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Leak cases’ double standards bolster political prisoner claims

Although many government officials and contractors have gone to prison in recent years as a result of the Obama administration’s unprecedented “war on whistleblowers,” David H. Petraeus, the retired general and former director of the CIA, won’t spend a day behind bars if the government has its way.

This is despite the fact that Petraeus has agreed to plead guilty to giving highly sensitive classified information to Paula Broadwell, his biographer and mistress, in 2011 – a crime comparable to those of Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a former State Department intelligence advisor, who was sentenced to 13 months in prison after pleading guilty to disclosing a report about North Korea to a reporter, or John Kiriakou, a 14-year CIA veteran, who got 30 months for disclosing to a reporter the identity of an undercover operative who subjected suspected terrorists to torture.

There is also the ongoing case of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling who was charged under the Espionage Act for disclosing classified information about an ill-conceived and reckless CIA mission meant to slow Iran’s nuclear program to New York Times reporter James Risen, who then wrote about the CIA’s Iranian plot in his 2006 book, State of War. A Washington, DC, area jury convicted Sterling last month and he now faces a prison sentence of up to 80 years.

Then of course there is the case of Pfc. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, a former Army intelligence officer who is serving a 35-year prison sentence for divulging three important bodies of documents to WikiLeaks: the Iraq war logs, which consist of 391,000 field reports, 90,000 Afghan war logs, providing a devastating portrayal of the deteriorating war in Afghanistan, and 260,000 diplomatic cables, possibly the most controversial of his leaks.

The government had sought a 60-year prison sentence for the Army private, with military lawyers saying that a stiff sentence was necessary to send a message to other conscientious soldiers or government employees who might be considering exposing government wrongdoing.

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

As Nathan Fuller of the Bradley Manning Support Network explained at the time,

The prosecution insisted there has to be deterrence and we need to set an example out of Bradley Manning. They made it clear that anyone else thinking of releasing classified info should look at Manning. They want to go above and beyond what would be considered a reasonable sentence.

In contrast, the plea deal reached with former Petraeus for leaking Top Secret/Secure Compartmented Information materials to his mistress – with a punishment of a $40,000 fine and two years of probation – amounts to a slap on the wrist.

This discrepancy of punishment is all the more glaring considering the sensitivity of the materials that he disclosed. According to the criminal complaint, among the materials in the eight “Black Books” Petraeus shared with Broadwell were:

…classified information regarding the identities of covert officers, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and mechanisms, diplomatic discussions, quotes and deliberative discussions from high-level National Security Council meetings, and defendant DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS’s discussions with the President of the United States of America.

The Black Books contained national defense information, including Top Secret/SCI and code word information. Petraeus reportedly kept those Black Books full of code word information including covert identities and conversations with the President “in a rucksack up there somewhere.”

The blatant inconsistency in the treatment of Petraeus and other, less favored government leakers such as Kiriakou, Sterling and Manning has been obvious enough to lead to a flurry of commentary lamenting the apparent double standards of the government. “The whiff of a double standard is overwhelming,” wrote the Los Angeles Times in an editorial today. “If anything, a leader at Petraeus’ level should be held to a higher standard than lower-level officials or contractors.”

But in a deeper sense, these wildly divergent sentences are not just evidence of double standards, but of the fact the U.S. government engages in a systematic policy of repression of political “enemies,” solidifying the status of victims such as Manning as political prisoners.

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: “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.”

With the slap on the wrist that Petraeus is receiving for divulging classified documents, it stretches credulity to argue that Manning and Sterling are not being treated in a discriminatory manner, or that the length of detention is consistent with the crime. After all, how can one person get a 35-year sentence and another never spend a day in jail for committing essentially the same offense? It’s clear that the government has singled out Manning for a discriminatory, unnecessarily harsh sentence, and if they have their way will do the same to Sterling.

This makes them political prisoners.

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Europe grows a pair, criticizes U.S. on Guantanamo and mass surveillance

gtmo-by-zina-saunderFollowing an official visit to the Guantanamo detention facility this week, a delegation of parliamentarians from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the prison “a dark spot on the United States’ reputation in the spheres of human rights and rule of law.”

In a joint statement, the chair and vice-chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s human rights committee, Isabel Santos and Mehmet Sevki Kulkuloglu, said,

The detention of people under the traditional laws of war is not compatible with the modern fight against terrorism. The unfortunate application of this legal theory by the United States means that inmates could be held indefinitely, awaiting the end of a fight that does not have a clear-cut end point.

Even those who have faced charges in front of military commissions were subject to a changing legal context and serious restrictions related to classified material, all of which raises additional concerns regarding the transparency of the process and detainees’ ability to mount a defense in a fair trial.

Only a limited number of the remaining 122 detainees at Guantanamo have been charged or are expected to face charges in front of a military commission, the delegation noted. Citing the laws of war, the U.S. government has asserted that detainees can be held until the end of hostilities, a potential life sentence given the unclear and amorphous goals of the war on terror.

Although the delegation traveled to Guantanamo partly to ascertain the status and treatment of remaining detainees, it was not authorized to speak to inmates. Instead, they were given a tour of the facilities by military personnel on January 27 and met with officials from the Joint Task Force. They also viewed part of the military commission trial of Abd al Hadi al-Iraqi by closed circuit and met with senior officials from the Department of State and the Department of Defense in Washington ahead of their visit to Guantanamo Bay.

While recognizing progress has been made in relocating detainees from Guantanamo, the delegation noted that much remains to be done. “We applaud the commitment of the U.S. government to close the facility, but the United States cannot achieve this alone. It requires the support of all OSCE countries,” said Santos and Kulkuloglu.

Earlier in the week, another European body, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, issued a report blasting the NSA’s mass surveillance practices disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden as threats against “fundamental human rights” that do not substantially contribute to the prevention of terrorist attacks.

It further said it is “deeply concerned” by the “far-reaching, technologically advanced systems” used by the United States to collect, store and analyze the data of private citizens. It describes the scale of spying by the NSA as “stunning.”

