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We arm the world: U.S. weapons sales fueling global conflict

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It’s been less than three years since the adoption of the historic Arms Trade Treaty, and already the United States is leading the way in flouting this landmark accord, violating the letter and spirit of the international agreement by pumping the world full of weapons – fueling global conflict and undermining efforts to uphold human rights and stem the flow of refugees.

As the most recent data confirms, the U.S. remains the world’s largest supplier of weapons systems, with the monetary value of its arms agreements increasing steadily in recent years, despite the global security situation slipping further into chaos and a major refugee crisis destabilizing the entire European continent.

According to arms researcher Jeff Abramson, citing figures from the Congressional Research Service and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute:

The United States concluded $36.2 billion in arms transfer agreements worldwide in 2014, the most recent year detailed in the report. That total was up nearly $10 billion from the 2013 total and constituted just more than half of all global 2014 agreements, which were valued at $71.8 billion, slighly above the 2013 total of $70.2 billion. Nearly $30 billion of U.S. agreements in 2014 were with developing countries, including large-value pacts with Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea.

As a recent article by William Hartung further explains, the ballooning U.S. arms sales appear to be a coordinated strategy to wage proxy wars in the Middle East, based on a desire to shape events while avoiding more direct U.S. engagement (and meanwhile make billions of dollars in profits for U.S. arms manufacturers):

The Obama administration has made arms sales a central tool of its foreign policy, in part as a way of exerting military influence without having to put “boots on the ground” in large numbers, as the Bush administration did in Iraq—with disastrous consequences.

The Obama administration’s push for more Mideast arms sales has been a bonanza for U.S. weapons contractors, who have made increased exports a primary goal as Pentagon spending levels off.  Not only do foreign sales boost company profits, but they also help keep open production lines that would otherwise have to close due to declining orders from the Pentagon.

When it comes to the individual companies profiting off of the global arms bazaar, the following list drives home the point that U.S. arms manufacturers shoulder a disproportionate share of the responsibility for so much of the world’s death and suffering. In fact, six of the ten largest arms-producing companies are U.S.-based, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute:

  1  Lockheed Martin (US)
  2  Boeing (US)
  3  BAE Systems (UK)
  4  Raytheon (US)
  5  Northrop Grumman (US)
  6  General Dynamics (US)
  7  EADS (trans-Europe)
  8  United Technologies (US)
  9  Finmeccanica (Italy)
10  Thales (France)

While all of these arms sales are having a destabilizing effect across the world, human rights and arms control advocates are raising particular concerns over the flow of the U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia, which is carrying out a brutal and indiscriminate military operation against civilians in neighboring Yemen.

As a major new report by the Control Arms Coalition explains,

The transfer of arms and ammunition to Saudi Arabia in particular is fuelling the conflict. Saudi Arabia was among the biggest markets for arms exporters during the past decade, and in 2014 became the largest importer of defence equipment worldwide. Many exporters to Saudi Arabia are States Parties or Signatories to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). …

The ATT now applies in full to all States Parties to the Treaty for whom it has entered into force. For those countries, the serious violations of IHL and IHRL in Yemen, and continuing transfers to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners in that context, represent a major test of their willingness to implement their legal obligations.

The United States signed the ATT in September 2013, and although the treaty has not been ratified by the Senate, with 130 signatories and 82 full states parties it is well on its way to becoming a peremptory norm of international law, also known as jus cogens, as defined by Oxford as “principles which form the norms of international law that cannot be set aside.”

Nevertheless, according to the Control Arms Coalition,

The US remains a significant supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia. Licensing data for 2015 has not yet been made available, but during the year, the State Department approved six major arms sales to the country, collectively worth US$20.8bn. They include the proposed transfer of 10 MH-60R and nine UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters,62 600 Patriot missiles, 63 battleships and missiles,64 and tank and artillery ammunition for the Royal Saudi Land Forces. In November the State Department notified Congress of plans to sell 18,440 aircraft bombs (both guided and general purpose) to Saudi Arabia, in a deal worth US$1.29bn. The package also included 1,500 warheads, as well as thousands of parts for these bombs such as fuses and tail kits to modify guidance systems.

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The intransigence of the United States and its closest allies on the issue of arms transfers to Saudi Arabia compelled the Control Arms Coalition to issue a stinging rebuke today, criticizing the lack of progress this week at the Extraordinary Meeting of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, which as Control Arms pointed out was only extraordinary because of the “refusal of States to actually discuss arms transfers.”

In a press release entitled “ATT Extraordinary Meeting Unfortunately Far Too Ordinary,” the coalition pointed out:

Despite irrefutable evidence of serious violations of international law in a conflict that has killed more than 35,000 people, several States Parties and Signatories to the ATT have continued sending weapons to Saudi Arabia, in violation of the Treaty’s obligations. Control Arms therefore made a request to the meeting for an Agenda item to discus the issue. This request was rejected by the President on the grounds that it would be “fraught with danger” to discuss the topic without sufficient time.

Prompted by the intolerable human suffering taking place in Yemen, campaigners are calling on governments “to set their hypocrisy aside and stop selling billions of dollars’ worth of deadly weapons to Saudi Arabia being used to attack Yemeni civilians.”

In a broader sense, the United States should also rethink its entire policy of flooding the planet with weapons – as this is obviously a destabilizing factor across the world, and a major contributor to both human rights violations and the ongoing refugee crisis.

