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Trump’s proposed hike in military spending likely to kick off new arms race

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President Donald Trump this week proposed a $54 billion boost in U.S. military spending, representing a nearly 10 percent increase, to be funded by cuts to domestic spending and foreign aid. As the National Priorities Project points out, the proposed increase is more than the annual budgets of the Department of Homeland Security ($48 billion), Housing and Urban Development ($38 billion), Department of Energy ($30 billion), Department of Justice ($29 billion), and Department of State ($29 billion).

It is also well above the annual budgets of Environmental Protection Agency and National Science Foundation, which come in at $8 and $7 billion a piece. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in stark contrast, only receives $485 million a year and the National Endowment for the Arts just $148 million. “Domestic and foreign aid spending already account for less than half of the federal discretionary budget,” the National Priorities Project points out, while the Pentagon accounts for “more than half of the annual discretionary budget” at more than $600 billion a year.

Yet, President Trump proudly stated last night in an address to a joint session of Congress that he is pushing for the biggest military spending hike in generations. “I am sending the Congress a budget that rebuilds the military, eliminates the Defense sequester, and calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history,” he said. Of course, he failed to mention that the U.S. already spends about as much as the next 12 countries combined.

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Trump’s proposed increase in military spending is part of a broader budget plan that includes massive cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. So, basically, less Sesame Street, more war.

Besides questions of national priorities at a time when the country faces a host of problems on issues across the board – from crumbling infrastructure to the fact that more than 43 million people are living in poverty – the sharp increase in “defense” spending at a time of rising global instability and distrust likely means that other countries will feel compelled to follow suit in order to keep up.

Recalling the fact that Trump recently indicated his willingness to kick off a global arms race, actually stating in December 2016 “let it be an arms race” in response to criticisms of his flippant remarks about nuclear weapons, the military increases that he is now proposing should be understood as an opening salvo in what is sure to be a growing trend towards militarization and war.

cartoon_of_american_imperialismThis is a troubling development by any standard, but for a country with as long a history of aggression and atrocities as the United States, it is even more worrying.

Notably, the U.S. has just been exposed for using depleted uranium munitions during air raids in Syria, despite a vow not to use the toxic, radioactive and legally ambiguous weapons in the battlefield. Foreign Policy magazine reported two weeks ago that Air Force A-10 attack planes fired more than 5,000 rounds of 30mm depleted uranium rounds during a pair of assaults on convoys in an ISIS-controlled part of eastern Syria in November 2015 despite the fact that the weapons have been linked to cancer and birth defects.

Trump’s budget proposals also come just after the release of a major report detailing trends in global military spending and arms transfers. The report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found that the volume of international transfers of major weapons has grown continuously since 2004 and increased by 8.4 per cent between 2012 and 2016. Notably, SIPRI found, “transfers of major weapons in 2012-16 reached their highest volume for any five-year period since the end of the cold war.”

The five biggest exporters – the United States, Russia, China, France and Germany – together accounted for 74 percent of the total volume of arms exports, while the U.S. alone accounted for a disproportionate one-third of the total. The lion’s share of its arms transfers went to the Middle East, fueling conflicts there in Syria, Yemen and Israel-Palestine, likely contributing significantly to the refugee crisis that is now destabilizing Europe.

As SIPRI reports:

With a one-third share of global arms exports, the USA was the top arms exporter in 2012–16. Its arms exports increased by 21 per cent compared with 2007–11. Almost half of its arms exports went to the Middle East.

‘The USA supplies major arms to at least 100 countries around the world—significantly more than any other supplier state’, said Dr Aude Fleurant, Director of the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme. ‘Both advanced strike aircraft with cruise missiles and other precision-guided munitions and the latest generation air and missile defence systems account for a significant share of US arms exports.’

Not only is the United States fueling global conflict through its conventional military spending and arms sales around the world, but it is also potentially triggering a new nuclear arms race with the possibility of ending life on earth. This is at the same time that growing global efforts are being made to ban nuclear weapons once and for all with an ultimate goal of total nuclear disarmament.

As Trump recently told Reuters, “It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.”

Yet, as Matthew Rosza recently pointed out, writing at Salon,

This statement seems to contradict New START, a strategic arms limitation treaty that requires America and Russia to have an equal number of strategic nuclear weapons for 10 years as of February 2018. It was reported by Reuters earlier this month that Trump denounced that treaty as a bad deal during a Jan. 28 conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear organization, noted however that “Donald Trump’s Plan to be Leader of the Nuclear Pack Is Nuts.”

“Scientists now calculate that as few as 100 nuclear weapons used in a war in South Asia would put enough smoke and particulates in the atmosphere to enshroud the Earth in a cloud for 2 to 3 years, dropping global temperatures about 2 to 3 degrees,” according to Ploughshares.