The report and resolution approved by the assembly’s Legal Affairs Committee calls for:

  • the collection of personal data without consent only following “a court order granted on the basis of reasonable suspicion”
  • “credible, effective protection” for whistle-blowers exposing unlawful surveillance
    better judicial and parliamentary control of intelligence services
  • an “intelligence codex” defining mutual obligations that secret services could opt into
  • an inquiry into member states’ use of mass surveillance using powers under the European Convention on Human Rights

It also criticizes “the reluctance of the competent US authorities and their European counterparts to contribute to the clarification of the facts, including their refusal to attend hearings organised by the Assembly and the European Parliament, as well as the harsh treatment of whistle-blower Edward Snowden, [that] does not contribute to restoring mutual trust and public confidence.”

Despite these welcome moves by Europeans to compel greater U.S. compliance with international norms, the continent as a whole continues to fall short of what is needed to rein the world’s rogue superpower, particularly as it relates to torture and extraordinary rendition. As Amnesty International points out in a briefing paper issued Jan. 20,

European states implicated in the US Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) rendition and secret detention programmes have equivocated about their roles in these operations, relied on secrecy laws to decline comment, or simply flatly denied any involvement in them. Not one has conducted a genuinely effective, broad-based investigation into the role their government played in these operations, let alone held state actors fully accountable and provided victims with an effective remedy. Europe’s assistance in facilitating the human rights violations attendant to the US operations – illegal abduction and transfer, secret detention, enforced disappearance, and torture and other ill-treatment — has long been an “open secret,” with various governments seeking to shield themselves from accountability based on unsubstantiated “national security” grounds, the dubious invocation of “state secrets,” or outright lies.

Amnesty calls on

all European governments implicated in the CIA’s illegal rendition, secret detention and interrogation operations – including, among others, Germany, Lithuanian, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, and UK – to:

Conduct an effective, broad-based investigation as a matter of urgency into their involvement in these operations, with a view toward reforming the laws, policies, and practices that permitted such cooperation;

Ensure that those state actors and any foreign agents responsible for crimes under domestic and international law such as torture and enforced disappearance on the territories of European states are criminally charged and held accountable after fair trials;

Afford victims of the human rights violations attendant to these operations a full and effective remedy.

“Without European help, the USA would not have been able to secretly detain and torture people for so many years. The Senate report makes it abundantly clear that foreign governments were essential to the ‘success’ of the CIA operations – and evidence that has been mounting for nearly a decade points to key European allies,” said Julia Hall, Amnesty International’s expert on counter-terrorism and human rights.

International community and civil society call for human rights accountability in USA

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On the heels of a scathing report issued by the United Nations detailing the U.S. government’s lack of compliance with its international obligations on torture, several grassroots campaigns are increasing pressure on the United States to bring its human rights practices more closely in line with international norms.

In issuing its “concluding observations” on the U.S. torture record following the periodic review of U.S. compliance last month, the United Nations Committee against Torture noted that the U.S.’s lack of a specific law at the federal level prohibiting torture is out of step with article 1 of the Convention against Torture (CAT).

The Committee also regretted that the U.S. maintains a restrictive interpretation of the provisions of the CAT, particularly regarding the concept of “prolonged mental harm” related to torture that is prohibited under the treaty. In its concluding observations, issued on November 28, “the Committee recalls that under international law, reservations that are contrary to the object and purpose of a treaty are impermissible.”

Further,

The Committee expresses its grave concern over the extraordinary rendition, secret detention and interrogation programme operated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) between 2001 and 2008, which involved numerous human rights violations, including torture, ill-treatment and enforced disappearance of persons suspected of involvement in terrorism-related crimes. While noting the content and scope of Presidential E.O. 13491, the Committee regrets the scant information provided by the State party with regard to the now shuttered network of secret detention facilities, which formed part of the high-value detainee programme publicly referred to by President Bush on 6 September 2006.

3430722_370The Committee further regretted “the lack of information provided on the practices of extraordinary rendition and enforced disappearance; and, on the extent of the CIA’s abusive interrogation techniques used on suspected terrorists, such as water-boarding.” In this regard, it noted particular interest in the long-stalled declassification process of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.

The panel called on the Obama administration to release the Senate report on CIA torture “in the most complete and comprehensible form possible.” This comes as Senate Democrats have accused the White House of trying to censor key portions.

Other issues addressed by the UN included the treatment of migrants, including children held in “prison-like detention facilities,” as well as the “widespread prevalence of sexual violence, including rape, in prisons, jails and other places of detention by staff and by other inmates.” The Committee also expressed concern over “the notable gaps in the protection of juveniles in the State party’s criminal justice system.”

Concern was also raised over the high number of preventable deaths of inmates that take place in local jails and prisons in the United States. As the Committee noted,

958 inmates died while in the custody of local jails during 2012, an 8 percent increase from the 889 deaths in 2010. During the same year State prison deaths remained stable with 3,351 reported deaths. The Committee is particularly concerned about reports of inmate deaths occurred as a result of extreme heat exposure while imprisoned in unbearably hot and poor ventilated prison facilities in Arizona, California, Florida, New York, Michigan and Texas (arts. 2, 11 and 16).

To talk more about the UN’s findings, Dr. Jens Modvig, a co-author of the report, appeared on Democracy Now this week. Among other issues, Modvig discussed the topic of police brutality in the USA and the significance of the parents of Michael Brown – the unarmed black youth gunned down by a white police officer in August – testifying to the Committee against Torture.

The Committee “takes an interest in the measures that United States has in place to control excessive use of force and police brutality,” Modvig said. “When we look at the statistics,” he pointed out, “we heard from the United States delegation that during the last five years, a little over 300 hundred cases have been criminally prosecuted of police officers.”

However,

We asked for the resource of these prosecutions but we have not received this information. So, where there’s still doubt as to whether the mechanisms to hold police officers accountable for excessive use of force, police brutality and even police shootings are probably in place. Another issue of importance is whether there is independent oversight bodies that can check up on the way that the power’s administered in the law enforcement. And also here we have some doubts whether police review boards are sufficiently independent. So, these are some of the concerns that committee has expressed vis-a-vis the United States Delegation.

In an effort to increase the level of accountability in the U.S. when it comes to widespread police violence, demonstrations have been taking place across the country, with protests picking up in recent days in response to the failure to indict a white cop in New York who choked to death an innocent black man by the name of Eric Garner last summer.

