric during the election. Proposals for large-scale detention without charge, which once seemed inconceivable, are now on the table as options your successor may pursue. Guantánamo, with its shameful tradition of secrecy and insularity from legal process, would be all too convenient a location for mass imprisonment without charge, returning the United States to one of its grimmest chapters.

“It is past time to shut down the detention facility at Guantánamo,” you said recently at MacDill Air Base, and not for the first time. You emphasized that Congress would be “judged harshly by history” due to restrictions it placed on your ability to transfer detainees. However, despite your concerted efforts, it is your presidency that will be judged harshly — by history, the international community and human rights supporters across the United States and the rest of the world — if you fail to take all possible measures to transfer those remaining out of Guantánamo.

Your actions now will impact this country’s decisions on detention without charge, torture and human rights for decades to come by informing the way young people understand the injustice of Guantánamo. People under the age of 25 have spent all or much of their lives with Guantánamo open. Most are too young to remember the photos of torture at Abu Ghraib, or of men at Camp X-Ray kneeling next to their cages. They do not know the collective shock and moral outrage that millions of Americans felt then, which led political figures from Colin Powell to John McCain to call for the closure of Guantánamo. Through your actions now, you can ensure new generations learn this history—and do not repeat it.

We also urge your administration, in closing Guantánamo, to abandon the military commissions. These ill-conceived tribunals simultaneously fail to respect human rights principles or achieve justice. To be sure, anyone responsible for the crimes against humanity committed on September 11, 2001 should be brought to justice in fair trials. Guantánamo and the military commissions have not—and cannot—provide that justice. The 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks recently passed, and those who lost loved ones in the attacks have a right to see justice in their lifetime. However, not only do the military commission trials seem unlikely to begin—much less conclude—for years to come, when they do take place they will fail to meet international fair trial standards.

You began your presidency with an executive order to end the Guantánamo detentions and to close the detention camp there. We urge you to end it with bold action to realize your promise.

gitmo-solThe human rights group urges supporters to send messages to Obama urging him to close this travesty of justice once and for all, and to prioritize other human rights matters in the waning days of his presidency.

It is not clear, however, how much stock Obama places in the concerns of the human rights community. He spoke rather dismissively of “activist organizations” in a recent interview with The Atlantic, in which he defended his drone assassination program, which has killed hundreds of innocent people including U.S. citizens.

“I think right now we probably have the balance about right,” he told The Atlantic, referring to the ratio of killed terrorists and innocent civilians. “Now, you wouldn’t know that if you talked to Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or some of the international activist organizations.”

He further asserted that “the internal reforms we put in place had less to do with what the left or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or other organizations were saying and had more to do with me looking at sort of the way in which the number of drone strikes was going up and the routineness with which, early in my presidency, you were seeing both DOD and CIA and our intelligence teams think about this.”

obamadroneIt troubled him, he said, because the drone strikes could enable “a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate.” Of course, this is exactly what Obama has done, as has been repeatedly pointed out.

As Naureen Shah of Amnesty International told The Intercept last year, “What’s so interesting is that President Obama acknowledges this problem – that future presidents will be empowered to kill globally, and in secret. What he doesn’t acknowledge is how much of a role his administration had in making that a bizarre normal.”

Another legacy that Obama is leaving behind is torture impunity, which he has instituted by failing to launch prosecutions of gross human rights violations during the Bush administration. By shielding torturers from criminal justice, Obama has done more than any other president in history in establishing torture as little more than a “policy option” for presidents to utilize or not depending on the political whims of the day.

To prevent torture from being reinstituted by the incoming Trump administration, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture is calling on Obama to release in full the Senate’s torture report and force “appropriate officials” to read it in order to ensure that they “learn from the past.” Although White House Counsel Neil Eggleston recently announced that Obama will archive one copy of the torture report, it will remain classified for at least 12 years. “At this time, we are not pursuing declassification of the full Study,” he wrote recently in a letter to Sen. Feinstein.

In an action alert, the online advocacy group Roots Action is urging supporters to sign a petition to President Obama urging him to release the full report.

Obama is also being urged by a range of organizations to free the U.S. government’s political prisoners, including Chelsea Manning, Jeffrey Sterling and Leonard Peltier. For more on those cases, click here.

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Would any of the U.S. presidential candidates not commit war crimes?

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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.”

john mccain gop torture quoteIndeed, 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 aggressionkill 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.”