That, as it turns out, is enough to devastate most food crops in the world. The resulting famine could kill one billion people. The panic, global mass migrations, desperation and chaos would likely result in the end of nation states.

Make it a war with 200 or 300 nuclear weapons, and all that human beings have accomplished over the millennia would be wiped out. We would be well into Mad Max scenarios.

There are some 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world. The U.S. and Russia have almost 95 percent of them. That is much more than we need for any conceivable military mission. China, for example, only has about 260 weapons, yet that seems to do a pretty good job of deterring anyone from attacking them.

With these concerns in mind the United Nations is convening negotiations this month on “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” This new international agreement will place nuclear weapons on the same legal footing as other outlawed weapons of mass destruction, many of which the United States continues to use, manufacture and to supply to other countries, in blatant violation of international norms.

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For more information on the nuclear ban negotiations, visit the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

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‘Rogue country’: International community reacts to U.S. election, frets over Trump presidency

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The international community was prepared to criticize the United States last week – regardless of who prevailed in the election – for its arcane, highly decentralized and deeply flawed electoral system. Now, with Donald J. Trump poised to become the 45th president, there are myriad other reasons to criticize the U.S. as well.

Two international organizations deployed election observation missions to the United States to monitor the vote, and while their final reports varied considerably, both the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe highlighted numerous deficiencies in the way the United States chooses its leaders.

Although generally positive in its tone, the OAS final report identified the following issues as representing key areas for improvement in the U.S. electoral system:

  • Taking measures to avoid the excessive concentration of voters and long lines in the voting centers.
  • Broaden the cooperation between states to compare information and avoid possible duplications in voter registries.
  • Expand the practice of designing electoral districts through independent, non-partisan commissions.
  • Analyze the impact of the decision of the Supreme Court to eliminate parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • Establish better and stricter rules to govern PACs and super PACs.
  • Leave behind the polarizing and divisive campaign rhetoric and promote a civil dialogue between opposing visions.

The OAS also noted the unusual practice in the United States of simultaneously requiring voter identification while not providing this required identification.

“Practically all countries in the region provide at least one free form of national identification to their citizens, which is used for electoral purposes,” said the OAS, which represents 35 independent countries of the Western hemisphere. “In the U.S., 32 states currently have laws in force that require voters to show some form of prescribed identification to verify their identity before casting a vote.”

However, these states do not make this identification readily available to citizens, contrary to good practice.

This is also a weakness that the OSCE pointed out in its report, noting:

Voter identification rules are politically divisive and vary across the states, with 32 states requiring photo identification. A high volume of litigation regarding voter identification continued up to election day, generating confusion among voters and election officials regarding the application of rules. Efforts to ensure the integrity of the vote are important, but should not lead to the disenfranchisement of eligible voters.

As the OSCE also pointed out: “Recent legal changes and decisions on technical aspects of the electoral process were often motivated by partisan interests, adding undue obstacles for voters. Suffrage rights are not guaranteed for all citizens, leaving sections of the population without the right to vote.”

The 57-member state organization also noted the undue obstacles faced by minor parties and independents trying to compete in U.S. elections.

“The number of signatures required and the signature submission deadlines vary from state to state, which made it cumbersome for third party or independent candidates to register across all states for presidential elections,” the OSCE pointed out. “Both the Green Party and Libertarian Party challenged ballot access requirements in several states, with success in a few instances.”

Campaign financing’s lack of transparency and ineffective enforcement of campaign finance laws was also noted:

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) oversees a campaign finance regime that imposes few actual limits on donations and does not limit expenditure. All financial reports are published expeditiously, but transparency is diminished by the absence of disclosure for some types of non-profit organizations that play an important role in the campaign. Partisan decision making has limited the FEC’s ability to reach decisions on key campaign finance issues.

The election-rigging process known as gerrymandering was also highlighted as a problem, with the OSCE pointing to “longstanding concerns that redistricting is a largely partisan process, which has led to a number of uncompetitive contests.” The election watchdog noted that 28 candidates for the House ran unopposed in these elections.

The undemocratic nature of the U.S.’s indirect elections – enabled by the controversial Electoral College system – was also alluded to, with the OSCE noting that “the system allows for a candidate to win the popular vote nationwide while falling short of the majority of Electoral College votes.”

This is precisely what appears to have taken place in Election 2016, with Donald Trump assuming the presidency despite his opponent Hillary Clinton receiving some 800,000 more votes nationwide than Trump. It is the second time this century that the popular vote loser has prevailed in the Electoral College and will move into the White House despite a plurality of voters preferring someone else.

Beyond the electoral system itself, international leaders are now raising concerns about the specter of a Trump presidency and what it will mean for the global system of alliances, international agreements, trade regimes, and international law. In particular, with Trump having repeatedly threatened to pull the U.S. out of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, global figures such as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stressed the importance of continued U.S. engagement in multilateral diplomacy.