Civil rights leaders are also calling for a national march on Washington to demand that the federal government intervene in prosecutions of police officers facing criminal charges. The march will take place Saturday, Dec. 13, and the families of both Eric Garner and Michael Brown will attend, according to the Huffington Post.

“We’ll be in Washington, demanding redress,” Al Sharpton said, speaking at the headquarters of the National Action Network in Harlem. He was joined by representatives of the NAACP, the National Urban League and 14 other groups, all of whom are mobilizing for the march on Washington.

When it comes to the issue of CIA torture and the Obama administration’s official policy of impunity that shields human rights abusers from accountability, civil society groups from across the U.S. are organizing a week of grassroots action to highlight CIA crimes, as well as violations of privacy rights being carried out by the National Security Agency.

According to the call to action, “Vigils, protests, workshops, and other events will start nationwide on International Human Rights Day (December 10th) and conclude on Bill of Rights Day (December 15th).”

Events are currently planned in following cities:

— San Francisco, CA (12/15): http://on.fb.me/1yVv0mq
— Oakland, CA
— San Jose, CA (12/10): http://on.fb.me/1rW0mJs
— Berkeley, CA (12/6): http://on.fb.me/1BhbG5y
— Richmond, CA (12/8): http://on.fb.me/1yjiVDS
— Cleveland, OH
— Washington, DC (12/10): http://on.fb.me/1ysOOOg
— Chapel Hill, NC: (12/15) http://on.fb.me/1FQdujW
— Raleigh-Durham, NC:
. — 12/9: http://on.fb.me/1yjiWry
. — 12/10: http://on.fb.me/1FQcGeM
— Miami, FL

Other grassroots initiatives underway include a petition urging Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) to submit the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report to the Congressional Record. Add your name to the petition here.

Also, the Witness Against Torture campaign will gather in Washington, DC on January 11, 2015, to mark the anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo indefinite detention facility, also known as “Obama’s Forever Prison,” and the13 years of torture that have taken place there. More information here.

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UN experts express shock over water shutoffs in Detroit, highlight U.S. international obligations

Demonstrators protest against the Detroit Water and Sewer Department July 18, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. The Detroit Water and Sewer Department have disconnected water to thousands of Detroit residents who are delinquent with their bills. (AFP Photo / Getty Images / Joshua Lott)

Demonstrators protest against the Detroit Water and Sewer Department July 18, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. The Detroit Water and Sewer Department have disconnected water to thousands of Detroit residents who are delinquent with their bills. (AFP Photo / Getty Images / Joshua Lott)

A delegation from the United Nations has completed a fact-finding mission to the U.S. city of Detroit, which is currently experiencing large-scale water disconnections, with at least 27,000 households having their water services cut off this year.

The UN delegation, consisting of the Special Rapporteur on housing, Leilani Farha, and the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, visited Detroit from Oct. 18-20 on the invitation of U.S. civil society groups. Noting that 40.7 percent of Detroit’s population live below the poverty level and about 80 percent of the population are African American, the experts said that the water shutoffs disproportionately affect vulnerable people and low-income African Americans.

“Twenty percent of the population is living on 800 USD or less per month, while the average monthly water bill is currently 70.67 USD,” the delegation pointed out. “This is simply unaffordable for thousands of residents, mostly African Americans.”

As the experts further explained in a press release concluding the visit,

Without water, people cannot live a life with dignity – they have no water for drinking, cooking, bathing, flushing toilets and keeping their clothes and houses clean. Despite the fact that water is essential for survival, the city has no data on how many people have been and are living without tap water, let alone information on age, disabilities, chronic illness, race or income level of the affected population.

Denial of access to sufficient quantity of water threatens the rights to adequate housing, life, health, adequate food, integrity of the family. It exacerbates inequalities, stigmatizes people and renders the most vulnerable even more helpless. Lack of access to water and hygiene is also a real threat to public health as certain diseases could widely spread.

In addition, thousands of households are living in fear that their water may be shut off at any time without due notice, that they may have to leave their homes and that children may be taken by child protection services as houses without water are deemed uninhabitable for children. In many cases, unpaid water bills are being attached to property taxes increasing the risk of foreclosure.

We were deeply disturbed to observe the indignity people have faced and continue to live with in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and in a city that was a symbol of America’s prosperity.

The experts also reminded the United States that it is bound by international human rights law and principles, “including the right to life as well as the right to non-discrimination with respect to housing, water and sanitation and the highest attainable standard of health.” These obligations not only apply to the federal government, but to state and municipal governments as well, including the judiciary.

In September, U.S. bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes threw out a motion to stop Detroit’s mass water shutoffs, declaring that despite “findings of irreparable harm,” there is no “fundamental enforceable right to free or affordable water.”

“We were shocked, impressed by the proportions of the disconnections and by the way that it is affecting the weakest, the poorest and the most vulnerable,” said de Albuquerque at a press conference on Monday.

“I’ve been to rich countries like Japan and Slovenia where basically 99 percent of population have access to water, and I’ve been to poor countries where half the population doesn’t have access to water … but this large-scale retrogression or backwards steps is new for me.” She added, “From a human rights perspective, any retrogression should be seen as a human right violation.”

As the delegation’s joint statement elaborates:

The human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation and to adequate housing both derive from the right to an adequate standard of living which is protected under, inter alia, article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is fully applicable to the United States. In addition, adequate housing and access to safe water are clearly essential to maintain life and health, and the right to life is found in treaties the United States has ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Ensuring freedom from discrimination does not mean that everyone should be treated equally when their circumstances are different. Water and sanitation does not have to be free. It must rather be affordable for all. The price cannot put a household in debt or limit access to essential services such as food or medicine. A human rights framework provides that people should not be deprived of these rights if they cannot pay the bill for reasons beyond their control. Disconnections of water due to non-payment are permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. When people are genuinely unable to pay the bill, it is the State’s obligation to provide urgent measures, including financial assistance, a specially low tariff or subsidies, to ensure access to essential water and sanitation for all. Not doing so amounts to a human rights violation.

Similarly, the human right to adequate housing means that housing must be affordable, including the costs of water, sanitation and other housing-related services. Houses without water and sanitation are unsafe and uninhabitable. They expose residents to disease, exacerbate existing health conditions, and threaten the security of tenure of residents. If costs associated with housing are not in line with income levels, housing is rendered unaffordable for many low-income residents, leading to accumulated arrears which in turn create real risks for foreclosure, eviction and homelessness. This contravenes the State’s obligation to ensure tenants and owners enjoy secure tenure.