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A Yemeni boy (C) walks past a mural depicting a US drone and reading ‘ Why did you kill my family’ on December 13, 2013 in Yemen’s capital Sanaa.

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.

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

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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.

U.S. government sued over mass surveillance, freedom of information and drone assassinations

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The United States government is finding itself on the defensive this month, being taken to court over a host of policies that violate constitutional and international law.

First, on March 10, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Wikimedia Foundation, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA and other groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. National Security Agency challenging one of its mass surveillance programs that the plaintiffs say violates Americans’ privacy and makes individuals worldwide less likely to share sensitive information.

In particular, the lawsuit focuses on the NSA’s “upstream” surveillance, which involves the NSA’s tapping into the physical infrastructure of the internet, compromising Americans’ online communications with each other and with the rest of the world.

As explained by the ACLU:

In the course of its surveillance, the NSA copies and combs through vast amounts of Internet traffic, which it intercepts inside the United States with the help of major telecommunications companies. It searches that traffic for keywords called “selectors” that are associated with its targets. The surveillance involves the NSA’s warrantless review of the emails and Internet activities of millions of ordinary Americans.

“This kind of dragnet surveillance constitutes a massive invasion of privacy, and it undermines the freedoms of expression and inquiry as well,” said ACLU Staff Attorney Patrick Toomey. “Ordinary Americans shouldn’t have to worry that the government is looking over their shoulders when they use the Internet.”

The lawsuit argues that the NSA is infringing on the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights and violating their privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment. The complaint also argues that the surveillance oversteps the authority granted by Congress under the FISA Amendments Act.

In explaining why her group joined the lawsuit, Human Rights Watch General Counsel Dinah Pokempner described the significant damage done by the NSA’s surveillance to the work of defending human rights around the world:

When Human Rights Watch can’t assure the privacy of the people with whom we work to expose and halt human rights abuses, we can’t protect their security either. Lives are in the balance, not to mention freedom of information, association, and speech.

Activists in Ethiopia, defense attorneys in France, and officials working in Indonesia won’t call or email us sensitive information about ongoing rights violations because they rightly fear surveillance. We have to get the facts face-to-face or not at all, and either way, that’s costly. People know the domestic government may well have an intelligence partnership with the US, and any leak of US-monitored communications may result in arbitrary arrest, prosecution, assault, or worse.

Last year, we documented the pall that surveillance has thrown over journalists and lawyers in the US, who now must go to extreme lengths to protect their confidential communications, or just forgo the reporting and defense strategies that keep our society informed, fair, and accountable.

HRW and the other groups in the lawsuit said that upstream surveillance “reduces the likelihood” that clients, journalists, foreign government officials, victims of human rights abuses and other individuals will share sensitive information with them.

Lila Tretikov, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales wrote in the New York Times that they were concerned about where data on their users ends up after it is collected by the NSA. Noting close intelligence ties between the United States and Egypt, they said a user in Egypt would have reason to fear reprisal if she edited a page about the country’s political opposition.

The day after the lawsuit was filed challenging the NSA’s mass surveillance, the Associated Press sued the State Department to force the release of email correspondence and government documents from Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. The legal action was a response to Clinton’s attempts to circumvent transparency laws by using a private email account while she headed the State Department and followed repeated requests filed under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act that have gone unfulfilled, according to the AP.

As the news agency explained in a March 11 article,

The FOIA requests and the suit seek materials related to her public and private calendars; correspondence involving aides likely to play important roles in her expected campaign for president; and Clinton-related emails about the Osama bin Laden raid and National Security Agency surveillance practices.

“After careful deliberation and exhausting our other options, The Associated Press is taking the necessary legal steps to gain access to these important documents, which will shed light on actions by the State Department and former Secretary Clinton, a presumptive 2016 presidential candidate, during some of the most significant issues of our time,” said Karen Kaiser, AP’s general counsel.

The suit filed by the AP came a day after Clinton broke her silence about her use of a private email account while she was America’s top diplomat. In defending her actions – which were widely seen as a crude attempt to avoid government transparency requirements – the likely 2016 Democratic presidential candidate claimed that her decision to forgo the official State Department email system was simply a matter of personal convenience.

“At the time, this didn’t seem like an issue,” Clinton said in a March 11 press conference. Clinton insisted she was not violating any rules or seeking to hide her communications.

“I fully complied by every rule I was governed by,” she claimed.

