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

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

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

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

In a recent article for Foreign Policy, Roth writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dear President Obama,” she writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama urged to release U.S. political prisoners in waning days of his presidency

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Human rights advocates are urging Barack Obama to release the U.S. government’s political prisoners before he steps down as president on January 20, 2017.

Among the cases highlighted by human rights defenders include imprisoned U.S. whistleblowers and activists such as Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond, Jeffrey Sterling, and Leonard Peltier. Campaigners are also pressing Obama to pardon NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has been living in exile in Russia since exposing serious abuses and crimes by the intelligence community in 2013.

As one of its priority actions, Amnesty International is highlighting Peltier’s case as a clear-cut case of government overreach and misconduct, in which the government itself has acknowledged that it lacks any evidence. The Native American activist is currently serving two life sentences for the deaths of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams.

“Amnesty International has studied [Peltier’s] case extensively over many years and remains seriously concerned about the fairness of proceedings leading to his trial and conviction,” the human rights organization says in an action alert. “Amnesty believes that political factors may have influenced the way in which the case was prosecuted.”

Amnesty points out that the U.S. Parole Commission has acknowledged that, “the prosecution has conceded the lack of any direct evidence that [Peltier] personally participated in the executions of two FBI agents.”

The group recently produced a video on his case to draw attention to the injustice endured by this 71-year-old diabetic who is in dire need of medical care that is unavailable in prison:

Regarding political prisoner Chelsea Manning, who is serving a draconian 35-year sentence for exposing U.S. war crimes and other embarrassing state secrets, a coalition of human rights organizations has written to Obama urging the outgoing president to do the right thing and release this courageous whistleblower by commuting her sentence to time served.

In a Dec. 5 letter to the president, groups including the ACLU, Lambda Legal, League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Organization for Women, and the Transgender Law Center wrote:

We support commuting her court-martial sentence to time served. Ms. Manning is currently in the seventh year of a thirty-five year sentence for disclosing classified information to the media with the intention of raising public awareness about issues she found concerning, including the impact of war on innocent civilians. Our organizations may be of differing opinions concerning Ms. Manning’s actions; however, we stand united in our support for her clemency petition.

As Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight for the Future, pointed out,

Transparency activist Chelsea Manning has already spent more time behind bars than any other whistleblower in U.S. history. She’s been systematically mistreated, subjected to torture, and denied access to desperately needed health care while serving a 35 year sentence in an all-male military prison. … If President Obama does not grant Chelsea’s clemency request before he leaves office, he is condemning her to a nightmarish fate.

Earlier this month, a petition asking President Obama to commute Manning’s prison sentence reached the 100,000-signature threshold to receive a response from the White House.

The international advocacy group Index on Censorship provides details on other U.S. political prisoners that Obama is being urged to pardon:

Jeffrey Sterling

Considered to be a whistleblower by some, Jeffrey Sterling, who worked for the CIA from 1993 to 2002, was charged under the Espionage Act with mishandling national defense information in 2010. Sterling was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for his contributions to New York Times journalist James Risen’s book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, which detailed the failed CIA Operation Merlin that may have inadvertently aided the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Risen was subpoenaed twice to testify in the case United States v Sterling but refused, resulting in a seven-year legal battle.

On 11 May 2015, at Sterling’s sentencing, judge Leonie Brinkema stated that although she was moved by his professional history, she wanted to send a message to other whistleblowers of the “price to be paid” when revealing government secrets. …

Edward Snowden

Although the most famous whistleblower on this list has not been tried and sentenced, Edward Snowden could face up to 30 years in prison for his multiple felony charges under the World War I-era Espionage Act. Snowden was charged on 14 June 2013 for his role in leaking classified information from the National Security Agency, notably a global surveillance initiative.

Snowden has expressed a willingness to go to prison for his actions but refuses to be used as a “deterrent to people trying to do the right thing in difficult situations” as so many whistleblowers often are.

Barrett Brown

The political climate in the US has become so hostile towards leaks that even journalists can face repercussions for their involvement with whistleblowers. American journalist and essayist Barrett Brown’s case became well-known after he was arrested for copying and pasting a hyperlink to millions of leaked emails from Stratfor, an American private intelligence company, from one chat room to another. The leak itself had been orchestrated by Jeremy Hammond, who is serving 10 years in prison for his participation, and did not involve Brown. Brown faced a sentence of up to 102 years in prison, once again for sharing a hyperlink, before the 12 counts of aggravated identity theft and trafficking in stolen data charges were dropped in 2013.