The UN officials offered a number of recommendations to the City of Detroit and other relevant authorities, calling for Detroit to “restore water connections to residents unable to pay and vulnerable groups of people, stop further disconnections of water when residents are unable to pay, and provide them the opportunity to seek assistance that must be made available through social assistance schemes.”

Further, the U.S. should adopt, at all levels of government, a mandatory affordability threshold and specific policies should be adopted to ensure specific support to people who live in poverty.

In addition, the federal government should immediately undertake an investigation into the water shutoffs to determine if they are having a disproportionate impact on African Americans and other groups protected against discrimination.

For the full statement and list of recommendations, visit the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights web page.

Testimonies from residents of Detroit coping with the effects of the water shutoffs are available here.

Video of the delegation’s post-visit press conference is on YouTube:

U.S. police display total disregard for international norms on law enforcement

Police attack protesters in the Missouri suburb of Ferguson on Aug. 17 Picture: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Police attack protesters in the Missouri suburb of Ferguson on Aug. 17
Picture: Scott Olson/Getty Images

 

 Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

In the performance of their duty, law enforcement officials shall respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons.

Law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.

In response to protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the police murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old shot by Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, police have employed highly threatening and repressive measures, including pointing military assault rifles at peaceful protesters, deploying armored vehicles in the streets, and targeting journalists and African Americans for arrest.

These measures, human rights observers on the ground point out, infringe on basic fundamental rights to peaceful assembly and expression. Amnesty International, which has a team of observers in Ferguson, “remains deeply concerned about government infringement on the community’s right to peacefully protest the killing by police of Michael Brown,” according to an Aug. 19 blog post, which contains details on how Ferguson police have engaged in arbitrary arrests and acts of violent repression in recent days.

Amnesty reiterated its calls for a prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigation into the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, as well as independent investigations into any human rights abuses in connection with the policing of protests. Further, the group has urged a thorough review of all trainings, policies and procedures with regards to the use of force and the policing of protests.

Police point to a demonstrator who has his arms raised before moving in to arrest him on August 19.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Police point to a demonstrator who has his arms raised before moving in to arrest him on August 19. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A statement issued by Human Rights Watch on Aug. 20 noted that although some scattered looting has been reported in the two weeks of demonstrations in Ferguson, most observers have described the protests as overwhelmingly peaceful. Nevertheless, the police have used “unnecessary or excessive force – including firing teargas and rubber bullets into crowds, and arbitrarily detained journalists covering the events,” according to HRW.

In the statement, HRW urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to press state and local officials in Missouri to reform police practices to improve respect for basic rights. “Holder should also support federal reforms that could help address concerns about policing and racial discrimination raised during the Ferguson protests over the last 10 days,” HRW noted.

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 13.  AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 13.
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

“A lot of the poor policing we’re seeing in Ferguson may be going on elsewhere in the United States,” said Alba Morales of Human Rights Watch, who has been monitoring the situation in Ferguson. “Holder should press state and local officials to review their regulations and policies on policing, but he should also look at ways the federal government may be contributing to the problems there.”

Indeed, the issue of the federal government’s responsibility for ensuring a minimum national standard in policing is also one that the United Nations has raised directly with the U.S. government, concerns that have so far apparently fallen on deaf ears.

Earlier this year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a scathing report addressing serious human rights abuses in the United States, including the nationwide problem of police brutality. In a section of the report on “Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials,” the UN found that across the country, there is an unacceptably “high number of fatal shootings by certain police forces … and reports of excessive use of force by certain law enforcement officers including the deadly use of tasers, which have a disparate impact on African Americans.”

In order to bring its practices in line with international norms on law enforcement, the UN recommended that the U.S. government should “step up its efforts to prevent the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers by ensuring compliance with the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers” and “improve reporting of excessive use of force violations and ensure that reported cases of excessive use of force are effectively investigated, alleged perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions, that investigations are re-opened when new evidence becomes available, and that victims or their families are provided with adequate compensation.”

The Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers that the Human Rights Committee referenced contains a number of guidelines that the U.S. must implement in order to meet its international obligations. For example,

Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.

5. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall:

(a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved;

(b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life;

When tragedies do occur and police unnecessarily kill innocent people, the UN Basic Principles call for governments to “ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law.”

Demonstrating the general ignorance (or indifference) of these principles within United States law enforcement agencies, Sunil Dutta of the Los Angeles Police Department recently provided some stunningly frank “practical” advice to civilians on how to avoid being brutalized or killed by cops.

In the context of the ongoing protests in Ferguson, Dutta wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Tuesday, “If you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge.”

Acknowledging that police “field stops” can sometimes amount to unlawful and unconstitutional harassment, Dutta nevertheless advised civilians to never question the police about why they are being hassled, and above all, never contest  cops’ authority in any way. “I know it is scary for people to be stopped by cops,” he wrote. “I also understand the anger and frustration if people believe they have been stopped unjustly or without a reason,” adding that he is well aware that “corrupt and bully cops exist.”

However, “if you believe (or know) that the cop stopping you is violating your rights or is acting like a bully, I guarantee that the situation will not become easier if you show your anger and resentment,” he said. Instead of challenging the cop on the scene Dutta advises that order to avoid being killed you should “Save your anger for later, and channel it appropriately. Do what the officer tells you to and it will end safely for both of you.”

By placing the onus of avoiding being shot on the civilian rather than the police officer, Dutta is demonstrating the very problem with law enforcement in the United States. The mentality that he reveals among American police officers is this: when civilians get shot, it is their fault for mouthing off or being insufficiently deferential to the police’s authority. However, as made clear by the UN’s Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers, it is up to cops to always “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms.”

Police officers “may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result,” not because they get annoyed with civilians who question their authority.

This basic ignorance on the part of police officers is why it may be necessary for the federal government to step in to make sure that there is some sort of national standard for policing across the country. But instead, of course, the federal government is arming police departments to the teeth with military combat gear.

In other words, federal government so far has demonstrated itself to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, so it may be naïve to think that it has any interest in dealing with this issue.