U.S.-supplied cluster bombs terrorizing civilians in Yemen

Human Rights Watch issued a damning report yesterday offering new evidence that Saudi Arabia has been using U.S.-made and -supplied cluster munitions on civilians in war-torn Yemen, despite a nearly universal global ban on the weapons. Their use may violate both international and United States law, HRW pointed out.

The report, which includes photographs showing unexploded U.S. cluster bombs in Yemen, is putting new pressure on the United States over support for its close ally Saudi Arabia, at a time when an international campaign is growing for a moratorium on arms transfers to the human rights-abusing dictatorship.

“The Americans have sold arms and furnished training and expertise to a Saudi-led coalition that has faced widespread criticism for what rights groups call an indiscriminate bombing campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels in nearly a year of fighting,” the New York Times reported.

As Human Rights Watch documented:

Recently transferred US-manufactured cluster munitions are being used in civilian areas contrary to US export requirements and also appear to be failing to meet the reliability standard required for US export of the weapons. …

Human Rights Watch believes the Saudi Arabia-led coalition of states operating in Yemen is responsible for all or nearly all of these cluster munition attacks because it is the only entity operating aircraft or multibarrel rocket launchers capable of delivering five of the six types of cluster munitions that have been used in the conflict.

Cluster bombs contain submunitions, or bomblets, that disperse widely and kill indiscriminately, especially when used in civilian areas. Many bomblets can fail to explode, effectively becoming landmines that continue to pose a threat to civilians for years to come.

cluster-Munitions how they work

Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch and chair of the international Cluster Munition Coalition, noted that the use of these weapons violates international norms. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, as well as their US supplier, are blatantly disregarding the global standard that says cluster munitions should never be used under any circumstances,” he said. “The Saudi-led coalition should investigate evidence that civilians are being harmed in these attacks and immediately stop using them.”

John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, said in a statement Sunday night: “We have seen the Human Rights Watch report, and are reviewing it. Obviously we remain deeply concerned by reports of harm to civilians and have encouraged the Saudi-led coalition to investigate reports of civilian harm.”

cluster-Munitions blu-108

Two BLU-108 canisters, from a CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapon, found in the al-Amar area in northern Yemen. — HRW

While HRW points out that any use of any type of cluster munition should be condemned, there are two additional disturbing aspects to the use of the particular model being used in Yemen – CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons – which are notoriously unreliable, leaving unacceptable amounts of unexploded ordinance on the ground to terrorize civilians for years to come.

“First, U.S. export law prohibits recipients of cluster munitions from using them in populated areas, as the Saudi coalition has clearly been doing,” HRW said. “Second, U.S. export law only allows the transfer of cluster munitions with a failure rate of less than 1 percent. But it appears that Sensor Fuzed Weapons used in Yemen are not functioning in ways that meet that reliability standard.”

The Convention on Cluster Munitions was adopted in Dublin on May 30, 2008 by 107 states and signed in Oslo on Dec. 3, 2008. It became binding international law when it entered into force on Aug. 1, 2010. A total of 118 states have joined the Convention, as 98 States parties and 20 Signatories.

In the treaty, states parties have agreed to never use cluster munitions, nor “develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer to anyone, directly or indirectly, cluster munitions,” nor “assist, encourage or induce anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention.”

The U.S. is one of the few remaining holdouts, one of what the international community calls the “dirty dozen of cluster munitions.”

cluster-Munitions dirty dozen

In a Jan. 12 letter to President Obama, Megan Burke, the director of the Cluster Munition Coalition urged him to “demand that Saudi-led coalition members stop using cluster munitions,” and said the United States “should investigate its own role in the recent strikes.”

To add your name to an Avaaz petition calling on world leaders “to stand up and say ‘NO’ to Saudi Arabia and their atrocities,” click here.

Another U.S.-based petition, calling on Washington to “Stop Supporting – and Start Punishing – Saudi Arabia” is available here.

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

nuremberg hanging

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. expresses concern over barrel bombs in Syria, looks the other way in Yemen

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Led by the United States, the international community has in recent days grown increasingly critical of the Syrian government for its indiscriminate use of barrel bombs on civilian populations. President Barack Obama highlighted the issue in his address to the United Nations Monday, noting that Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad “drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children,” and Secretary of State John Kerry drove the point home Tuesday by calling on Russia and Iran to force Assad to stop using these weapons.

The Iranians and the Russians, Kerry said, are “in a position, in exchange perhaps for something that we might do, they might decide to keep Assad from dropping barrel bombs,” which are essentially oil drums packed with explosives and shrapnel that are rolled out the back door of military helicopters. To be sure, they are heinous weapons which are most likely illegal under international conventions.

But what about the U.S.’s close ally in the region, Saudi Arabia? What sort of reaction is there for the Saudi regime’s use of barrel bombs on civilians in its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen? Of course, when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s massive violations of human rights, including its use of both cluster bombs and barrel bombs, there is only deafening silence from Washington, which continues to shower Riyadh with military assistance.

The U.S. arms transfers to Saudi Arabia are likely a violation of the recently adopted Arms Trade Treaty, as Amnesty International explained in a fact sheet published last month. “In June-July 2015, Amnesty International researchers investigated eight airstrikes carried out by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in different parts of Yemen which resulted in scores of deaths and injuries to civilians, and demonstrated a clear failure to abide by the requirements of international humanitarian law,” noted Amnesty.