Although the dismissal of these charges was heralded as a victory for press freedom, Brown was still convicted of two counts of being an accessory after the fact and obstructing the execution of a search warrant. On 22 January 2015, Brown was sentenced to 63 months in prison and ordered to pay $890,250 in fines and restitution to Stratfor.

Barrett Brown was released from prison last month, after serving four years under harsh and punitive conditions.

While incarcerated, Brown wrote award-winning columns about an endless stream of abuses he endured in prison, including misconduct by prison officials seeking to silence him and violate his rights and the rights of other inmates. This included multiple stints in solitary and restrictions on his access to the press and use of email.

While there is no single internationally agreed upon designation of what constitutes a political prisoner, the intergovernmental organization Council of Europe in 2012 agreed upon one of the most useful and balanced definitions ever put forward.

The resolution adopted  by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe includes the following criteria: a person is considered a political prisoner “if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of,” or “if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons.”

Amnesty International’s definition is a bit broader, and it is clear that under its criteria all of these cases would qualify as political prisoners. As Amnesty has previously explained its use of the term “political prisoner,”

In AI’s usage, the term includes any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner’s acts, the acts in themselves, or the motivation of the authorities. “Political” is used by AI to refer to aspects of human relations related to “politics”: the mechanisms of society and civil order, the principles, organization, or conduct of government or public affairs, and the relation of all these to questions of language, ethnic origin, sex or religion, status or influence (among other factors). The category of political prisoners embraces the category of prisoners of conscience, the only prisoners who AI demands should be immediately and unconditionally released, as well as people who resort to criminal violence for a political motive. In AI’s use of the term, here are some examples of political prisoners:

a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime carried out for political motives, such as murder or robbery carried out to support the objectives of an opposition group;

a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime committed in a political context, such as at a demonstration by a trade union or a peasants’ organization;

a member or suspected member of an armed opposition group who has been charged with treason or “subversion”.

Although the United States would never acknowledge that it holds political prisoners, it is clear that under commonly used definitions of the term, many cases in the U.S. certainly apply. Chelsea Manning is a political prisoner, as her harsh sentence was applied for purely political motives, as was made clear during her sentencing.

“This court must send a message to those who release confidential information,” prosecutor Army Capt. Joe Morrow said to Judge Denise Lind during the sentencing phase of the trial. “There is value in deterrence, Your Honor. This court must send a message to any soldier contemplating stealing classified information.”

So, Manning, just like Sterling and others, is rotting in prison simply to send a “message” to other would-be whistleblowers. It is long past time for Obama to show some integrity and let these prisoners go.

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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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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.”

International community reiterates calls for Guantanamo’s closure as Congress moves to keep it open

Amnesty International USA activists protest the 10th anniversary of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, Washington DC, USA, 11 January 2012. - AIUSA

Amnesty International USA activists protest the 10th anniversary of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, Washington DC, USA, 11 January 2012. – AIUSA

Two major developments took place on Tuesday regarding the ongoing travesty of justice known as Guantanamo Bay. Taken together, the developments once again demonstrate how drastically out of step the United States is with the global community when it comes to human rights and international norms, and in particular how contemptuous the U.S. Congress remains of nearly universal international opinion on the Guantanamo Bay abomination.

On the same day that the U.S. Senate voted 91-3 in favor of a military spending bill that obstructs President Obama’s plans to close the Guantanamo prison camp by prohibiting transfers of detainees, one of Europe’s leading human rights bodies issued a comprehensive report reiterating the international community’s calls to close the detention facility and to either bring the remaining detainees to trial or free them.

The scathing 280-page report issued by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights also calls for the full investigation of human rights violations at the prison, including torture, as well as prosecutions of those responsible.

“There is a clear need for full transparency and accountability in addressing the violations of the human rights of detainees, including torture, that have occurred at the Guantanamo detention facility, and as part of the CIA rendition program,” said Omer Fisher, Deputy Head of ODIHR’s Human Rights Department. “Detainees have a right to redress, including access to justice, to compensation, and to medical rehabilitation.”