The senior-most executive branch official in charge of freedom-of-information matters for over a quarter-century flatly disagreed. Daniel Metcalfe, whose job it was to help four administrations interpret the Freedom of Information Act, offer advice, and testify before Congress on their behalf, called Clinton’s explanation laughable.

“What she did was contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the law,” said Metcalfe. “There is no doubt that the scheme she established was a blatant circumvention of the Freedom of Information Act, atop the Federal Records Act.”

Said AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll: “The Freedom of Information Act exists to give citizens a clear view of what government officials are doing on their behalf. When that view is denied, the next resort is the courts.”

Another challenge to the U.S. government playing out in the courts is a lawsuit filed this week against the lawless and secretive CIA drone assassination program being carried out by the Obama administration. The ACLU sued the White House in federal court on March 16 in an attempt to compel the release of classified information regarding the program of extrajudicial assassinations.

The lawsuit seeks in particular disclosure of the criteria for placing individuals on the administration’s “kill list.”

“The public should know who the government is killing and why it’s killing them,” said ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer quite reasonably. “There’s no good reason why legal memos relating to the targeted-killing program should be secret in their entirety. Nor is there any legitimate justification for the government’s refusal to acknowledge individual strikes or to disclose civilian casualties or to disclose the procedures under which individuals are added to government ‘kill list.’”

An article by Matthew Spurlock, Legal Fellow at the ACLU National Security Project, explained why the ACLU decided to take the administration to court:

Our government’s deliberative and premeditated killings – and the many more civilian deaths from the strikes – raise profound legal and ethical questions that ought to be the subject of public debate. The Obama administration has made numerous promises of greater transparency and oversight on drones. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama pledged to make lethal targeting “more transparent to the American people and the world” because “in our democracy, no one should just take my word for it that we’re doing things the right way.”

But the administration has failed to follow through on these commitments to openness, and it is continuing to withhold basic information­. When it has released anything – or been compelled to by lawsuits – discussion of crucial aspects of the program have been omitted or redacted. This lack of transparency makes the public reliant on the government’s self-serving and sometimes false representations about the targeted-killing program.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that 2,442 to 3,942 people in Pakistan have been killed by CIA drone strikes since 2004. Hundreds more people are thought to have been killed by U.S. drones in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.

The White House has formally acknowledged that four of those killed by U.S. drone strikes were United States citizens, one of whom was just 16 years old.

The U.S. has come under intense international criticism over its drone assassination program for years, with a February 2014 report issued by Ben Emmerson, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, urging the United States to ensure that “any measures taken to counter terrorism, including the use of remotely piloted aircraft, comply with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, in particular the principles of precaution, distinction and proportionality.”

Another UN report, issued by the UN Human Rights Committee in March 2014, expressed grave concern about the U.S.’s practice of targeted killings by drones, particularly “the lack of transparency regarding the criteria for drone strikes, including the legal justification for specific attacks, and the lack of accountability for the loss of life resulting from such attacks.”

Despite these concerns, the United States has decided to not only continue its drone assassination program but to begin exporting drones to countries around the world so that they may also begin remotely assassinating people without charge or trial.

Rather hypocritically, the Obama Administration has said that prospective purchasers of “unmanned aerial systems” must meet certain restrictions set out in the State Department’s “Fact Sheet”. For one, purchasers must use armed drones “in accordance with international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, as applicable.”

Unfortunately, it will be the United States – perhaps the world’s most frequent and flagrant violator of international law – determining whether these standards are met.

U.S. support for Israeli war crimes violates international and domestic law

Fire raging in Gaza's main power plant following an overnight Israeli airstrike, south of Gaza City. Photograph: Oliver Weiken/EPA

Fire raging in Gaza’s main power plant following an overnight Israeli airstrike, south of Gaza City. Photograph: Oliver Weiken/EPA

As the world watches in shock and revulsion at Israel’s latest onslaught of death and destruction in the Gaza Strip – killing more than 1,200 Palestinians in the past three weeks, including more than 200 children – the United States government is offering its full diplomatic, political and financial support for the carnage, making it culpable under international law for the ongoing war crimes.

Among the targets of the Israeli military in the past few days have been the Shati refugee camp and the Shifa hospital, as well as Gaza’s sole power plant, leaving civilians in a dire humanitarian situation from which there appears to be nowhere to take refuge.