The day after the election, the UN chief noted that today’s global challenges demand concerted global action and joint solutions.

“As a founding member of the United Nations and permanent member of the Security Council, the United States is an essential actor across the international agenda,” Ban said. “The United Nations will count on the new Administration to strengthen the bonds of international cooperation as we strive together to uphold shared ideals, combat climate change, advance human rights, promote mutual understanding and implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve lives of peace, prosperity and dignity for all.”

Mary Robinson, a former Irish president and UN human rights chief, warned that the United States would become “a kind of rogue country” if it pulls out of the Paris Agreement, leaving the world more vulnerable to droughts, hurricanes, rising sea levels, high temperatures and other climate extremes.

“It would be a tragedy for the United States and the people of the United States if the U.S. becomes a kind of rogue country, the only country in the world that is somehow not going to go ahead with the Paris Agreement,” Robinson said.

Trump has promised to pull the United States out of that global climate accord, which was agreed last year by 193 countries and which went into effect earlier this month. If he follows through on this campaign pledge, European leaders may  call for a carbon tax on American imports.

“Donald Trump has said – we’ll see if he keeps this promise – that he won’t respect the conclusions of the Paris climate agreement,” said French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy on November 13.

“Well, I will demand that Europe put in place a carbon tax at its border, a tax of 1-3%, for all products coming from the United States, if the United States doesn’t apply environmental rules that we are imposing on our companies,” he added.

Another area of concern to U.S. allies is what Trump’s victory means for the NATO military alliance. In an interview with the New York Times last July, Trump indicated that he would make U.S. military commitments to the NATO alliance – predicated on principles of collective defense – conditional upon other countries’ financial contributions to the alliance.

European Union leaders held an emergency meeting in Brussels Sunday night, dealing in part with this question and also exploring issues such as possible U.S. policy changes towards Russia and Iran.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said after Sunday’s dinner that “values, principles, interests” will continue to form the basis of the alliance with the United States, and said that Europe is “looking forward to a very strong partnership with the next administration.”

“We would like to know what intentions he has regarding the [NATO] alliance. We must know what climate policies he intends to pursue. This must be cleared up in the next few months,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Others are raising concerns that Trump will follow through on campaign promises to reinstate the Bush administration’s torture regime, an illegal policy that was halted – but not punished – by the Obama administration.

Despite Obama’s touted “reaffirmation” of the ban on torture, “Trump easily could rescind Obama’s orders and direct the CIA to capture and humanely interrogate terror suspects in secret overseas, something many Republicans have urged,” noted Ken Dilanian at NBC News. “Trump also has some wiggle room via executive order on what constitutes torture, despite the change in the law.”

As Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, pointed out in a blog post on Monday,

Trump has said that not only does he “like” waterboarding, he doesn’t think it goes far enough.

Apparently, it bears repeating: Waterboarding is torture. And it is therefore a gross violation of human rights law. Waterboarding was banned by the military in the 2006 Army Field Manual. President Obama extended the ban to the CIA with an executive order in 2009.

Torture of any kind does not make anyone safer as information gathered under such circumstances is highly suspect. It undermines the standing of any country that seeks to influence others when it comes to human rights.

The United States’ history of using torture against prisoners is deeply shameful. It must remain in the past.

Other possible Trump policies that she highlighted as problematic from a human rights perspective include: closing the door on refugees, banning Muslims from entering the US, building a wall between the United States and Mexico, restrictions on reproductive freedom, and allowing more guns on U.S. streets.

Others have raised concerns that the permissive body of “secret law” that has purportedly guided the U.S. drone assassination policy under President Obama will be carried over into the Trump administration. This is especially worrisome because Trump has already made clear his intentions to target not just suspected terrorists but also their families in what would be a clear-cut war crime against non-combatants.

As Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, writes today in the Guardian:

Now the lethal bureaucracy whose growth Obama personally oversaw will be turned over to a new administration. The powers Obama claimed will be wielded by another president. Perhaps as significant is the jarring fact that the practice of targeted killing – assassination, as it would once have been called, without a second thought – no longer seems remarkable, and the fact that the United States now boasts a legal and bureaucratic infrastructure to sustain this practice. Eight years ago the targeted-killing campaign required a legal and bureaucratic infrastructure, but now that infrastructure will demand a targeted-killing campaign. The question the next president will ask is not whether the powers Obama claimed should be exploited, but where, and against whom.

Those who oppose these policies – whether on the grassroots level, within the U.S. government, or in the international community – should act now to ensure that Trump feels the pressure from day one before he launches an international crisis with brash and ill-conceived initiatives such as pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, reinstating torture or expanding Obama’s illegal assassination program.

A good place to start would be protesting the planned inauguration ceremonies on January 20, 2017. A number of groups are already organizing to do just that. See these websites for more information:

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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.