In response, Amnesty called for strict safeguards in the supply of weapons and their use In line the Arms Trade Treaty, which has been signed but not ratified by the United States:

Amnesty International is calling on States supplying weapons and ammunition to adopt a preventive approach and apply strict safeguards in order to mitigate and remove the substantial risk of the arms being used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law; States must carry out rigorous risk assessments against strict human rights criteria before authorizing any arms transfer/military assistance; States must also implement robust post-delivery controls on all transfers. The Saudi Arabia-led military coalition involved directly or indirectly in air strikes or other military operations must refrain from carrying out indiscriminate attacks or direct attacks on civilians, including through the use of unguided air bombardment in densely populated areas.

In another recent report, Amnesty International pointed out that its assistance “makes the United States partly responsible for civilian casualties resulting from unlawful attacks” in Yemen. Amnesty also noted that “the countries that supplied the weapons have a responsibility to ensure that they are not used to commit violations of international law.”

The human rights group further described the situation in Yemen as dire. “Prior to the conflict, more than half of Yemen’s population was in need of some humanitarian assistance,” according to Amnesty. “That number has now increased to more than 80 percent, while a coalition-imposed blockade on commercial imports remains in place in much of the country and the ability of international aid agencies to deliver desperately needed supplies continues to be hindered by the conflict.”

Not only is the United States fueling this humanitarian disaster with its no-questions-asked weapons transfers, it is also directly assisting the Saudis with in-air refueling, combat-search-and-rescue support, and providing intelligence on target selection. It is also providing the Saudis banned cluster munitions which are being used against Yemeni civilians.

The U.S. is also directly killing Yemeni civilians through its drone strikes concentrated in the eastern part of the country, with attacks this month killing a number of innocent people. Altogether, since 2002 there have been at least 127 U.S. drone strikes on Yemen that have killed an estimated 100 civilians and injured hundreds more.

In addition, the U.S. government is providing crucial diplomatic support to the Saudi regime’s campaign at the United Nations to block a human rights inquiry into its assault on Yemen. A proposal submitted by the Netherlands last week calls for the UN Human Rights Council to launch a probe into abuses committed by all parties in Yemen, but Saudi Arabia and its key allies appear determined to prevent such an investigation.

“Saudi diplomats have robustly lobbied Asian, African and European states through their capitals or missions in Geneva,” reported the New York Times. While President Barack Obama has so far remained silent on the resolution, U.S. allies Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates “have argued for shelving [the] plans,” according to Foreign Policy journalist Colum Lynch.

Quite simply, without support from the United States military the Saudis would not be able to sustain its war either politically or logistically, lacking the capability to independently carry out airstrikes over Yemen for any period of time. Yet, when pressed about the U.S. support for Saudi war crimes, U.S. officials simply say, “I would refer you to the Saudis.”

This is why U.S. statements on Syria’s use of barrel bombs should be taken with a grain of salt. It is simply not credible for the United States to feign outrage over war crimes taking place in Syria while enabling war crimes taking place in Yemen. At the very least, there should be some consistency introduced to U.S. foreign policy which would both increase U.S. credibility and prevent the needless suffering of civilians.

Click here to sign a petition calling for a halt of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Who’s to blame for Ukraine’s use of cluster bombs?

Remnants of a possible cluster bomb lying in front of a burning house in Donetsk, Ukraine, on October 5, 2014.

Remnants of a possible cluster bomb lying in front of a burning house in Donetsk, Ukraine, on October 5, 2014.

While debate continues in Washington over whether the United States should arm the Ukrainian government in its war against the people of the eastern regions of its territory, there remains a bit of a disconnect over the reality that Ukraine is already using cluster munitions that are banned by an international treaty that has been in effect since 2010. In important ways, the U.S. provides the diplomatic cover for Ukraine to use these munitions, if not the weapons themselves.

Last week, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) reported that it has uncovered evidence that cluster bombs have been used in the shelling of civilian neighborhoods in Luhansk:

The SMM saw considerable damage caused by the impacts of rocket shelling, such as broken windows, fences, gates and walls. The SMM assessed that some of the damage to the buildings, e.g. a series of parallel rows of strike marks on a gate and wall, were consistent with damage typically caused by shrapnel elements from cluster munition. According to the SMM’s assessment, a hole in a roof of a house was caused by the impact of what appears to be a bomblet, with small calibre.

The SMM discovered parts of rockets, including engines, fins and cargo compartments, in the front and backyards of several houses; the cargo compartment in particular is typical of a rocket carrying cluster munitions. Some parts sighted by the SMM at the impact site (1.5 cm white metal fragments, 6 by 3 cm black metal fragments of bomblets cases) are typical for cluster munition. The SMM identified them as parts consistent with 9M55K model “Smerch” rockets (calibre 300mm). The SMM observed a crater (diameter approximately 4m, depth approximately 3m) at the backyard of the house located at Dekabristiv Street 106 which had been caused by the explosion of a “Smerch” rocket, according to the SMM’s assessment.

Following a report last year by Human Rights Watch alleging “widespread use of cluster munitions” by “Ukrainian government forces,” the OSCE had raised doubts about the veracity of these claims. As Deutsche Welle reported on October 23, 2014,

Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the OSCE mission in Ukraine, also denied that the Ukrainian military had used cluster bombs. “We have around 90 observers in eastern Ukraine,” he told DW. “If we had encountered anything like that, we would have reported it, but that hasn’t happened. Everything we can say about ammunition and shelling is in our daily reports.”