The UN estimates that 78 percent of those killed in Gaza have been civilians and that 21 percent of them have been children. More than 3,000 homes in Gaza have been completely destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by Israeli attacks, leaving tens of thousands of Gazan residents homeless. Now the displaced and the injured are not even safe in hospitals and refugee camps.

Sharif Abdul Kouddous reported on the recent attacks for the Nation yesterday,

Shifa Hospital is again a scene of chaos. Wails of grief and shouts of anger fill the halls. People crouch on the floor staring out with bloodshot eyes; others rush by with bloodied clothes. Stretchers are wheeled back and forth, nearly all of them with bandaged children lying on top, eyes wide with fright or shock. Men and women weep, their hands on their mouths as they try to hold back the grief pouring out.

Nearly all the eyewitnesses say the same thing: children were playing on the street in the Al-Shati (Beach) refugee camp north of Gaza City. They scurried between a swing set on the sidewalk and a small grocery shop selling sweets and chips. At around 4:30 pm there was a loud explosion. Then many of the children lay still, some of them in pieces.

“I saw a massacre,” says Khaled al-Sirhi. The 22-year-old was sitting in the street with friends when the attack happened. “There were heads off bodies, shoulders half torn, hands gone, chests opened.” There is blood on al-Sirhi’s shirt and hands. Al-Sirhi carried two of the wounded to ambulances, his niece and a boy who died by the time he arrived at hospital. “There were no militants, no resistance members, just children,” he says.

Ten people were killed in the attack, including eight children, and forty were injured, thirty-two of them children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. Israel claimed a misfired militant rocket caused the carnage, but several eyewitnesses blamed the explosion on an airstrike. …

At the site of the Shati Camp attack, children’s sandals lie on the street next to pools of blood. Water gushes out of a broken pipe, turning red as it flows down the street. Leaves, blown off the trees by the force of the blast, blanket the ground. Shrapnel holes are everywhere, tearing holes in walls and cars. Young men gather in clusters. The sound of an outgoing rocket hisses out, its trail visible high in the sky. Chants of “Allah Akbar” echo in the street.

“We were playing on the swings and the missile hit and everyone started running,” says 6-year-old Anas Abu Shaafa. Two of his brothers were wounded in the attack, and two cousins were killed.

Although Israel attempted to blame Hamas for the attack on the refugee camp and hospital, the Guardian reported yesterday,

Witnesses in Gaza said missiles had been fired from Israeli F-16 jets. A spokesman for the interior ministry in Gaza, Iyad al-Buzm, said explosives experts from the Gaza police had examined “the targeted places and the remnants of shells there” as well as the wounds on the bodies, determining them to be from an Israeli strike.

These recent war crimes continue a pattern of wanton atrocities committed by the Israeli Defense Forces, which have targeted civilians – including women and children – mercilessly this month. As Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer reported on Democracy Now yesterday,

I used to tell people, “Well, try to avoid areas where Hamas residents or Hamas people are living,” but nowadays I changed my theory, and I started to tell people to try to avoid places where children are located. Israel is targeting children in the Gaza Strip. Most of the airstrikes, most of the bombs, most of the artillery shelling that targets people is mostly children in all parts of the Gaza Strip.

Despite the horrific human toll of Israel’s brutal actions in the Gaza Strip, as well as a growing international chorus demanding a ceasefire, the U.S. continues to make clear its unconditional support for any crimes that the Israeli government commits, no matter how heinous.

In New York on Monday an estimated 10,000 Zionists demonstrated their support for the attack on Gaza, at which members of New York’s congressional delegation rallied the supporters with speeches near the United Nations. U.S. Democratic Rep. Steve Israel spoke at the rally, saying he is sending the UN a letter signed by more than 100 U.S. lawmakers to demand it not investigate Israel for war crimes.

President Obama has reportedly told Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu by phone of his concern over civilian casualties and apparently urged an immediate ceasefire, but publicly has voiced support for the Israeli attacks. Other U.S. officials persist in offering the unqualified backing of the United States government, expressing support in particular for “Israel’s right to defend itself.”

susan rice

Standing in front of a banner reading #IsraelSolidarity, President Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice this week said, “Here is one thing you never have to worry about: America’s support for the state of Israel.”

As The Guardian reports:

[Rice] singled out the vote by the UN human rights council last week in favour of an independent inquiry into alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by Israel. Seventeen countries abstained during the vote, and only one country – the US – voted against.