Widespread criticism of U.S. human rights practices as 2016 gets underway

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Numerous non-governmental organizations and a UN panel of experts last week issued a litany of serious concerns about the state of human rights in the United States as the new year – and President Obama’s final year in office – gets underway. Considering the depth and breadth of criticism, it is clear that Obama will be leaving behind a troubling legacy of human rights problems, which will prove not only a challenge for his successor (assuming the next president gives a whit about human rights), but also the nation as a whole for many years to come.

Amnesty International, for starters, issued a harsh statement on January 29, regretting that a full seven years into Obama’s presidency, the human rights abomination known as Guantanamo Bay remains open – despite Obama’s many promises over the years to close the notorious prison.

“Two weeks after the Guantánamo Bay detention site entered its 15th year of operation, the detention site faces a new milestone,” Amnesty noted in a press release Friday. “As of tomorrow, January 30, Guantánamo will have been open longer under President Obama’s administration than the previous administration which opened the site for indefinite detention.”

Marking the shameful milestone, Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights program, issued the following statement:

With Guantánamo now open longer on his watch than on former President Bush’s, President Obama’s human rights legacy is on the line. In some ways, Obama will be defined by whether he chose to end fifteen years of injustice and human rights violations at Guantánamo.

President Obama was able to cut the prison’s population by nearly 10 percent this month alone and he must continue to show he’s undeterred by congressional threats and fear mongering. The prison should be shuttered, and detainees who cannot be transferred should be charged in federal court or released. There must be accountability for the torture and other human rights violations that many of the detainees have suffered.

Human Rights Watch also had some stern words for the United States last week. In publishing its annual catalogue of the state of human rights around the world, World Report 2016, HRW focused particular attention on misguided U.S. policies towards refugees and migrants. As the group pointed out on January 27,

In December 2014, the US opened its largest lock-up for arriving migrant families, a detention facility slated to house more than 2,400 parents and children – primarily asylum seekers from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. A year earlier, the US had only 85 beds specifically dedicated to detaining families. This new policy of detaining families from Central America in large numbers was in response to an influx of arrivals seeking refuge from uncontrolled gang violence in their home countries.

These policies, which criminalize and discriminate against “people seeking refuge or reunification with their families in the US during 2015 have been ill-considered, discriminatory, and harmful,” Human Rights Watch said.

“The Obama administration is sending messages of detention, discrimination, and distrust to families fleeing violence and persecution at home,” said Alison Parker, US program co-director at Human Rights Watch. “US policymakers should reverse course and stop treating undocumented arrivals as criminals.”

Other major concerns raised by HRW included:

When it comes to the issue of sentencing and mass incarceration, HRW noted that the United States locks up 2.37 million people, by far the largest incarcerated population in the world. Another 12 million people pass through local jails annually.

HRW noted that concerns over over-incarceration in prisons have led some states and the U.S. Congress to introduce several reform bills, but regretted that none of the federal congressional measures had become law.

The rights group also pointed out that racial disparities “permeate every part of the US criminal justice system,” with particularly egregious disparities when it comes to drug law enforcement.

“While whites and African Americans engage in drug offenses at comparable rates, African Americans are arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated for drug offenses at much higher rates,” HRW pointed out. “African Americans are only 13 percent of the US population, but make up 29 percent of all drug arrests. Black men are incarcerated at six times the rate of white men.”

Racial disparities in criminal justice – and virtually all other facets of American life – were also in focus last week with the conclusion of an official visit by the UN’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, which visited several U.S. cities from January 19-29.

Despite observing some positive indications of halting progress in certain areas – including a growing mass movement for racial justice and some attempts to introduce more fairness into criminal sentencing – overall, the Working Group was “extremely concerned about the human rights situation of African Americans.”

In a statement issued January 29, the UN body said:

The colonial history, the legacy of enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism, and racial inequality in the US remains a serious challenge as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent. Despite substantial changes since the end of the enforcement of Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights, ideology ensuring the domination of one group over another, continues to negatively impact the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of African Americans today. The dangerous ideology of white supremacy inhibits social cohesion amongst the US population. Lynching was a form of racial terrorism that has contributed to a legacy of racial inequality that the US must address. Thousands of people of African descent were killed in violent public acts of racial control and domination and the perpetrators were never held accountable.

Contemporary police killings and the trauma it creates are reminiscent of the racial terror lynching of the past. Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Racial bias and disparities in the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, and the tough on crime policies has disproportionately impacted African Americans. Mandatory minimum sentencing, disproportionate punishment of African Americans including the death penalty are of grave concern.

The scathing statement went on to list a whole litany of concerns ranging from discriminatory voter ID laws; states’ rejection of Medicaid expansion (with a disproportionate adverse impact on African Americans’ health); the existence of “food deserts” in many African American communities; the education system’s whitewashing of African enslavement; the housing crisis and high rates of homelessness and gentrification; the high unemployment rate of African Americans; and the environmental justice denied African Americans by highly polluting industries often disproportionately being placed in their communities.