The report analyses compliance with international human rights standards of the detention and proceedings before U.S. military commissions, demands accountability for human rights violations both at Guantanamo and in the CIA’s illegal rendition and torture program, and specifies the right of victims to claim redress for arbitrary detention and ill-treatment. Regarding the CIA’s rendition and torture program, the report makes clear not only the United States but 27 other OSCE countries are guilty of participating and enabling this gross violation of human rights.

Detention and interrogation practices are examined in some detail. According to the report’s executive summary:

A wide variety of sources, including leaked ICRC reports and official reports have pointed to numerous instances of abuse at Guantánamo under the Bush administration. Interviews with former Guantánamo detainees have provided ODIHR with further information on the severity of abuses inflicted upon them during their detention and interrogations. Practices were reportedly designed to break detainees’ will, cause stress and make them co-operate with and wholly dependent on their interrogators who had total control over their level of isolation, access to comfort items and basic needs such as access to food, drinkable water, sunlight or fresh air. The lack of co-operation with interrogators and non-compliance with constantly changing prison rules were punished, including by the removal of basic items and prolonged isolation. Documented cases corroborated by ODIHR interviews of former detainees indicate the routine use of excessive force against detainees by the Initial Reaction Forces and during the force-feeding of hunger strikers.

Other areas of focus of the report include the use of physical isolation, which “remains the norm for a number of detainees kept in segregated cells with access to two to four hours of recreation per day, alone or with one other detainee.”

The OSCE takes issue with U.S. claims that single-cell confinement does not amount to solitary confinement, noting that “all detainees who spend 22 hours a day in segregated cells are undoubtedly held in solitary confinement.” This isolation “can lead to severe impact on detainees’ health and its effect can be even more pronounced in cases of individuals suffering mental distress from past abuses,” the OSCE points out.

“Solitary confinement combined with the prospect of indefinite detention is even more likely to amount to torture or ill-treatment,” notes the OSCE.

Hunger strikes and force feeding are another area of concern. According to the executive summary:

The reportedly substantial deterioration of confinement conditions during hunger strikes, including the most recent mass hunger strike of 2013 seems to constitute a system of punishment or reward implemented to break the hunger strike and discourage detainees from continuing to protest. Should gathered information be true, such practices would be unjustifiable and would violate a number of international human rights standards, including prison standards and the right of detainees to peacefully protest. It may also violate the prohibition of torture or ill-treatment.

As this report was being published yesterday, the Senate was voting overwhelmingly to thwart Obama’s plans to shutter the Guantanamo facility by maintaining a ban on transferring detainees. The bill adopted Tuesday imposes restrictions on moving any of the 112 remaining detainees to the United States or foreign countries. The measure had passed the house by a vote of 370-58 last week, and although Obama officially opposes the Guantanamo provisions, the White House has indicated that he will sign it into law anyway.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook however said that it is premature to say that Congress has blocked the efforts to close Guantanamo. “Let’s wait to see what the plan finally looks like,” he said. “The folks who are crafting that plan have been working very hard on this for months. … This is not going to deter the department from moving forward.”

Even if the plan goes forward, it’s not clear exactly how much impact it would have on ensuring U.S. compliance with international law. Since Obama’s plan would essentially import Guantanamo to the United States while keeping intact the system of indefinite arbitrary detention without charge, the physical closing of the facility in Cuba would largely be symbolic. As a recent letter to the New York Times by Steven W. Hawkins, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, explained:

The purpose of closing Guantánamo should be to end the human rights violation of indefinite detention without charge — not merely move it to a new location and change Guantanámo’s ZIP code. If the United States does not intend to prosecute a detainee in a fair trial, it should release him. No exceptions.

This call for charging and trying Gitmo detainees or releasing them was echoed by the OSCE report released Tuesday. “Notwithstanding the complexity of the cases before the military commissions, the right to be tried without undue delay has likely been violated in a number of cases,” explained the OSCE. The report goes on:

This right, as recognized under international human rights and humanitarian law and contained in OSCE commitments, applies from the first official charges until the final judgment on appeal. ODIHR is gravely concerned that the US government has intentionally deprived the Guantánamo detainees of this right by excluding the applicability of certain speedy trial rights to cases before the military commissions. The lack of longstanding established procedures and precedent of the military commissions and the hindrances to holding regular hearings due to the remote location of Guantánamo are examples of US government actions that have contributed to the slow path of the proceedings. ODIHR is not aware of particular conduct of the defendants that had led to significant delays. Moreover, lengthy detention, including of 12-13 years in some cases, is likely a violation of the right to liberty and security which applies to pre-trial detention and provides individuals arrested or detained for criminal charges with the right to be tried within a reasonable time or released.

The Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Michael Georg Link, will present the findings of the report Thursday at OSCE headquarters in Vienna. The OSCE is an intergovernmental organization whose membership includes all of the member countries of the European Union, NATO and the Commonwealth of Independent States. The U.S. is one of its charter members, having signed its founding document, the Helsinki Final Act, in 1975.

To join the international grassroots campaign to close Guantanamo, click here.

gitmo infographic

Mass shootings and the U.S.’s international obligation to protect the right to life

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Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The latest mass shooting in the United States – yesterday’s massacre at a community college in western Oregon – is another painful reminder of the U.S.’s inability or unwillingness to rein in its gun control problem and bring its laws into conformity with international norms.

The problem of U.S. gun violence has long caught the attention of the international community, including at recent review conferences examining U.S. compliance with various international conventions, with diplomats and experts repeatedly noting that U.S. laws may not fulfill international obligations of the United States government to protect life.

Following a review of the United States early last year by the UN Human Rights Committee for adherence to obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Committee’s concluding observations included the following passage on U.S. gun violence:

While acknowledging the measures taken to reduce gun violence, the Committee remains concerned about the continuing high numbers of gun-related deaths and injuries and the disparate impact of gun violence on minorities, women and children. While commending the investigation by the United States Commission on Civil Rights of the discriminatory effect of the “Stand Your Ground” laws, the Committee is concerned about the proliferation of such laws which are used to circumvent the limits of legitimate self-defence in violation of the State party’s duty to protect life (arts. 2, 6 and 26).

To bring the U.S. epidemic of gun violence under control and to fulfill its obligation to effectively protect the right to life, the UN recommended that the United States should:

(a)          Continue its efforts to effectively curb gun violence, including through the continued pursuit of legislation requiring background checks for all private firearm transfers, in order to prevent possession of arms by persons recognized as prohibited individuals under federal law, and ensure strict enforcement of the Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban of 1996 (the Lautenberg Amendment); and

(b)          Review the Stand Your Ground laws to remove far-reaching immunity and ensure strict adherence to the principles of necessity and proportionality when using deadly force in self-defence.

At a review of U.S. compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, held later in 2014, the United States was again admonished for its failure to comply with international obligations on protecting the right to life. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) observed that gun violence disproportionately impacts racial and ethnic minorities:

The Committee is concerned at the high number of gun-related deaths and injuries which disproportionately affect members of racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans. It is also concerned at the proliferation of “Stand Your Ground” laws, which are used to circumvent the limits of legitimate self-defence, in violation of the State party’s duty to protect life, and have a disproportionate and discriminatory impact on members of racial and ethnic minorities (arts. 2, 5 (b) and 6).

As a recommendation, the Committee urged the U.S.

to take effective legislative and policy measures to fulfil its obligation to protect the right to life and to reduce gun violence, including by adopting legislation expanding background checks for all private firearm transfers and prohibiting the practice of carrying concealed handguns in public venues; increasing transparency concerning gun use in crime and illegal gun sales, including by repealing the Tiahrt Amendments; and reviewing the Stand Your Ground laws to remove far-reaching immunity and ensure strict adherence to the principles of necessity and proportionality when deadly force is used for self-defence.

The United States was again reminded of these recommendations during UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of the U.S. human rights situation in May 2015.

The CERD, the UN reminded the United States,

was concerned at the large number of gun-related deaths and injuries, which disproportionately affected members of racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans. It urged the United States to reduce gun violence by, inter alia, adopting legislation expanding background checks for all private firearms transfers and reviewing the “stand your ground” laws.57 The HR Committee58 and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences59 made similar recommendations.

Despite all of these recommendations, needless to say, the U.S. has not taken any meaningful steps to bring its gun laws into compliance with its international obligation to protect the right to life. The result: so far this year, there have been 294 mass shootings in America, including yesterday’s in Oregon.

shooting sprees

Death row prisoner Richard Glossip’s multiple stays of execution may amount to torture

too much doubt

For the fourth time in the past year, the U.S. state of Oklahoma has issued a stay of execution for Richard Glossip, an almost certainly innocent man wrongfully convicted for contracting the murder of his boss in 1997. Beyond serious questions of the man’s guilt, his multiple brushes with death in such a limited period of time are the equivalent of state-sanctioned mock execution, prohibited under international torture conventions and under U.S. law.