Rice called the the UN inquiry “one-sided” and said it would “have no positive impact and should never have been created”. “The United States stood with Israel, and said ‘no’. We were the lone vote in the human rights council. Even our closest friends on the council abstained. It was 29 to one. But the one, as usual, was America. That is what we mean when we say: you are not alone.”

While this diplomatic support is perhaps not surprising considering the fact that Israel has long been the world’s number one recipient of U.S. military aid and fits in a longstanding pattern of unequivocal U.S. backing for Israel, the support for the ongoing war crimes and atrocities in the Gaza Strip could place the United States in violation of international law, and possibly domestic law.

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.

As the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation points out,

Because Israel misuses U.S. weapons to commit human rights abuses of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, including, but not limited to:  the injuring and killing of civilians, the destruction of Palestinian civilian infrastructure, the severe restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement, and the expropriation of Palestinian land and resources for Israeli settlements, it is pertinent to investigate whether Israel is violating U.S. laws aimed at ensuring that U.S. military aid and weapons are appropriately and legally used.

Given that U.S. military aid to Israel “directly contributes to Israel’s systematic human rights violations against Palestinians,” both Congress and the President “must utilize the investigative and reporting mechanisms found in these laws and hold Israel accountable for any and all violations of these laws as required,” concludes the U.S. Campaign.

The Center for Constitutional Rights also backs this view, calling for the State Department to enforce the Leahy Law. “The Leahy Law bars the U.S. from funding foreign military units and individuals where there is credible evidence that they took part in gross human rights violations,” explains CCR.

In a recent statement issued by the National Lawyers Guild, the group explained the international legal principles of distinction and proportionality:

The NLG believes that international humanitarian law must be adhered to. The principle of distinction requires all parties to distinguish between civilians and combatants, as well as between civilian objects and military objectives. The principle of proportionality prohibits launching an attack, which may be expected to cause loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, or damage to civilian objects, which would be excessive compared to the concrete military advantage anticipated. In addition, Palestinian civilians are protected under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which obliges Israel, as the Occupying Power, to ensure the well-being and safety of the occupied population and respect Palestinians’ right to life and dignity.

Israel has admitted intentionally targeting Palestinian civilians and homes. On July 8, the Israeli military announced that it had deliberately bombed the homes of four persons it called senior Hamas activists. According to international customary law, a permissible military objective is “limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action […or] or offers a definite military advantage.” The punitive targeting of the homes of people who may have links with armed groups, but are not taking active part in hostilities, is impermissible.

NLG concluded that “Israel’s framing of its military actions in Gaza as ‘self-defense’ is part of a long-standing effort to weaken and change international law. The US must end its complicity in this effort.”

This position has also been endorsed by a coalition of nearly 150 international law experts who issued a resolution on Monday calling for an immediate end to the “collective punishment” of the people of the Gaza Strip. The resolution asks the “international community” to intervene on behalf of those living in Gaza and directly challenges the Israeli government’s continued assertion that its attack on Gaza is legal under international law.

The opening paragraph of the document states:

As international and criminal law scholars, human rights defenders, legal experts and individuals who firmly believe in the rule of law and in the necessity for its respect in times of peace and more so in times of war, we feel the intellectual and moral duty to denounce the grave violations, mystification and disrespect of the most basic principles of the laws of armed conflict and of the fundamental human rights of the entire Palestinian population committed during the ongoing Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip. We also condemn the launch of rockets from the Gaza Strip, as every indiscriminate attack against civilians, regardless of the identity of the perpetrators, is not only illegal under international law but also morally intolerable. However, as also implicitly noted by the UN Human Rights Council in its Resolution of the 23th July 2014, the two parties to the conflict cannot be considered equal, and their actions – once again – appear to be of incomparable magnitude.

Its call to action states:

We call upon the United Nations, the Arab League, the European Union, individual States, in particular the United States of America, and the international community in its entirety and with its collective power to take action in the spirit of the utmost urgency to put an end to the escalation of violence against the civilian population of the Gaza Strip, and to activate procedures to hold accountable all those responsible for violations of international law, including political leaders and military commanders. In particular:

All regional and international actors should support the immediate conclusion of a durable, comprehensive, and mutually agreed ceasefire agreement, which must secure the rapid facilitation and access of humanitarian aid and the opening of borders to and from Gaza.

For its part, Amnesty International is organizing a petition to be presented to Secretary of State John Kerry, which reads, “The Israeli military has used a wide variety of conventional weapons such as guns, bullets, missiles, drones, jet fighters, artillery, tanks, armoured vehicles and naval vessels to commit serious human rights abuses in Gaza. It is time for the U.S. government to urgently suspend arms transfers to Israel and to push for a UN arms embargo on all parties to the conflict.”