It now appears however that the OSCE is conceding that the Ukrainian government, which came to power following a violent U.S.-backed coup d’etat that toppled the democratically elected Viktor Yanukovych last February, is in fact using these heinous weapons against civilian populations.

Despite being banned under international law for their indiscriminate and disproportionate effects on civilians, they are a particular favorite of the United States, which has used them in Afghanistan, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Grenada, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lao PDR, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Vietnam, Yemen, former Yugoslavia (Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia). No other country on earth comes close to using these weapons so extensively.

As International Campaign to Ban Landmines – Cluster Munition Coalition (ICBL-CMC) describes them,

A cluster bomb is a weapon that can contain up to several hundred small explosive bomblets. Dropped from the air or fired from the ground, cluster bombs break open in mid-air and scatter these bomblets over a wide area. Anyone within the strike zone is likely to be injured or killed, no matter if they are military or civilian. Many bomblets fail to explode as intended, leaving behind huge quantities of de facto landmines which continue to kill for years or even decades after their use.

Used in more than 35 countries, cluster bombs have killed and injured tens of thousands of civilians and devastated the livelihoods of countless more.

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Senator John McCain, who serves as a Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, claimed last week that the United States is partly to blame for Ukraine’s use of cluster bombs since it hasn’t provided the country with other weapons.

“I think that if we had provided them with the weapons they need, they wouldn’t have felt they had to use cluster bombs. So, it’s partially our fault,” McCain said.

Perhaps more importantly than this, the United States provides Ukraine with unwavering diplomatic and political support, shielding the Kiev regime from criticism. Further, since last spring, the CIA has been directly working with the Ukrainian government on counter-insurgency tactics and on establishing a security apparatus. As AFP reported in May 2014,

Dozens of specialists from the US Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation are advising the Ukrainian government, a German newspaper reported Sunday.

Citing unnamed German security sources, Bild am Sonntag said the CIA and FBI agents were helping Kiev end the rebellion in the east of Ukraine and set up a functioning security structure.

The revelations of CIA involvement came following a visit to Kiev by CIA director John Brennan in April 2014, which the White House described as “routine,” but was condemned by Moscow as more U.S. meddling in the country.

Considering that the United States has long defended cluster bombs publicly and vehemently as useful tools in maintaining American hegemony in the world, is it any wonder that the Ukrainian government — being advised by the United States — would feel justified in using these bombs against civilians?

Indeed, according to the Pentagon’s 2008 policy, cluster munitions can actually be considered humane weapons. “Because future adversaries will likely use civilian shields for military targets – for example by locating a military target on the roof of an occupied building – use of unitary weapons could result in more civilian casualties and damage than cluster munitions,” the policy claims. “Blanket elimination of cluster munitions is therefore unacceptable due not only to negative military consequences but also due to potential negative consequences for civilians.”

The U.S government has effectively rejected the international ban on cluster munitions as inapplicable to the United States. In justifying the U.S.’s use of cluster bombs and its refusal to accede to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in 2008,

The U.S. did not participate in the Cluster Munitions Convention negotiations because we believe that cluster munitions are an integral part of our and many of our coalition partners’ military operations. The elimination of cluster munitions from our stockpiles would put the lives of our soldiers and those of our coalition partners at risk. There are no substitute munitions, and some of the possible alternatives could actually increase the damage that results from an attack.

In November 2009, an Obama administration State Department official said that “many States, including the United States, have determined that their national security interests cannot be fully ensured consistent with the terms of the [Convention].”

U.S. firms have also invested heavily in these banned weapons, spending at least half of the estimated $27 billion on producing cluster bombs from 2011 to 2014. While it is unclear what exactly is driving that increase, rights groups have reported on the recent use of cluster munitions in both Syria and eastern Ukraine.

“We’re seeing an increase in the total value of investment from just a year ago, so that’s a big disappointment,” Amy Little, a campaign manager at the Cluster Munition Coalition, a global advocacy network that includes PAX, told MintPress News in late 2014.

With the U.S. government the most vocal defender of these weapons and U.S. firms the most heavily invested in their production, it seems that it may be also the most instrumental in undermining the international norm against their use, thereby enabling the Ukrainian regime to drop them on its own people with impunity.

International norms grow against nuclear weapons in spite of Obama

Yin Bogu/Zuma Press

Yin Bogu/Zuma Press

Despite having made nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament a centerpiece of his early foreign policy after coming to office six years ago, President Obama is now earning the wrath of anti-nuclear campaigners for simply paying lip service to his Prague 2009 pledge to “secure a world free of nuclear weapons” – what he once called “the world’s worst weapons” – while instead moving to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Rather than pushing for disarmament as once promised, the Obama administration is engaging in extensive atomic rebuilding and refurbishing of the U.S. nuclear force to the tune of an estimated trillion dollars in the coming decades, and Obama recently nominated as his new secretary of defense a man long committed to such a course of action.

As Boston Globe columnist James Carroll put it recently,

Mark these days. A long-dreaded transformation from hope to doom is taking place as the United States of America ushers the world onto the no-turning-back road of nuclear perdition. Once, we could believe there was another way to go. Indeed, we were invited to take that path by the man who is, even today, overseeing the blocking of it, probably forever.

Carroll went on to quote Obama’s historic 2009 address in Prague on nuclear abolition.