Glossip was convicted of murder-for-hire 18 years ago after Justin Sneed, the man who confessed to the killing, claimed Glossip had hired him to do it, despite a total lack of evidence connecting Glossip to the crime. Sneed received a life sentence without parole in a medium-security prison, while Glossip was sent to death row based entirely on Sneed’s testimony.

Despite how crucial Sneed’s testimony was in convicting Glossip, the courts have largely overlooked the fact that he gave not one but eight different accounts of what happened the night Barry van Treese was murdered.

In recent years a number of people have come forward to say that Sneed’s fingering of Glossip lacks any credibility, including former cellmates who claimed that Sneed had boasted of getting out of a death sentence by selling out an innocent man. Even Sneed’s daughter claims that her father had lied about Glossip’s involvement in the crime, stating in a clemency letter last year that he would recant if it wasn’t for his own fear of being executed:

For a couple of years now, my father has been talking to me about recanting his original testimony. But has been afraid to act upon it, in fear of being charged with the Death Penalty, and not be here for his children. My father has no reason to do so as a favor to Richard, as him and Mr. Glossip have no relationship and have had no communication in the last 17 years. I feel his conscious is getting to him. His fear of recanting, but guilt about not doing so, makes it obvious that information he is sitting on would exonerate Mr. Glossip. I’m sure if he felt safe that he would not lose his Plea Agreement, he would give new and truthful testimony, much different that his Testimony 17 years ago.  He has asked me several times to look into what the legal ramifications would be to his own case if he recanted.

Due to the massive amount of doubt surrounding Glossip’s conviction, his case has garnered worldwide attention, including from Pope Francis who on Wednesday urged Governor Mary Fallin to commute his death sentence and nearly 250,000 signers of a petition calling for his release. His supporters claim that his innocence makes his incarceration a gross violation of human rights, compounded by the multiple close calls he has had with the Oklahoma death chamber.

These brushes with death are described in a timeline of his case compiled by local Tulsa TV channel KJRH:

May 28, 2014 – Glossip’s execution date is set for Nov. 20, 2014.

Oct. 13, 2014 – Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt says the state does not have the drugs on hand or the medical staff prepared that is needed to carry out the state’s upcoming executions.

Oct. 24, 2014 – Stay of execution granted for Glossip and two other Oklahoma death row inmates

Oct. 24, 2014 – A state board voted unanimously not to recommend clemency for Glossip

Nov. 20, 2014 – Date Glossip was to be executed

Jan. 26, 2015 – State Attorney General Scott Pruitt asks for stays of execution for three death row inmates, including Glossip.

Jan. 26, 2015 – Application for stay of execution filed with United States Supreme Court. Glossip and two other inmates filed the application.

Jan. 28, 2015 – Supreme Court takes up inmates’ application for stays, pending final disposition of the case.

Jan. 28, 2015 – Glossip meets face-to-face with Sister Helen Prejean at the law library inside Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

Jan. 29, 2015 – Date Glossip was to be executed.

Aug. 10, 2015 – Actress Susan Sarandon takes to Twitter to fight against Glossip’s execution. She and Prejean rebutted tweets sent out by a spokesperson for Gov. Mary Fallin’s office.

Aug. 28, 2015 – The U.S. Supreme Court rejects a request for a new hearing. Scheduled execution will proceed.

Sept. 14, 2015 – Glossip’s attorneys claim to have new evidence days before client is scheduled to die.

Sept. 16, 2015 – Hours before his execution was to be carried out, anappeals court issued an emergency request for a stay for two weeks until Sept. 30.

As journalists Ziva Branstetter and Cary Aspinwall described the scene yesterday at the prison where Glossip was scheduled to die at 3:00 PM,

Outside the white walls of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Glossip’s family and friends thought he was already dead. Reporters heard them crying out in anguish when they learned the Supreme Court had denied Glossip’s request for a stay.

It turned out Oklahoma didn’t have the right lethal drug to carry out the last step of his execution. Instead of potassium chloride, which stops the heart, the prison had potassium acetate.

“That’s just crazy,” Glossip said, via speakerphone held up as reporters crowded around. “Nobody has really said much of anything.”