Even Freedom House, which receives the lion’s share of its funding from the U.S. federal government, had some strong words of criticism for the United States last week.

Although the U.S. received Freedom House’s top ratings for political rights and civil liberties, the country “was affected by the cumulative impact over recent years of certain deficiencies in the electoral system, the influence of private money in election campaigns and the legislative process, legislative gridlock, the Obama administration’s failure to fulfill promises of enhanced government openness, and fresh evidence of instances of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system,” the NGO noted.

Specifically, Freedom House pointed to the ongoing “controversy over relations between black citizens and the police [which] grew in intensity in 2015.” Protests in Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland, and other cities highlighted “incidents in which black people, often unarmed, were shot or fatally injured in confrontations with the police,” Freedom House observed.

Another issue the group pointed to is the epidemic of mass shootings in the United States, which contravenes the U.S. government’s international obligation to protect the right to life.

As Freedom House pointed out,

Mass shootings continued to claim lives across the country, renewing a perennial discussion of proposed restrictions on gun ownership. While the targets of the separate attacks included a college campus and a women’s health clinic and featured a variety of motives, the year’s deadliest assault was carried out in San Bernardino, California, by a husband and wife who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Obama took modest executive actions to tighten enforcement of existing laws and urged further changes through the legislative process. However, the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, and the Republican Party remained strongly opposed to any new gun-control proposals.

With just one year left in his presidency, Obama obviously cannot be expected to remedy all of the above-mentioned human rights issues, and certainly not all of them can be blamed on his leadership – or lack thereof – over the past seven years. However, there are many things he could do in his final months to at least attempt to marginally improve the state of human rights in the U.S., including by prioritizing the closing of the Guantanamo prison once and for all, and reversing some of the discriminatory policies his administration has implemented on refugees and migrants.

Perhaps above all, it is important that the president begins to use the bully pulpit to more clearly speak out on human rights domestically. This way, at least, these issues may become part of the national dialogue in this crucial election year, in a way that they have not been up until now.

Despite its human rights problems at home, U.S. trains police forces abroad

police_brutality

The numbers are in, and it is now confirmed that 2015 was the deadliest year for civilians interacting with police since records have been kept. Of course, this is not saying all that much since last year was the first year in which records were kept in any comprehensive fashion.

Filling a notable gap in record-keeping by the United States government, which doesn’t bother to gather data on how many civilians are slain by police in a given year, news organizations including The Washington Post and The Guardian last year determined that between 965 and 1,134 civilians were killed by police, depending on what counting standards are used. (The Washington Post only tracked fatal police shootings, not killings by other forms of force, while the Guardian employed a more comprehensive methodology.)

While much of the focus of the police deaths has been on the racial component of the nationwide police brutality epidemic, fueled in large part by the agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement and the media’s tendency to devote more attention to cases following an easily digestible racial narrative, the numbers confirm in fact that the rampant police violence impacts communities of all colors and creeds across the United States.

Indeed, despite the disproportionate attention paid to cases involving a white cop and black victim, more whites were killed by police than any other race in 2015. According to the Guardian’s tally, the total numbers of police victims are as follows:

  • 577 White
  • 300 Black
  • 193 Hispanic/Latino
  • 27 Other/Unknown
  • 24 Asian/Pacific Islander
  • 13 Native American

Of course, while the raw numbers appear to demonstrate an equal-opportunity problem that cuts across racial lines, when analyzed a bit more closely, it is clear that in fact the tendency of police to kill civilians is a much greater threat to African Americans than it is to any other group. Nearly seven out of a million black people were killed by police in America last year, while white victims accounted for 2.86 per million. In other words, African Americans were nearly 2.5 times as likely to be killed by police as their white counterparts.

Age and gender also play a factor in being killed by police, with young black men being nine times more likely than other Americans to die at the hands of a cop in 2015, according to the Guardian study. As the UK-based paper further explained:

Despite making up only 2% of the total US population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of all deaths logged this year by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police. Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age.

Paired with official government mortality data, this new finding indicates that about one in every 65 deaths of a young African American man in the US is a killing by police.

But even setting aside the racial factor, it is clear that far too many people of all races and ages are killed by their police forces in America, a trend of police brutality not seen in other “advanced democracies.” Even looking at just the white victims of police violence, the U.S. is in a league of its own. According to the Guardian,

[L]ooking at our data for the US against admittedly less reliable information on police killings elsewhere paints a dramatic portrait, and one that resonates with protests that have gone global since a killing last year in Ferguson, Missouri: the US is not just some outlier in terms of police violence when compared with countries of similar economic and political standing.

America is the outlier – and this is what a crisis looks like.