“As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon,” Obama said,

the United States has a moral responsibility to act… So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now, we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can…’

“I know,” he continued,

that there are some who will question whether we can act on such a broad agenda. There are those who doubt whether true international cooperation is possible… and there are those who hear talk of a world without nuclear weapons and doubt whether it’s worth setting a goal that seems impossible to achieve. But make no mistake. We know where that road leads.

Indeed, it is all too clear where that road leads.

Graphic from the movie "Terminator 2" depicting a nuclear blast that wipes out L.A.

Graphic from the movie “Terminator 2” depicting a nuclear blast that wipes out L.A.

At the third Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons Conference held in Vienna, Austria last month, journalist Eric Schlosser emphasized that it’s a miracle there hasn’t yet been a catastrophic accident involving nuclear weapons, pointing out however that “The problem with luck is that eventually it runs out.”

He offered one mishap out of hundreds that have occurred over the years: the 1961 North Carolina incident in which a hydrogen bomb fell out of a disintegrating B-52 bomber, which nearly fully detonated a four-megaton hydrogen bomb.

The chances of a similar mishap taking place today are compounded by the fact that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is aging and the staff tasked with securing these weapons are poorly trained and reportedly suffering from major morale problems.

Warheads in the nation’s stockpile are an average of 27 years old, and military strategists are raising serious concerns about their reliability. As John Hamre, Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration and now president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently said, “We have the worst of all worlds: older weapons and large inventories that we are retaining because we are worried about their reliability.”

Further, the military has not prioritized the maintenance of these weapons, leading to even greater nuclear insecurity.

“The Air Force has not kept its ICBMs manned or maintained properly,” says Bruce Blair, a former missileer and cofounder of the anti-nuclear group Global Zero. Nuclear bases that were once the military’s crown jewels are now “little orphanages that get scraps for dinner,” he says. And morale is “abysmal.”

As a recent article in Mother Jones explained,

Blair’s organization wants to eliminate nukes, but he argues that while we still have them, it’s imperative that we invest in maintenance, training, and personnel to avoid catastrophe: An accident resulting from human error, he says, may be actually more likely today because the weapons are so unlikely to be used. Without the urgent sense of purpose the Cold War provided, the young men (and a handful of women) who work with the world’s most dangerous weapons are left logging their 24-hour shifts under subpar conditions—with all the dangers that follow.

In August 2013, Air Force commanders investigated two officers in the ICBM program suspected of using ecstasy and amphetamines. A search of the officers’ phones revealed more trouble: They and other missileers were sharing answers for the required monthly exams that test their knowledge of things like security procedures and the proper handling of classified launch codes. Ultimately, 98 missileers were implicated for cheating or failure to report it. Nine officers were stripped of their commands, and Colonel Robert Stanley, the commander of Malmstrom’s missile wing, resigned.

While these realities of poor training, test cheating and drug abuse scandals, lackluster maintenance and aging weapons make clear the need to do something to better prevent a nuclear catastrophe from taking place, campaigners take issue with the Obama administration’s proposal to inject billions of dollars into modernizing these facilities and retraining staff.

As Theresa Shaffer, the Security Outreach Associate for Physicians for Social Responsibility, points out in a recent column,

The 2015 “CRomnibus” appropriations bill which passed in the House of Representatives and which President Obama has backed ahead of the Senate vote, does not accomplish these things. President Obama has repeatedly stated the need to secure radiological material worldwide in order to prevent a terrorist or criminal from fabricating a dirty bomb. Yet in this 2015 omnibus bill, funding to combat the proliferation of nuclear materials to terrorists and criminals was cut by 17% from 2014, while at the same time spending on nuclear weapons increased by 5% from last year.

“A better idea,” she continues,

to resolve the safety issues affecting our nuclear arsenal could be to use those funds to actually secure and eliminate radiological materials worldwide and simply work on getting rid of nuclear weapons rather than injecting more money into making new ones. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that $355 billion will be spent on modernizing the nation’s nuclear forces from 2014-2023. Pressure should be placed on the new Congress come January to reduce spending on nuclear weapons in the 2016 budget, since these weapons pose more of a risk than an asset.

Dr-Strangelove-Obama-Riding-Bomb-DownMeanwhile, as Obama betrays his earlier pledges to work towards a nuclear arms-free world, many within the international community are doing just that, by building a global consensus and strengthening the international norm against these weapons.

The government of Austria hosted the third international conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons on December 8-9, 2014 in Vienna. The conference aimed to bolster the global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime by contributing to the growing momentum to prioritize the humanitarian imperative in all international efforts on nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament.

The conference explored the impacts of nuclear weapon explosions, including nuclear testing; the risks of nuclear weapons use; challenges and capabilities regarding the use of nuclear weapons; and existing international norms and laws.

Nadja Schmidt, representing the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), pointed out that within the existing legal framework on nuclear weapons, there is currently a lack of an instrument that explicitly characterizes nuclear weapons as unacceptable under international law.

“Our next step as supporters of the humanitarian initiative should be to explore the best way to address this legal deficit,” she said, noting that “the time has come to start a diplomatic process to negotiate a legally-binding instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons.”

The ICAN statement continued:

This is not a radical proposal. Indiscriminate weapons get banned. We have done it before with other weapon systems, including biological and chemical weapons.

This should not be a controversial proposal. An international prohibition is the logical outcome of an examination of the risks and consequences of nuclear weapons detonation. A new legal instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons would constitute a long overdue implementation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Also participating in the conference was the global network of lawmakers known as the Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (PNND), an international cross-party network of over 800 parliamentarians from more than 80 countries.