International reaction to U.S. police brutality belies claims of American exceptionalism

Police officers point their weapons at demonstrators protesting against the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 18, 2014.  CREDIT: REUTERS/JOSHUA LOTT

Police officers point their weapons at demonstrators protesting against the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 18, 2014.
CREDIT: REUTERS/JOSHUA LOTT

Since the August 9 police murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth in Ferguson, Mo., the world has responded with a mixture of dismay and disgust as the U.S. has mobilized thoroughly militarized state security forces to crush demonstrations calling for police accountability.

The international reaction to the repression has called into question the United States’ frequent claims of “American exceptionalism,” the absurd notion that due to its “exceptional” history and unique culture, the U.S. is in some privileged position to provide moral leadership to the entire world.

In fact, the violence playing out on the streets of Ferguson is an all-too familiar sight to much of the world, which has for too long been on the receiving end of U.S.-sponsored violence and brutality. This includes, of course, the Palestinian people who have been suffering from U.S.-backed war crimes and atrocities carried out by the Israeli Defense Forces with a particular ferocity this summer.

Recognizing the repression that demonstrators in Ferguson are experiencing as similar to their own oppression at the hands of the Israelis, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been inspired to express their solidarity through social media, posting photos on Twitter such as these:

oppressed

solidarity

Others have begun offering advice on how to effectively deal with tear gas:

twitter advice

While activists take to social media, international diplomats are expressing concern through more traditional channels.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on U.S. authorities on Monday to ensure the protection of the rights of protesters in Ferguson. “The Secretary-General calls on the authorities to ensure that the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression are protected,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

“He calls on all to exercise restraint, for law enforcement officials to abide by U.S. and international standards in dealing with demonstrators,” he added.

At last week’s periodic review of the United States by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), a body of “independent experts that monitors [the] implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination by its State parties,” the U.S. was questioned on a wide array of topics, with the situation in Ferguson casting a long shadow over the proceedings.

Noureddine Amir headed the CERD’s review, which cited racial profiling by U.S. law enforcement officers, as well as high levels of gun violence that have a disparate impact on minorities. African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 50 percent of homicide victims, Amir pointed out.

“African American males are reportedly seven times more likely to die by firearm homicide than their white counterparts,” he said, pointing to factors such as “subconscious racial bias in shootings, the proliferation of Stand Your Ground laws and the existence of predominantly African American and economically depressed neighborhoods with escalated levels of violence.”

According to the UN’s readout of the hearing, other topics of discussion were excessive use of force by law enforcement and racial disparities in the criminal justice system:

Issues raised during the discussion included the high levels of gun violence in the United States, and its disparate impact on minorities.  Millions of United States citizens who held a gun licence also believed they had a licence to kill because of Stand Your Ground laws, Experts said.  The excessive use of force by law enforcement agents against racial minorities, racial disparities in the criminal justice system and in education, particularly that racial segregation in public schools was reportedly worse today than in the 1970s, were also discussed.  Discrimination against indigenous peoples, and violence against women, particularly indigenous women, as well as discrimination against non-citizens, particularly migrants from the southern border, were highlighted, as was the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.  The delegation was also asked about racial hate speech, racial profiling, obstacles to voting, child labour, racial biases within the child welfare system, environmental pollution and racial disparities in access to healthcare and housing.

Delegations of American civil rights officials who participated in the UN conference on racial equality in Geneva said that the murder of Michael Brown and the police repression of demonstrations in Ferguson were obviously reverberating internationally.

“Clearly this issue is resonating here … and they knew about it before we got here,” said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau. The story “continues to run in circulation over and over again (on Geneva television). The world is watching what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri.”

“At times,” UN Watch reported, “it felt as if the Committee members were placing the U.S. delegates, and the United States in turn, on trial.” CERD expert Yong‘an Huang, a former Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China, commented on how “the U.S. likes to play the role of world’s police but never to talk about the human rights situation in the country.”

China has also taken to its state-run media to express its views on the ongoing racial turmoil and police violence in America. As Think Progress reported yesterday:

After years of being critiqued for its own crackdowns against dissidents, China has begun to use the ongoing clashes between police and protesters and police in Ferguson, MO as a way to lambaste the United States for hypocrisy, joining other repressive regimes in expressing no small amount of schadenfreude at the current situation.

In an op-ed published Monday  by the official Chinese Xinhua news agency, commentator Li Li takes the United States to task, noting that “despite the progress, racial divide still remains a deeply-rooted chronic disease that keeps tearing U.S. society apart, just as manifested by the latest racial riot in Missouri.”

“It is undeniable,” Li writes, “that racial discrimination against African Americans or other ethnic minorities, though not as obvious as in the past, still persists in every aspect of U.S. social lives, including employment, housing, education, and particularly, justice.”

Li draws a connection in his piece between rampant violence within the United States and the violence perpetrated abroad by the U.S. military, urging America to focus on its own issues rather than citing “American exceptionalism” in criticizing other countries:

Uncle Sam has witnessed numerous shooting sprees on its own land and launched incessant drone attacks on foreign soil, resulting in heavy civilian casualties. Each country has its own national conditions that might lead to different social problems. Obviously, what the United States needs to do is to concentrate on solving its own problems rather than always pointing fingers at others.

Russian and Iranian media have also printed scathing judgments about the police response to protests in Missouri. As Al Jazeera reports:

One Russian site, Svobodnaya Pressa, coined the term “Afromaidan,” implying that the U.S. is getting a dose of its own medicine for backing anti-Russian Euromaidan rallies in Kiev, Ukraine. The article poked fun at the notion of a land of opportunity, signaling that America’s “race war” proves Washington’s hypocrisy.

PressTV in Iran led with the Ferguson story on its website Monday. A news feature quoted an African-American historian referring to “institutionalized racism” in the U.S. and calling the country a “human rights failed state.” And Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Facebook page read Sunday: “Look at what they do to the black community in their own country … . The police may beat them to death over the crime of having dark skins!”

Other concerns raised by the international community in recent days include the police crackdown on freedom of the press, as evidenced by the assaults and arrests of journalists covering the social unrest in Ferguson.

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović said on August 14 that the arrest of two reporters in Ferguson was unacceptable and a clear violation of the right of media to cover news.

Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan J. Reilly were taken into custody by local police on August 13 while filing reports on demonstrations, the OSCE noted. They were released without charges filed.

“Summarily rounding up journalists while they are doing their jobs sends a dangerous precedent and must never be condoned,” Mijatović said. “Journalists have the right to report on public demonstrations without being intimated by the police.”

In response to the deteriorating human rights crisis in Ferguson, Amnesty International USA has taken the unprecedented step of sending a 13-person delegation to monitor the situation. It is the first time Amnesty International has deployed observers inside the United States.

Speaking on Democracy Now, Steven Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA, explained the decision:

Amnesty saw a human rights crisis in Ferguson, and it’s a human rights crisis that is escalating. We sent observers down because there was a need for human rights observers. Clearly there are violations of international human rights law and standards, in terms of how the policing is being done on protests. So, for example, we’ve issued reports on, for example, Israel and the Occupied Territories, how tear gas is supposed to be administered—never in an indiscriminate way where children and the elderly could be subject to very harmful effects, even death, from tear gas. So, we sent down observers to be on the ground. We have been thwarted in our efforts to be able to go out on curfew with the police, which would be a clear standard in these circumstances, as well as the opportunity for the press to be able to be in the space. So, we also went down to make sure that the citizens in Ferguson understood that the eyes of the world were watching, that Amnesty is deeply supportive, and we will be continuing to monitor the situation.

Watch the interview here:

As the international community continues to speak out on U.S. racism and state-sponsored violence, the United States’ claims of “exceptionalism” – the claimed basis for much of its military interventionism around the world – will continue to be undermined. And until the U.S. deals with its own deteriorating human rights crisis, its claims to be a “moral leader” in the world will likely be rejected with a combination of ridicule and revulsion.

Ferguson police violence the latest indication of United States’ deteriorating human rights situation

A protester throws back a smoke bomb while clashing with police in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

A protester throws back a smoke bomb while clashing with police in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni


Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result. – UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers

For the fourth straight night, demonstrations rocked the St. Louis, MO, suburb of Ferguson on Wednesday in protest of the police murder of an 18-year-old unarmed black man named Mike Brown. The youth was gunned down last Saturday as he raised his hands to demonstrate compliance with police orders, according to witnesses, raising serious questions of adherence to international norms as they pertain to the use of force by law enforcement.  

The killing of Brown was the latest in an epidemic of police murders across the United States, including at least 18 people killed so far in the month of August, and an estimated 130 throughout 2014.

As the demonstrations continued in Ferguson this week, the police repression has intensified. The over-the-top police response has included the use of armored vehicles, tear gas, rubber and wooden bullets, and the deployment of officers wearing combat fatigues, making them virtually indistinguishable from armed forces in countries under U.S. military occupation such as Afghanistan.

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In an article at Business Insider on Tuesday, Paul Szoldra, an Afghanistan veteran, wrote:

While serving as a U.S. Marine on patrol in Afghanistan, we wore desert camouflage to blend in with our surroundings, carried rifles to shoot back when under enemy attack, and drove around in armored vehicles to ward off roadside bombs.

We looked intimidating, but all of our vehicles and equipment had a clear purpose for combat against enemy forces. So why is this same gear being used on our city streets?

The police confronting demonstrators in Ferguson are armed with short-barreled 5.56-mm rifles based on the military M4 carbine, “with scopes that can accurately hit a target out to 500 meters,” Szoldra points out. “On their side they carry pistols. On their front, over their body armor, they carry at least four to six extra magazines, loaded with 30 rounds each.”

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On Wednesday, these heavily armed police officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets to force hundreds of protesters out of the city center.

“Dozens of officers,” The Guardian reported, “some carrying assault rifles, advanced with a pair of armoured trucks on the young and predominantly African American crowd, after two glass bottles were thrown at their lines from a largely peaceful protest against the shooting of Michael Brown by a city policeman.”

The police viciously attacked both demonstrators and journalists covering the demonstrations, including by firing tear gas directly at TV camera crews, such as these unfortunate reporters from the Al Jazeera network who were attacked Wednesday night:

After the reporters fled, their equipment was dismantled by police.

cameras

The systematic police repression of the freedom of the media on Wednesday also included arresting individual reporters, including one from the Washington Post and one from the Huffington Post.

The Washington Post condemned the detention of its journalist, Wesley Lowery, as “illegal” and an “assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news.” The Huffington Post criticized the arrest of its reporter, Ryan Reilly, as “militant aggression.” Reilly said that the “police resembled soldiers more than officers.”

The assaults on press freedom by the police in Ferguson – not to mention the murder of the unarmed black youth that set the protests off in the first place – are just the latest of a long list of escalating violations of rights committed by rogue police forces across the country, including the systematic militarization of police and what is being called a nationwide epidemic of police brutality.

Even establishment publications such as the Wall Street Journal have noticed the troubling trend of rising police violence, which is widely understood as inextricably linked to the war on terror. The Wall Street Journal dubbed the new breed of U.S. police officers “the warrior cop.” As a feature article put it in August 2013,

Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop—armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.

This rapidly deteriorating human rights situation is depicted well in this short film released last October called “Release Us”:

Earlier this year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a scathing report documenting serious human rights abuses in the United States, with a particular focus on police violence.

In a section on “Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials,” the Human Rights Committee found that across the United States, there is an unacceptably “high number of fatal shootings by certain police forces, including, for instance, in Chicago, and reports of excessive use of force by certain law enforcement officers including the deadly use of tasers, which have a disparate impact on African Americans.”

In order to bring its practices in line with international norms on law enforcement, the UN recommended that the U.S. government should:

(a) step up its efforts to prevent the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers by ensuring compliance with the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers; (b) ensure that the new CBP directive on use of deadly force is applied and enforced in practice; and (c) improve reporting of excessive use of force violations and ensure that reported cases of excessive use of force are effectively investigated, alleged perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions, that investigations are re-opened when new evidence becomes available, and that victims or their families are provided with adequate compensation.

The Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers that the Human Rights Committee referenced contains a number of guidelines that the U.S. would do well to implement in the interest of avoiding the unnecessary killings of civilians by police. For example,

Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.

5. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall:

(a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved;

(b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life;

(c) Ensure that assistance and medical aid are rendered to any injured or affected persons at the earliest possible moment;

(d) Ensure that relatives or close friends of the injured or affected person are notified at the earliest possible moment.

When tragedies do occur and police unnecessarily kill innocent people, the UN Basic Principles call for governments to “ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law.”

This is one area that is sorely lacking in the United States, with a general climate of impunity across the country for killer cops. This climate has led the hacktivist collective Anonymous to call on congressional representatives of Missouri to introduce legislation called “Mike Brown’s Law.”

“Anonymous demands that the Congressional Representatives and Senators from Missouri introduce legislation entitled ‘Mike Brown’s Law’ that will set strict national standards for police conduct in the USA,” the collective announced in a press release on Sunday. “We further demand that this new law include specific language to grant the victims of police violence the same rights and prerogatives that are already enjoyed nationwide by the victims of other violent criminals.”

As the police repression has intensified since Sunday, the Anonymous collective is now calling for an escalation of tactics in response to the ongoing human rights violations, including by holding nationwide demonstrations in solidarity with Ferguson.

As outraged citizens in the United States stand up bravely against out-of-control police forces, it is also imperative for the international community to step up in demanding that the U.S. begin implementing minimal standards for police conduct as called for in the UN Basic Principles and other human rights documents such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

FCC’s proposed rule changes on net neutrality violate a host of international obligations

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

— Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

With one month to go before the public comment period ends on the Federal Communications Commission’s recent vote to advance a proposal that would end net neutrality and create a system of paid-prioritization online, a new report has come out criticizing the FCC’s actions as potentially undermining the U.S. government’s international obligations regarding freedom of expression.

The legal analysis issued Monday by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – an inter-governmental organization that counts the United States as one of its 57 members – found that the rules on net neutrality (the principle that internet service providers treat all data equally and not discriminate based on content or price paid) proposed by the FCC may violate one or more of the following international accords to which the United States has subscribed: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document.

Prepared for the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media by George Washington University Law School Professor Dawn Carla Nunziato, the report points out that Article 19 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR protects the right to freedom of expression and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Despite this international obligation of the U.S. government, the FCC has proposed rules that would replace the so-called Nondiscrimination Rule with a No Commercially Unreasonable Practices Rule. As Prof. Nunziato explains it, “Permitting ‘commercially reasonable’ practices by broadband providers will allow – and indeed encourage – broadband providers to experiment with business models that include paid prioritization – and even exclusive paid prioritization – upon individualized negotiations with edge providers (providers of content, applications, and services).”

In practice, what this would mean is that broadband providers would be able to negotiate exclusive pay-for-priority arrangements with individual content providers, permitting broadband providers to anoint exclusive premium content providers “and effectively become censors of other disfavored, poorly funded, or unpopular content, by choosing not to favor such content for transmission to subscribers.”

For example, an internet service provider like Comcast “could enter into a deal with Foxnews.com to anoint it as the exclusive premium news provider for all Comcast subscribers, while comparatively disadvantaging all other news providers.”

Similarly, the FCC’s Proposed Rules would allow a broadband provider like Verizon to enter into an arrangement with the Republican National Committee to anoint it as the exclusive premium political site for all Verizon subscribers, while disadvantaging the Democratic National Committee’s and other political sites.

She goes on to describe other possible effects of this rule change:

Otherwise protected speech – a blog critical of Verizon’s latest broadband policies, a disfavored political party’s website – could be disfavored by broadband providers and not provided to Internet users in a manner equal to other, favored Internet content – subject only to the Proposed Rules’ vague prohibition against commercially unreasonable conduct. Such a regime would endanger the free flow of information on the Internet, would threaten freedom of expression and freedom of the media, and would herald the beginning of the end of the Internet as we know it.

The possibility of being sidelined by the ISPs could lead to “further entrenched market power by dominant content and applications providers, self-censorship by content providers who might alter their content to make it more palatable to broadband providers, and a reduction in the overall amount of speech that is meaningfully communicated as a result of content not being delivered effectively to its intended audience.”

These very real prospects led the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, to weigh in on the controversy yesterday.

“The proposed rules will allow telecommunications providers to discriminate against content which may conflict with their political, economic or other interests,” Mijatovic said in a letter to FCC Chair Tom Wheeler. “This would contradict international standards, OSCE commitments on free expression and freedom of the media and longstanding U.S. First Amendment principles.”

Besides U.S. international commitments on freedom of information, the net neutrality controversy spurred by the FCC and its chairman Tom Wheeler raises questions of U.S. compliance with its anti-corruption obligations under the UN Convention against Corruption. As a state party to this Convention, the United States has agreed to taking measures to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption in both the public and private sphere. In particular,

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.

Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials. …

Preventing conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.

Yet, the powerful chairmanship of Wheeler at the FCC demonstrates once again how the United States routinely flouts this obligation to prevent conflicts of interests. Prior to joining the FCC, Wheeler worked as a venture capitalist and lobbyist for the cable and wireless industry, with positions including President of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA). He also raised over $500,000 for Barack Obama’s two campaigns.

As a reward for this financial backing, President Obama then appointed him to his current position where is empowered with rewriting the rules for the industry that once employed him. This sort of patronage is not only prohibited under the Convention against Corruption, but now, as we see, is leading to multiple violations of international principles, as documented by the OSCE in its report issued Monday.

“The Internet was conceived as an open medium with the free flow of information as one of its fundamental characteristics,” Mijatovic said upon the report’s release. “This should be guaranteed without discrimination and regardless of the content, destination, author, device used or origin.”

Mijatovic expressed her hope that her recommendations will be taken into consideration by the FCC.

The legal analysis of the proposed net neutrality rule changes is available here. To comment to the FCC regarding its proposed rules regarding net neutrality, click here.

A very accessible, succinct explanation of the FCC’s proposed rule changes was offered recently by John Oliver on his cable show Last Week Tonight:

In speech dripping with hypocrisy, Obama touts U.S. leadership on international norms

As this blog has demonstrated for more than three years, the United States is probably the world’s leading serial violator of international norms. While other nations may have more troubling records in respecting certain aspects of these principles — such as human rights in North Korea or electoral practices in Belarus — one would be hard-pressed to find another country in the world that flouts international obligations as routinely and comprehensively as the United States.