Glossip has had four stays of execution, including on Sept. 16, the day he was to be put to death. The stay on Wednesday “is the most stressful it has been.” He had been moved to a holding cell and was not taken into the death chamber.

“I’m sitting there watching TV trying to keep up with the news and find out what’s going on,” he said.

So, basically, because the state of Oklahoma purchased the wrong drug to use on Glossip he got one more stay of execution with a new date to die in 37 days’ time. But as Sister Helen Prejean noted in a tweet yesterday following the Governor’s stay of execution, “If Oklahoma can’t be trusted to buy the right lethal injection drugs, how can anyone trust them to convict the right person?”

Beyond serious questions regarding the basic competence of Oklahoma state officials, yesterday’s stay of execution raises grave issues over the state’s – and by extension, the U.S.’s – compliance with the UN’s Convention Against Torture (CAT), which defines the crime of torture in Article 1:

 [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.

As a state party to the CAT, the United States has adopted domestic legislation to ensure compliance with the treaty’s provisions. The Torture Statute, formally known as Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113C of the U.S. Code, defines the crime of torture as “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.”

“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.

Considering the fact that Richard Glossip has now faced the threat of imminent death not once, not twice, but four times, it is clear that his treatment violates the letter and spirit of both international conventions and domestic statutes. It is effectively a mock execution, which is even prohibited under U.S. military interrogation and detention guidelines.

The likelihood that he is in fact innocent only compounds the tragedy and seriously calls into question the United States’ commitment to basic human rights.

For more on the Glossip case, click here.

To add your name to the petition demanding that his execution be stopped once and for all, click here.

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.”

Low grades for U.S. on compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

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Earlier this month, UN Special Rapporteur Sarah Cleveland presented a draft report on follow-up to the concluding observations of the UN’s Human Rights Committee regarding the compliance of the United States with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Human Rights Committee on July 13 discussed the progress report, which found the U.S. response to previous inquiries to be largely unsatisfactory.

“The Special Rapporteur briefly overviewed the system of the assessment of replies by States parties,” noted the Human Rights Committee on its website, “which included a scale from A – ‘largely satisfactory’ to C2 – ‘response received, but not relevant to the recommendations’.”

Specifically, regarding the U.S.:

While the United States of America had provided information on convictions of four Blackwater contractors for their crimes in Iraq, the Committee required information on investigations, prosecutions or convictions of United States’ Government personnel in Iraq.  The Committee regretted that no action had been taken to incorporate the doctrine of command responsibility into the criminal law.  The Committee reiterated its concern about the reports that the immunity provided by “Stand Your Ground” laws had expanded.  Transfer and/or trial of detainees from Guantanamo ought to be sped up; even today, a number of people were administratively detained there without being charged or tried.  Given the lack of specific information provided by the State party on measures to ensure that interference with the right to privacy, in line with the established principles, and regardless of the nationality or location of the individual under surveillance, the Committee reiterated its request for information.

The full U.S. grades are as follows:

report card

As journalist Kevin Gosztola further explained the grading scale:

To understand the grades, “B1″ means “substantive action” took place but the committee still wants more information. “B2″ means some initial action was taken. “C1″ means US replied to UN but did not take actions to implement recommendation. “C2″ means US replied, and the reply was irrelevant to the committee’s recommendation. “D1″ means US did not cooperate with the committee on this recommendation.

While the U.S. received a relatively high “B1″ grade for declassifying part of the report of the Senate report on torture and a “B2″ grade for investigating cases of unlawful killing, torture and other ill-treatment, unlawful detention, and enforced disappearances, and expediting the release of detainees from Guantanamo Bay, no “A” grades were given for anything.

The committee issued a “C2″ grade for the continued detention of detainees at Guantanamo and in facilities in Afghanistan. For its mass surveillance policies, received a “C1″ grade for failing to ensure surveillance complies with the ICCPR.

The worst grade given was a “D1″ for a lack of access to remedies for victims of surveillance abuse.

In response to these poor grades, the U.S. Human Rights Network urged the Obama administration to follow up on ensuring full compliance with the United States’ human rights obligations.

Last May, a review by the UN Human Rights Council found that the United States is in violation of international human rights standards as enshrined not only in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but also in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other landmark human rights treaties – some of which the U.S. refuses to ratify.

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