The parliamentary roundtable during the Vienna conference was chaired by PNND Co-President Christine Muttonen, who noted in her opening remarks that parliamentarians are in a unique position to “interact and co-operate with civil society,” as well as to “influence and strengthen government positions” on nuclear disarmament.

“Parliaments worldwide are doing this already,” she said. “Now it is time to better connect ourselves, to exchange experiences and best practices and to discuss the possibilities of joint action.”

The weekend before this conference, the ICAN hosted a Civil Society Forum, which was open to NGO and governmental representatives. Campaigners, activists, experts, public figures, and survivors gathered to learn and to teach and to build momentum to end the era of nuclear weapons.

An issue discussed at length at the ICAN forum was the Marshall Islands’ ongoing lawsuit against the United States and eight other nuclear powers. The lawsuit, filed at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in April 2014, denounces the 60-plus nuclear tests that were conducted on the small island state’s territory between 1946 and 1958, and seeks to hold the U.S. accountable for violating the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by failing to disarm as agreed to in the treaty.

The Marshall Islands case has received support from many different organizations around the world. One supporter is the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF), whose president, David Krieger, said: “The Marshall Islands is a small, gutsy country. It is not a country that will be bullied, nor is it one that will give up.”

“It knows what is at stake with nuclear weapons,” he continued, “and is fighting in the courtroom for humanity’s survival. The people of the Marshall Islands deserve our support and appreciation for taking this fight into the U.S. Federal Court and to the International Court of Justice, the highest court in the world.”

Russia, which along with the United States retains the bulk of the world’s nuclear arsenal, recently offered a reminder of which country invented these heinous weapons and which is the only country to have used them. Sergey Naryshkin, the Russian Lower House speaker, told the Russian History Society last month that he wants to initiate an international investigation into the U.S.’s 1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a possible crime against humanity.

“Next year we will have the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trial and also the same anniversary of the first and only nuclear bombings of two civilian cities – Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he said. “It is not incidental that I mention these events together. I think we should discuss this topic together with lawyers and specialists in international law – for crimes against humanity have no statute of limitation.”

Naryshkin recalled that the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not militarily justifiable, as the defeat of Japan was effectively decided after the Soviet Army’s victories in Manchuria.

“The nuclear bombing of two peaceful cities was a pure act of intimidation resulting in the deaths of several thousand Japanese civilians,” he said.

Hiroshima, Japan, following the dropping of an atomic bomb on the city by the United States in 1945.

Hiroshima, Japan, following the dropping of an atomic bomb on the city by the United States in 1945.

To join the international movement to eliminate nuclear weapons, visit Global Zero. To add your name to more than 5 million signatures from around the world calling for nuclear abolition, click here.

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.

With U.S. in uncorrected violation of CWC, Supreme Court rules on ‘unimaginable’ case

Supreme_court_east_facade

The Supreme Court ruled today that a 1998 federal law intended to enforce the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention cannot be used to prosecute individuals where state laws would be sufficient. The justices unanimously threw out the conviction of Carol Anne Bond of Lansdale, Pa., who had been prosecuted under the CWC law for using toxic chemicals that caused a thumb burn on a friend with whom her husband had an affair.

The case raises several disturbing questions about how the United States views its obligations under international law. For one, as legal analyst Lyle Denniston pointed out, although the justices did not strike down the law as beyond Congress’s constitutional powers, the decision in Bond v. United States “left in lingering doubt just how far Congress may go to pass a law to implement a world treaty.”

Perhaps more troubling though is the fact that this case even exists and was heard by the Supreme Court in the first place. It could be said that its very existence makes a mockery of international law.

When the case was argued before the court last November, Justice Anthony Kennedy told the government’s lawyers that it is “unimaginable that you would bring this prosecution.” The Justices seemed to agree that the case was a “curious” one: a federal criminal prosecution, with a potential life sentence, of a woman who sought revenge by spreading poisonous chemicals on a door knob, a car door handle, and a mailbox in the hopes that her husband’s mistress would touch the chemicals and suffer unspecified health consequences.

Bond had likely violated a number of laws in her state of Pennsylvania, but was only charged under state law for making harassing telephone calls and letters, and state officials declined to prosecute her with assault.  She had pleaded guilty to the federal crime of using a “chemical weapon,” on condition that she could later challenge the prosecution.

Although she was convicted under the 1998 law, Monday’s decision struck down that conviction because the law did not even apply to what she did, according to the Court’s majority.

In this case, it seems fairly clear that the justices were correct that prosecutors had overreached when they charged Bond under a federal statute which was expressly intended to ensure U.S. compliance with its international obligations as a state party to the CWC, not to prosecute individuals for using makeshift chemical agents in a clumsy attempt to exact revenge for adultery.

As one scholar described the treaty, it is “the most complex disarmament and nonproliferation treaty in history,” designed specifically to ensure that state parties relinquish weapons that the CWC expressly prohibits. Katharine York elaborated on the purpose of the CWC in article in the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy last month:

As a starting point, Article I identifies the general obligations of State Parties under the CWC:

1. Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never under any circumstances:

(a) To develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone;

(b) To use chemical weapons;

(c) To engage in any military preparations to use chemical weapons;

(d) To assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention.

2. Each State Party undertakes to destroy chemical weapons it owns or possesses, or that are located in any place under its jurisdiction or control, in accordance with the provisions of this Convention.

3. Each State Party undertakes to destroy all chemical weapons it abandoned on the territory of another State Party, in accordance with the provisions of this Convention.