The Independent, another British paper, illustrated the issue this way:

police-shootings

 

Taking a broad view of the situation, it seems clear that the problem is deeper than just a matter of racial discrimination, and in fact reflects a fundamental lack of respect for human life by U.S. police, regardless of race.

Take for example the recent case of a white drunk driver who was gunned down by a cop after having flipped his vehicle in Paradise, California. The driver attempted to crawl out of the car after surviving the accident, only to be inexplicably shot by a police officer on the scene for no apparent reason.

In that particular case, the police officer claimed that his firearm went off by “accident” but anyone watching the video can see that all indications point to an intentional shooting. This would fit in a pattern of senseless police violence that was described in a report issued last year by Amnesty International as a possible violation of international norms.

The report, “Deadly Force,” pointed out:

The use of lethal force by law enforcement officers raises serious human rights concerns, including in regard to the right to life, the right to security of the person, the right to freedom from discrimination and the right to equal protection of the law. The United States has a legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfill these human rights and has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which explicitly protects these rights.

One of a state’s most fundamental duties which police officers, as agents of the state, must comply with in carrying out their law enforcement duties, is to protect life. In pursuing ordinary law enforcement operations, using force that may cost the life of a person cannot be justified. International law only allows police officers to use lethal force as a last resort in order to protect themselves or others from death or serious injury. The United Nations (UN) Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or the defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, and that, in any event, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

Furthermore, international law enforcement standards require that force of any kind may be used only when there are no other means available that are likely to achieve the legitimate objective. If the force is unavoidable it must be no more than is necessary and proportionate to achieve the objective, and law enforcement must use it in a manner designed to minimise damage or injury, must respect and preserve human life and ensure medical aid are provided as soon as possible to those injured or affected.

The problem of police violence also caught the attention of the United Nations last year. At the U.S.’s Universal Periodic Review for compliance on human rights norms at the United Nations Human Rights Council in May, the United States heard criticism of its policies ranging from Guantanamo to the death penalty to police brutality.

The representative from Nambia, for example, said U.S. officials must “collaborate closely with marginalized communities to fix the broken justice system that continues to discriminate against them, despite recent waves of protest over racial profiling and police killings of unarmed black men.”

“Chad considers the United States of America to be a country of freedom, but recent events targeting black sectors of society have tarnished its image,” said Awada Angui, the delegate from that country.

The barrage of criticism led James Cadogan, senior counselor in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, to concede that the United States has a problem with police violence.

“We must rededicate ourselves to ensuring that our civil rights laws live up to their promise,” he said at the review. “The tragic deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Ohio, and Walter Scott in South Carolina have… challenged us to do better and to work harder for progress.”

The review “was a demonstration of the no confidence vote that world opinion has made of the United States as a country that considers itself a human rights champion,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the Human Rights Program of the American Civil Liberties Union. “I think that there was a clear message from today’s review that the United States needs to do much more to protect human rights and to bring its laws and policies in line with human rights standards.”

Yet, despite its wholesale violations of international norms on policing at home, the United States is currently engaging in international training programs of police in other countries, which can only be seen as a potential disaster for human rights.

A June 10, 2015 post on the US Department of State’s official blog revealed that the Department of Justice and Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) are running a police training program in Kiev, Ukraine. The program has trained at least 100 Ukrainian police instructors to oversee a new 2,000-member patrol unit as part of a broader effort to “fundamentally change the relationship between law enforcement and the citizens of Ukraine.”

The blog post noted that the police trainers – hailing from Nevada, California and Ohio – “traveled to Ukraine to teach tactical skills training and mentor the instructors as they train the first new cadets.”

The training program “has been key in advancing our goals in Ukraine and deepening our relationships with the new government,” stated the post.

This relationship, of course, stems from a violent U.S.-backed coup d’etat that ousted the democratically elected president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. Ukraine has been embroiled in civil war ever since.

Besides the self-serving geopolitical nature of the police training program, what is astounding about it is that the U.S. feels that it is in any position to train any country’s police. Indeed, considering the widespread epidemic of police brutality in the United States, it is clear that U.S. police need training before they go training other countries’ police forces.

The practice of U.S. international police trainings has long caught the attention of human rights groups, including Amnesty International.

Amnesty notes that the United States government trains at least 100,000 foreign soldiers and police from more than 150 countries each year at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, but “the vast majority of U.S.-administered training courses do not include specific instruction in the human rights or humanitarian law obligations that soldiers must obey.”

Unfortunately, according to Amnesty, “many of the government forces the U.S. has trained have poor human rights records.”

The human rights group points out that it is “vital that the U.S. military mainstream human rights and humanitarian law into all foreign military and police training. Such instruction should be mandatory for all U.S. and foreign trainees attending courses, and it should be reinforced through operational exercises.”