To add your name to the petition, click here.

The ANSWER Coalition is also organizing a national march on Washington to stop the massacre in Gaza on Saturday, Aug. 2. For more information, click here.

Scathing criticism of U.S. human rights record at UN review

guantanamo-bay-calls-for-its-closure-london_993425

The United States came under sustained criticism last week during a two-day review by the United Nations Human Rights Committee for its compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a legally binding treaty ratified by the United States in 1992.

Much of the attention that the review has received in the media has focused on the U.S.’s refusal to recognize the ICCPR’s mandate over its actions beyond its own borders, using the “extra-territoriality” claim to justify its actions in Guantánamo and in conflict zones.

Walter Kälin, a Swiss international human rights lawyer who sits on the committee, criticized the U.S. position. “This world is an unsafe place,” Kälin said. “Will it not become even more dangerous if any state would be willing to claim that international law does not prevent them from committing human rights violations abroad?”

Besides its controversial counter-terrorism tactics, including indefinite detention and the use of drones to kill terrorist suspects far from any battlefield, the U.S. also came under criticism for a litany of human rights abuses that included NSA surveillance, police brutality, the death penalty, rampant gun violence and endemic racial inequality.

The U.S. government was also reprimanded for the treatment of youth in the criminal justice system, with committee members pointing out that the sentence of life without parole for child offenders may raise issues under article 7 of the ICCPR, which prohibits “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” While this matter is left to the states under the U.S. system of federalism, the national government should require that juveniles be separated from adult prisoners, the U.S. was told.

Corporal punishment of children in schools, detention centers and homes was also raised, with the U.S. delegation asked what policy has been adopted to eliminate corporal punishment and treat children as minors rather than adults in the criminal justice system. To this criticism, the U.S. responded that it is still “exceptional” in the U.S. for children to be tried in adult courts.

Concern was also expressed over mandatory deportation of immigrants convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors without regard to individual cases. Further, the U.S. has failed to meet international obligations for freedom of religious belief in relation to indigenous communities, the committee said.

The U.S. was asked for a timeline for closing the Guantanamo detention center, and concern was raised over the fairness of the military commissions set up to try terrorism suspects. The majority of Guantanamo detainees approved for transfer remain in administrative limbo, the U.S. was reminded.

When it comes to mass surveillance being conducted by the National Security Agency, the U.S. delegation was asked if the NSA surveillance is “necessary and proportionate,” and whether the oversight under the FISA court could be considered sufficient.

NSA surveillance raises concerns under articles 17 and 19 of the ICCPR, the U.S. was told. According to article 17,

1. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.

2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 19 guarantees that,

1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

Committee members also highlighted the Obama administration’s failure to prosecute any of the officials responsible for permitting waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques under the previous administration.

The committee weighed in on the ongoing conflict between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee, calling in particular for the U.S. to release a report on a Bush-era interrogation program at the heart of the dispute.

“It would appear that a Senator Dianne Feinstein claims that the computers of the Senate have been hacked into in the context of this investigation,” Victor Manuel Rodriguez-Rescia, a committee member from Costa Rica, told the U.S. delegation.

“In the light of this, we would like hear a commitment that this report will be disclosed, will be made public and therefore be de-classified so that we the committee can really analyze what follow-up you have given to these hearings.”

Committee chair Nigel Rodley, a British law professor and former UN investigator on torture, suggested lawyers in the Bush administration who drew up memorandums justifying the use of harsh interrogation techniques could also be liable to prosecution.

“When evidently seriously flawed legal opinions are issued which then are used as a cover for the committing of serious crimes, one wonders at what point the authors of such opinions may themselves have to be considered part of the criminal plan in the first place?” Rodley said.

“Of course we know that so far there has been impunity.”

This impunity stems in part from the U.S. position that the treaty imposes no human rights obligations on American military and intelligence forces when they operate abroad, rejecting an interpretation by the United Nations and the top State Department lawyer during President Obama’s first term.

“The United States continues to believe that its interpretation — that the covenant applies only to individuals both within its territory and within its jurisdiction — is the most consistent with the covenant’s language and negotiating history,” Mary McLeod, the State Department’s acting legal adviser, said during the session.