4. Each State Party undertakes to destroy any chemical weapons production facilities it owns or possesses, or that are located in any place under its jurisdiction or control, in accordance with the provisions of this Convention.

5. Each State Party undertakes not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare.

The United States government, as a state party to the convention, is in clear violation of a number of these provisions. For starters, it has used chemical weapons expressly prohibited under the treaty, as well as others with an ambiguous status. As WikiLeaks revealed in 2007, the U.S. deployed at least 2,386 “non-lethal” chemical weapons during the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Appearing in a 2,000-page battle planning leak, the items are labeled under the military’s own NATO supply classification as “chemical weapons and equipment.”

As WikiLeaks explained,

In the weeks prior to the March 19, 2003 commencement of the Iraq war, the United States received a widely reported rebuke from its primary coalition partner, the United Kingdom, over statements by the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggesting that the US would use CS gas for “flush out” operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Subsequently Washington has been quiet about whether it has deployed CS gas and other chemical weapons or not.

The use of chemical weapons such as CS gas for military operations is illegal. The Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997, drafted by the United Kingdom and ratified by the United States, declares “Each State Party undertakes not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare”. Permissible uses are restricted to “law enforcement including domestic riot control.”

The U.S. use of depleted uranium in Iraq is another cause for concern. In Fallujah – which was targeted mercilessly by U.S. forces in 2004 – the use of depleted uranium has led to birth defects in infants 14 times higher than in the Japanese cities targeted by U.S. atomic bombs at close of World War II, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A 2002 UN working paper on depleted uranium argued that its use may breach the Chemical Weapons Convention, as well as several other treaties. Yeung Sik Yuen writes in Paragraph 133 under the title “Legal compliance of weapons containing DU as a new weapon”:

Annex II to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material 1980 (which became operative on 8 February 1997) classifies DU as a category II nuclear material. Storage and transport rules are set down for that category which indicates that DU is considered sufficiently “hot” and dangerous to warrant these protections. But since weapons containing DU are relatively new weapons no treaty exists yet to regulate, limit or prohibit its use. The legality or illegality of DU weapons must therefore be tested by recourse to the general rules governing the use of weapons under humanitarian and human rights law which have already been analysed in Part I of this paper, and more particularly at paragraph 35 which states that parties to Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 have an obligation to ascertain that new weapons do not violate the laws and customs of war or any other international law.

Further, the United States is in flagrant violation of its obligations to destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles. When the CWC went into effect 17 years ago, the U.S. declared a huge domestic chemical arsenal of 27,771 metric tons to the OPCW. Although it has destroyed about 90% of its chemical weapons, the U.S. still maintains a stockpile of 2,700 tons according to the Centers for Disease Control, missing two deadlines to destroy the weapons.

But curiously, it is not this issue that is commanding headlines, but rather the misuse of the 1998 federal statute in a way that it was never intended. The case of Bond’s prosecution and today’s Supreme Court ruling holds a number of lessons, one of which being the government’s implied view of the applicability of law – namely that laws are to be used only in prosecuting rogue individuals, but not in reining in the rogue U.S. government.

As the Supreme Court ruled in Bond v. the United States, “The Government would have us brush aside the ordi­nary meaning [of chemical weapon] and adopt a reading … that would sweep in everything from the detergent under the kitchen sink to the stain remover in the laundry room. Yet no one would ordinarily describe those substances as ‘chemical weapons.’”

Yet, even while stretching this law beyond its logical applicability, actual violations of the CWC are swept under the rug as if they don’t even occur. This is a clear indication of the government’s view that it is indeed above the law, that the force of law is only to be used against the powerless, and certainly not against those in power.

Overlooking U.S. stockpile, OPCW praises Kerry for leadership on chemical weapons

chemical-weapons

Meeting today with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Ahmet Uzumcu, the Director General of the Organization for for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, commended the United States for its “invaluable support for the ongoing mission in Syria,” but failed to highlight the U.S.’s failure to destroy its own chemical weapons stockpile.

According to an OPCW press release, the Director General “stressed that ongoing engagement by the United States at all levels will be vital to the success of the mission.” Yet, curiously, there was no mention of the fact that the United States has missed two deadlines (in 2007 and 2012) for destroying its own chemical weapons and retains thousands of tons of the banned munitions at stockpile sites in Kentucky and Colorado.

Sidestepping the U.S.’s obligations to destroy its chemical weapons, Kerry noted that 50% of the Syrian chemicals have now been removed from Syria, saying the progress is “significant, but the real significance will be when all the chemical weapons are out.”

“Regrettably,” Kerry said, “the Syrians missed a March 15th date for destruction of facilities. We have some real challenges ahead of us now in these next weeks.”

The Chemical Weapons Convention  prohibits “the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons.” When it went into effect 17 years ago,  the U.S. declared a huge domestic chemical arsenal of 27,771 metric tons to the OPCW.

Although it has destroyed about 90% of its chemical weapons, the U.S. still maintains a stockpile of 2,700 tons according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Nevertheless, Kerry somehow had the gall to criticize Syria for not moving more quickly towards destroying its chemical arsenal.

“We in the United States are convinced that if Syria wanted to, they could move faster,” Kerry said. “And we believe it is imperative to achieve this goal and to move as rapidly as possible because of the challenges on the ground.”

Rather than challenge Kerry for the U.S. double standard, Uzumcu praised him for gracing the OPCW with his presence.