MSF report bolsters claims of U.S. war crime in Kunduz

The Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, after it was destroyed by a U.S. gunship on Oct. 3, 2015.

The Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, after it was destroyed by a U.S. gunship on Oct. 3, 2015.

A damning new report released Thursday by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) contains new – and sometimes shocking – details regarding the U.S. airstrike last month on its hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The preliminary report offers a thorough account of the days leading up to the attack and the assault itself, which lasted for approximately an hour, placing the onus on the United States to now refute, clarify or explain the circumstances surrounding the vicious attack by an AC-130 gunship in the early morning hours of Oct. 3, 2015.

In its report, MSF rebuts claims that the hospital had been used as a “Taliban base” and confirms that its strict no-weapons policy was in effect, meaning that none of the occupants inside the trauma center were combatants and therefore had protected status under international humanitarian law.

The charity also reiterates that it had provided the precise coordinates of the hospital to the U.S. military just days before the assault, and that “confirmation of receipt was received from both U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. army representatives, both of whom assured us that the coordinates had been passed on to the appropriate parties.”

before after hospitalIn a previously undisclosed detail, MSF reveals that the United States government had inquired just two days before the strike whether there were any Taliban “holed up” in the facility, to which MSF replied that “the hospital was full of patients including wounded Taliban combatants.” According to MSF, there were approximately 20 Taliban patients in the hospital and three or four wounded government combatants.

Nevertheless, “Not a single MSF staff member reported the presence of armed combatants or fighting in or from the hospital compound prior to or during the airstrikes.”

The harrowing account of the horrific assault carried out on the hospital is enough to make your stomach turn, thinking about the bravery of these medical workers carrying out a vital humanitarian mission, only to be incinerated, decapitated, dismembered and shot down in cold blood by a massive military gunship circling the clearly identified hospital for an hour.

In one passage, MSF describes a grisly scene of death and mayhem as victims were gunned down by the U.S. warplane as they attempted to flee for safety:

Many staff describe seeing people being shot, most likely from the plane, as people tried to flee the main hospital building that was being hit with each airstrike. Some accounts mention shooting that appears to follow the movement of people on the run. MSF doctors and other medical staff were shot while running to reach safety in a different part of the compound.

One MSF staff member described a patient in a wheelchair attempting to escape from the inpatient department when he was killed by shrapnel from a blast. An MSF doctor suffered a traumatic amputation to the leg in one of the blasts.  He was later operated on by the MSF team on a make-shift operating table on an office desk where he died. Other MSF staff describe seeing people running while on fire and then falling unconscious on the ground. One MSF staff was decapitated by shrapnel in the airstrikes.

Another passage describes an MSF nurse who was covered from head to toe in debris and blood “with his left arm hanging from a small piece of tissue after having suffered a traumatic amputation in the blast.”

The group also provides a detailed timeline of their real-time communications with the United States military and other relevant actors as the carnage unfolded, imploring them to call off the attack, all to no avail. MSF reveals that they communicated with their U.S. military contacts in Kabul and Washington no fewer than six times during the course of the assault, all the while bombs just kept landing on their hospital:

Summary phone log of contacts MSF made during the US airstrikes

MSF made multiple calls and SMS contacts in an attempt to stop the airstrikes:

– At 2.19am, a call was made from MSF representative in Kabul to Resolute Support in Afghanistan informing them that the hospital had been hit in an airstrike

– At 2.20am, a call was made from MSF representative in Kabul to ICRC informing them that the hospital had been hit in an airstrike

– At 2.32am a call was made from MSF Kabul to OCHA Civil Military (CivMil) liaison in Afghanistan to inform of the ongoing strikes

– At 2.32am a call was made by MSF in New York to US Department of Defense contact in Washington informing of the airstrikes

– At 2.45am an SMS was received from OCHA CivMil in Afghanistan to MSF in Kabul confirming that the information had been passed through “several channels”

– At 2.47am, an SMS was sent from MSF in Kabul to Resolute Support in Afghanistan informing that one staff was confirmed dead and many were unaccounted for

– At 2.50am MSF in Kabul informed Afghan Ministry of Interior at Kabul level of the airstrikes. Afghan Ministry of Interior replied that he would contact ground forces

– At 2.52am a reply was received by MSF in Kabul from Resolute Support stating “I’m sorry to hear that, I still do not know what happened”

– At 2.56am an SMS was sent from MSF in Kabul to Resolute Support insisting that the airstrikes stop and informing that we suspected heavy casualties

– At 2.59am an SMS reply was received by MSF in Kabul from Resolute Support saying ”I’ll do my best, praying for you all”

– At 3.04am an SMS was sent to Resolute Support from MSF in Kabul that the hospital was on fire

– At 3.07am an SMS was sent from MSF in Kabul to OCHA CivMil that the hospital was on fire

– At 3.09am an SMS was received by MSF in Kabul from OCHA CivMil asking if the incoming had stopped