This narrow legal reasoning drew criticism from the UN panel, with committee member Yuji Iwasawa, Professor of International Law at the University of Tokyo, pointing out that “No state has made more reservations to the ICCPR than the United States.”

The review last week, held on March 13-14, is a voluntary exercise, repeated every five years, and the U.S. will face no penalties if it ignores the committee’s recommendations, which will appear in a final report in a few weeks’ time.

The Guardian noted however that “the U.S. is clearly sensitive to suggestions that it fails to live up to the human rights obligations enshrined in the convention – as signalled by the large size of its delegation to Geneva this week. And as an act of public shaming, Thursday’s encounter was frequently uncomfortable for the U.S.”

U.S. human rights record under international review this week in Geneva

InternationalCovenantCivilPoliticalRightsAs a country that feels comfortable proudly proclaiming its “exceptional” status to the world and relishing in its perceived global leadership on human rights, the United States might find it somewhat uncomfortable being scrutinized this week on its own human rights record, when it is reviewed March 13-14 by the UN’s Human Rights Committee (HRC) for its compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a legally binding treaty ratified by the United States in 1992.

The review, which takes place every several years, is a rare spotlight on domestic human rights issues within the United States, as well as its prosecution of the “war on terror” abroad. It is one of the few occasions where the U.S. government is compelled to defend its record on a range of human rights concerns, speaking the language of international law rather than the usual language of constitutional rights.

One of the primary issues the United States will be asked to clarify this week is the applicability of the ICCPR to its military engagements overseas, including indefinite detention and the extrajudicial killings carried out by unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.

Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, has just completed an investigation into 37 recent drone strikes, in which he noted a sharp rise in strikes and a “significant number” of civilian casualties since the end of 2013. Emmerson has demanded greater accountability and transparency on drone strikes, including public investigations into allegations of civilian casualties.

In its questionnaire to the U.S. government ahead of this year’s review, the top question of the HRC was for clarification of the government’s position on the applicability of the ICCPR in the war on terror.

Specifically, the HRC requested that the U.S. clarify “the State party’s understanding of the scope of applicability of the Covenant with respect to individuals under its jurisdiction but outside its territory; in times of peace, as well as in times of armed conflict.”

Following the last review of the United States, in July 2006, the  U.S. government articulated “its firmly held legal view on the territorial scope of application of the Covenant,” namely that the ICCPR does not apply to U.S. actions with respect to individuals under its jurisdiction but outside its territory, nor in time of war.

The HRC objected to this “restrictive interpretation made by the State party of its obligations under the Covenant,” and urged the U.S. to “review its approach and interpret the Covenant in good faith, in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to its terms in their context, including subsequent practice, and in the light of its object and purpose.”

Specifically, in its response to the U.S. report, the HRC urged the United States to:

(a) acknowledge the applicability of the Covenant with respect to individuals under its jurisdiction but outside its territory, as well as its applicability in time of war;

(b) take positive steps, when necessary, to ensure the full implementation of all rights prescribed by the Covenant; and

(c) consider in good faith the interpretation of the Covenant provided by the Committee pursuant to its mandate.

It does not appear, however, that the U.S. will be changing its legal position regarding the treaty’s extraterritorial applicability. As the New York Times reported on March 6,

The United Nations panel in Geneva that monitors compliance with the rights treaty disagrees with the American interpretation, and human rights advocates have urged the United States to reverse its position when it sends a delegation to answer the panel’s questions next week. But the Obama administration is unlikely to do that, according to interviews, rejecting a strong push by two high-ranking State Department officials from President Obama’s first term.

Caitlin Hayden, a National Security Council spokeswoman, declined to discuss deliberations but defended the existing interpretation of the accord as applying only within American borders. Called the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it bars such things as unfair trials, arbitrary killings and the imprisonment of people without judicial review.

However, in a 56-page internal memo, the State Department’s former top lawyer, Harold Koh, concluded in October 2010 that the “best reading” of the accord is that it does “impose certain obligations on a State Party’s extraterritorial conduct.”

Despite Koh’s opinions, the Obama administration has reportedly decided not to reverse the previous U.S. position due to fears that accepting that everything from extraterritorial drone strikes to NSA surveillance could fall within the purview of the ICCPR.

The ACLU’s Jamil Dakwar pointed out in a blog post on Sunday that “the review will cast light on a dark underbelly of American exceptionalism — our refusal to acknowledge that human rights treaties have effect overseas.” The only other country in the world that claims that human rights treaties don’t apply to extraterritorial action is Israel, Dakwar noted.