“Mr. Secretary,” Uzumcu said,

we are very pleased to receive you here at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. This is the first visit by a Secretary of State from the United States to our organization. We are, of course, very grateful for the continued support by the United States to the OPCW, and the latest one is the fact that in Syria we think that the success of this operation mission in Syria will further strengthen the norm against chemical weapons throughout the world. And we’ll look forward to our exchange of views today. Thank you very much.

It’s pretty remarkable that despite its flagrant violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the United States not only gets a pass, but is actually praised for even visiting the OPCW.

One wonders if this praise showered on the U.S. Secretary of State has anything to do with the fact that one of Uzumcu’s predecessors, José Bustani, lost his job in 2002 under U.S. pressure.

Bustani, who had just been unanimously re-elected 11 months earlier, had pushed for international chemical weapons monitors inside Iraq and thus was seen as impeding the U.S. push for war against against that country.

The U.S. accused him of “polarizing and confrontational conduct,” as well as “advocacy of inappropriate roles for the OPCW,” and called for a special session of the 145-nation chemical weapons watchdog in April 2002, at which Bustani was removed after intense U.S. lobbying.

The International Labor Organization subsequently called the decision “an unacceptable violation of the principles on which international organisations’ activities are founded …, by rendering officials vulnerable to pressures and to political change.”

Bustani was awarded €50,000 in damages, his pay for the remainder of his second term, and his legal costs.

The message, however, was sent loud and clear: do not cross the United States, or your career will suffer the consequences.

It’s hard to say for sure, but perhaps this is why the OPCW Director General now showers such praise on the U.S. government, despite its flouting of international norms against chemical weapons.

U.S. urged to stop intervening in other countries and be more consistent on human rights

The U.S. government should stop meddling in the affairs of other nations, says a majority of Americans in a recent poll. According to the survey, 52% say the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Just 38% disagree with the statement.

“This is the most lopsided balance in favor of the U.S. ‘minding its own business,’ in the nearly 50-year history of the measure,” according to the Pew Center for People and the Press, which conducted the survey.

When asked to describe in their own words why they feel this way about the U.S. role in the world, nearly half (47%) say problems at home, including the economy, should get more attention.

Nearly eight-in-ten Americans (77%) agree that “in deciding on its foreign policies, the U.S. should take into account the views of its major allies.” And most (56%) disagree that “since the U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world, we should go our own way in international matters.”

Further, “when it comes to working with the United Nations, 56% of the public agrees that the U.S. should cooperate fully with the international organization, which is virtually unchanged from 2011 (58%).”

Although Americans thought that impressions of how the U.S. is perceived abroad improved after Barack Obama took office, they are now as negative as they were during the Bush administration. Seven-in-ten believe the U.S. is less respected by other countries than in the past, while just 7% say the U.S. is more respected and 19% say it is as respected as in the past.

The survey found that promoting human rights abroad, helping improve living standards in developing countries and promoting democracy are relatively low priorities for the American public. But at a human rights conference in Washington this week, activists urged the U.S. government to be more consistent in its approach toward repressive regimes, warning that double standards send the wrong message to democracy campaigners.

America’s over-arching focus on security concerns is obscuring the need to hold governments accountable for rights abuses, activists said. UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, Maina Kiai, argued that the United States needed to treat all governments the same way.

“It’s very difficult to understand why the US government treats Ethiopia when it attacks human rights defenders differently from how the US treats Zimbabwe. Or how the US treats Egypt as opposed to Bahrain,” he said.

“Once you start seeing these differences they start sending a message across the world that actually the US wants to pick and choose where it wants to defend human rights.”

As reported by AFP, “the message was particularly confused in Egypt, where the US has frozen part of its aid to the military, and put on hold the delivery of large weapons systems, after it ousted president Mohamed Morsi in July, said activist Nadine Wahab.”

“When funding… continues to go to the weapons that attack and create human rights violations, like tear gas and bullets, but you hold the F-16s, the message that’s going to these governments and going to human rights defenders is that human rights is not important,” said Wahab, an expert with the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

And she challenged the US administration’s policy of not cutting off all military aid to Egypt, which was aimed at helping the Egyptian army to battle militants in the Sinai peninsula and help maintain regional stability.

“One of the things that the United States really needs to do is look at its counter-terrorism narrative, look at how security is thought of within a domestic policy and an international policy and see whether security and stability is human rights? Or whether security and stability is guns and more weapons?” said Wahab.

Seemingly disregarding these concerns, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said this week  that the U.S. will continue its military involvement globally.

“Last week we entered our thirteenth year of combat in Afghanistan,” Hagel noted, adding that the U.S. has continued to have a “steady state of presence in the Arabian Gulf and elsewhere.”

Hagel’s comments were made as he heads for Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, and focused on promises of U.S. military support for those nations, despite their troubling human rights records. Both countries are considered “not free” in Freedom House’s annual survey of “freedom in the world.”

Regarding Bahrain, Amnesty International notes that in 2013, “the authorities [have] continued to crack down on protests and dissent.”

Scores of people remain in prison, detained for opposing the government, including prisoners of conscience and people sentenced after unfair trials, says Amnesty. Further, human rights defenders and other activists are being harassed and imprisoned.

Over the past few years of the crackdown against pro-democracy activists in Bahrain, the U.S. government has showered the regime with tens of millions of dollars in military aid. The Obama administration has not imposed any sanctions on Bahrain or on Bahraini officials for human rights abuses.

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