– At 3.10am and again at 3.14am, follow up calls were made from MSF New York to the US Department of Defense contact in Washington regarding the ongoing airstrikes

– At 3.13am an SMS was sent from MSF in Kabul to OCHA CivMil saying that incoming had stopped

– At 3.15am an SMS was received from CivMil OCHA stating that information had been passed to Resolute Support in the North and CJOC in Kabul as well as ANA in Kabul and the North

– At 3.18am an SMS was sent from MSF in New York to US Department of Defence contact in Washington that one staff was confirmed dead and many were unaccounted for

As this blog has previously pointed out, it stretches credulity that the U.S. was unaware that the target was a hospital before launching the attack. Giving the U.S. the benefit of the doubt, however, that the initial strike may have been the result of some sort of bureaucratic snafu, the fact that U.S. and Afghan military officials were again informed after staff at the hospital became aware of the bombardment, and yet continued to bomb for another half-hour, should put to rest the notion that the attack was just a “mistake.”

The MSF report issued yesterday provides further circumstantial evidence that this was indeed a premeditated war crime, providing an obvious motive of the United States – the elimination of the 20 Taliban patients inside the hospital and the denial of future medical care to enemy combatants. MSF is fairly straightforwardly asking the United States, in fact, whether 151 years of international law still applies in this conflict, or whether hospitals and medical workers are now considered “fair game” by the U.S. military.

As MSF President Joanne Lieu wrote in the introduction to the report, “The attack on our hospital in Kunduz destroyed our ability to treat patients at a time when we were needed the most. We need a clear commitment that the act of providing medical care will never make us a target. We need to know whether the rules of war still apply.”

It is now up to the United States to provide answers, and if the answer is “yes, the rules of war apply,” then the natural follow up should be to place under arrest whoever was responsible in the chain of command for ordering, authorizing and carrying out this heinous war crime. To add your name to a petition demanding that President Obama allow an independent investigation to take place, click here.

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

yemen saudi arabia united states

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.

As U.S. pushes for cybersecurity norms, civil society pushes for privacy norms

nsa privacy rights

While the U.S. government pushes for the adoption of international norms on cybersecurity, including on questions of critical infrastructure protection, a grassroots effort is underway to establish binding international law to protect the rights of citizens from electronic surveillance, including the bulk collection of data exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden more than two years ago.

A campaign for a new global treaty against government mass surveillance – entitled the “The International Treaty on the Right to Privacy, Protection Against Improper Surveillance and Protection of Whistleblowers,” or the “Snowden Treaty” for short – was launched yesterday in New York. While the full text of the treaty is yet to be released, an executive summary calls on signatories “to enact concrete changes to outlaw mass surveillance,” increase efforts to provide “oversight of state surveillance,” and “develop international protections for whistleblowers.”

As reported yesterday at The Intercept, “Since the Snowden revelations there has been increasing public recognition of the threat to global privacy, with the United Nations announcing the appointment of its first Special Rapporteur on this issue in March, followed by calls for the creation of a new Geneva Convention on internet privacy.”

The treaty effort is being spearheaded by the global activist organization Avaaz, working closely with David Miranda, who was detained and interrogated by British authorities at Heathrow airport in 2013 in relation to his work exposing NSA and GCHQ abuses with his partner Glenn Greenwald.

“We sat down with legal, privacy and technology experts from around the world and are working to create a document that will demand the right to privacy for people around the world,” Miranda said. Pointing out that governments and private corporations are moving to protect themselves from spying and espionage, Miranda added that “we see changes happening, corporations are taking steps to protect themselves, and we need to take steps to protect ourselves too.”

Snowden spoke via a video link at the event launching the campaign to say that the treaty effort is part of a larger movement to build popular pressure to convince governments to recognize privacy as a fundamental human right – a right already codified in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Although Article 17 of the ICCPR stipulates that “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,” some advocates believe that further elaboration is needed to ensure the full protection of privacy rights. The UN Human Rights Committee has raised concerns with the United States that its surveillance activities may violate both Articles 17 and 19, but no real changes to policy have been made.

The treaty is also necessary, Snowden said, to ensure internationally guaranteed protections to whistleblowers such as himself. Snowden cited the threat of pervasive surveillance in the United States, stating that “the same tactics that the NSA and the CIA collaborated on in places like Yemen are migrating home to be used in the United States against common criminals and people who pose no threat to national security.”

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

cia torture report

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

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

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

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

But will it?

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

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

As stated in Article 1 of the CAT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(C) the threat of imminent death; or

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

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

In other words, it is not enough for the Senate to simply “reaffirm” a so-called “torture ban.” There is a legally binding obligation under the Convention Against Torture, in fact, to “take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction” and to “make these offences punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature.”

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

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

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

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

obama hypocrisy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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