Perhaps anticipating a difficult review, the United States is sending a huge delegation of government lawyers and military officials to defend the U.S. position. The HRC apparently had to reserve a bigger hall to accommodate the sizable U.S. government delegation and more than 70 human rights advocates and observers who will be in attendance at the six-hour session.

In addition to issues related to the global war on terror, the HRC will review U.S. compliance with its ICCPR obligations on matters such as the rights of indigenous peoples, the death penalty, solitary confinement, voting rights, migrant and women’s rights, and NSA surveillance.

The ACLU submitted a shadow report to the committee highlighting examples of accountability gaps between U.S. human rights obligations and current law, policy, and practice. “U.S. laws and policies remain out of step with international human rights law in many areas,” notes the ACLU.

In addition, the ACLU provided an update to the issues covered in its September submission to the committee, which addresses serious rights violations that have emerged in recent months. The report covers:

The U.S. Human Rights Network has also submitted 30 shadow reports and currently has a delegation in Geneva, conducting activities over the course of the week to ensure that UN and U.S. officials understand the human rights realities of communities across the country.

USHRN’s shadow reports cover a wide range of issues including indigenous rights, equal protection of men and women, prisoners’ rights, freedom of association, political participation, and access to justice. The Center for Constitutional Rights has submitted shadow reports on issues including police departments’ stop-and-frisk policies, deportations of immigrants, and arbitrary detention at Guantanamo Bay.

As the ACLU’s Jamil Dakwar wrote on Sunday,

More than ever, the U.S. is facing an uphill battle to prove its bona fides on human rights issues. The United States is not only seen as a hypocrite, resisting demands to practice at home what it preaches abroad, it is now increasingly seen as a violator of human rights that is setting a dangerous precedent for other governments to justify and legitimize their own rights’ violations.

Despite this fact, the U.S. continues to ruffle feathers around the world with its increasingly hypocritical criticisms of other countries. On February 27, the State Department released its annual human rights report on the global human rights situation. As Secretary of State John Kerry said in releasing the report:

Even as we come together today to issue a report on other nations, we hold ourselves to a high standard, and we expect accountability here at home too. And we know that we’re not perfect. We don’t speak with any arrogance whatsoever, but with a concern for the human condition.

Our own journey has not been without great difficulty, and at times, contradiction. But even as we remain humble about the challenges of our own history, we are proud that no country has more opportunity to advance the cause of democracy and no country is as committed to the cause of human rights as we are.

Kerry’s comments not only likely infuriated the frequent targets of U.S. criticism, but also were offensive to every other country on earth that takes the cause of human rights seriously. By saying that “no country is as committed to the cause of human rights as” the U.S., what he’s really saying is that even countries such as Iceland or Denmark which have made human rights core pillars of their foreign policy don’t come close to the U.S. standard.

Not unexpectedly, China and Russia immediately denounced the U.S. human rights report, saying the United States is hardly a bastion of human rights standards and is on poor footing to judge other nations.

“The United States always wants to gossip and remark about other countries’ situations, but ignores its own issues. This is a classic double standard,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang.

The combination of the U.S. drone assassination programs, a National Security Agency under increasing global scrutiny for its dragnet surveillance practices, rampant gun violence, poor labor standards, and use of solitary confinement in jails shows that the U.S. is hardly without its own human rights abuses, noted China in its own report, “The Human Rights Record of the United States in 2013.”

Moscow concurred, with Russian Foreign Ministry’s commissioner for human rights, democracy and supremacy of law Konstantin Dolgov saying on March 4 that the U.S. human rights report “has the same flaws that were typical for previous similar reports.”

“The document is cramped with selective and stereotype assessments with the use of double standards, for instance, regarding tragic events in Ukraine,” Dolgov noted.

He pointed out that the U.S. has “acute problems with equal suffrage rights in the US and their equal access to justice.” Further, the U.S. leads the world with the number of incarcerated citizens, with with 2.2 million prisoners, Dolgov said.

As the U.S. is forced to answer for its own human rights record this week, it will be interesting to see how forthcoming it is on these problems, or if it will continue to tout its claimed status as the human rights champion of the world.

The entire U.S. ICCPR review, taking place March 13 and 14, will be broadcast live on UN TV. To follow on Twitter, use the hashtag #ICCPRforAll.

For Compliance Campaign’s archive of ICCPR related articles, see here.

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