With its indefinite detention and torture policies, its endless war on terror and drone warfare, its policies of mass suspicionless surveillance, its support for dictators around the world and its bullying of other nations, as well as domestic problems such as mass incarceration and unfair elections, the USA violates global rules in a way that only a hegemonic, technocratic superpower possibly could. It is certainly in no position to tout its adherence to international standards, nor to lecture others on the importance of such standards.

Just this past March, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a scathing report on the U.S. lack of compliance with the hallmark International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, calling into question the legitimacy of a wide range of current U.S. policies, including counterterrorism operations, immigrants’ rights, voting rights, and the criminal justice system.

Among other things, the committee criticized the United States’ climate of impunity for disappearance, torture, and unlawful killings of terrorism suspects, and its failure to apply the ICCPR to international operations. In addition, the committee denounced racial disparities in law enforcement and the treatment of children as adults in the criminal justice system.

Another area of concern was U.S. violations of privacy rights. The committee highlighted the ongoing U.S. lack of compliance with privacy requirements set forth in article 17 of the ICCPR, particularly to respect the right to privacy regardless of the nationality or location of individuals being monitored.

“The committee’s recommendations highlight the gaps between U.S. human rights obligations and current laws and practices,” said ACLU Human Rights Program Director Jamil Dakwar.

Despite these realities, the U.S. continues to boast of its purported leadership in the area of international norms. In a speech yesterday at West Point that was dripping with nationalist jingoism and hypocrisy, President Barack Obama criticized those who would dismiss the effectiveness of multilateral action. “For them, working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness,” Obama said. “I think they’re wrong.”

He went on to explain the importance adhering to global rules and leading by example:

You see, American influence is always stronger when we lead by example. We cannot exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else. We can’t call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if so many of our political leaders deny that it is taking place. It’s a lot harder to call on China to resolve its maritime disputes under the Law of the Sea Convention when the United States Senate has refused to ratify it – despite the repeated insistence of our top military leaders that the treaty advances our national security. That’s not leadership; that’s retreat. That’s not strength; that’s weakness. And it would be utterly foreign to leaders like Roosevelt and Truman; Eisenhower and Kennedy.

I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions. That’s why I will continue to push to close GTMO – because American values and legal traditions don’t permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders. That’s why we are putting in place new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence – because we will have fewer partners and be less effective if a perception takes hold that we are conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens. America does not simply stand for stability, or the absence of conflict, no matter what the price; we stand for the more lasting peace that can only come through opportunity and freedom for people everywhere.

The lies and half-truths Obama spouted off are maddeningly blatant. Speaking of efforts to shutter Guantanamo, for example, is particularly disingenuous considering the fact that he is four years overdue in his stated promise to have closed the prison by January 2010. With 154 prisoners languishing in Guantanamo’s cages – more than half of them cleared for release years ago – the failure to end indefinite detention policies belongs squarely with President Obama.

It was under Obama’s presidency that dozens of desperate men at Guantanamo launched a principled hunger strike more than a year ago demanding their rights. Rather than address those grievances, Obama’s policies have been to provide the men artificial sustenance through a tortuous force-feeding process that was rebuked earlier this month by federal judge Gladys Kessler who urged authorities to find a compromise that would spare a prisoner “the agony of having the feeding tubes inserted and removed for each feeding” and “the pain and discomfort of the restraint chair.”

Obama’s boasting of new policies on data collection was also disingenuous, since the new restrictions put in place earlier this year were widely considered inadequate in addressing the global privacy concerns, relying on extremely narrow definitions of what constitutes spying.

As the Washington Post reported on January 18,

President Obama said Friday, in his first major speech on electronic surveillance, that “the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security.”

Obama placed restrictions on access to domestic phone records collected by the National Security Agency, but the changes he announced will allow it to continue — or expand — the collection of personal data from billions of people around the world, Americans and foreign citizens alike.

Obama squares that circle with an unusually narrow definition of “spying.” It does not include the ingestion of tens of trillions of records about the telephone calls, e-mails, locations and relationships of people for whom there is no suspicion of relevance to any threat.

In his speech, and an accompanying policy directive, Obama described principles for “restricting the use of this information” — but not for gathering less of it.

The Post also pointed out that along with the invocation of privacy and restraint, Obama gave his plainest endorsement yet of “bulk collection,” a term he used more than once and authorized explicitly in Presidential Policy Directive 28. The directive defined the term to mean high-volume collection “without the use of discriminants.”

So, as usual when the president gives a major policy address such as yesterday’s at West Point, it is worth checking the rhetoric against the facts. The touting of international norms and U.S. leadership should be seen for what they are: empty platitudes and hypocritical bombast.

The president is right however when he says that “we cannot exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else.” It’s long past time that Obama starts recognizing those rules and applying to all U.S. policies, including ending the drone wars and the climate of impunity for torturers.

DOJ report on Albuquerque police brutality a halting step towards accountability

Protest in Albuquerque against the March 16 police shooting of homeless man James Boyd

Protest in Albuquerque against the March 16 police shooting of homeless man James Boyd

Following a wide-ranging investigation of the Albuquerque Police Department (APD), the U.S. Justice Department said last Thursday that the APD has for years engaged in a pattern of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law.

The investigation, launched in November 2012, examined whether APD engages in an unconstitutional pattern or practice of excessive force, including deadly force, specifically identifying three general patterns of police abuse:

  • APD officers too frequently use deadly force against people who pose a minimal threat and in situations where the conduct of the officers heightens the danger and contributes to the need to use force;
  • APD officers use less lethal force, including tasers, on people who are passively resisting, non-threatening, observably unable to comply with orders or pose only a minimal threat to the officers; and
  • Encounters between APD officers and persons with mental illness and in crisis too frequently result in a use of force or a higher level of force than necessary.

The DOJ’s findings come on the heels of the recent police murder of a homeless man that has sparked a wave of demonstrations in Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city.

APD officers gunned down 38-year-old James Boyd on March 16 in the Sandia foothills following a standoff and after he allegedly threatened officers with a small knife, authorities said. But a helmet-camera video showed Boyd agreeing to walk down the mountain with them, gathering his things and taking a step toward officers just before they fired.

“It’s a tremendous injustice,” said community leader Ralph Arellanes of the shooting. “This was something that caught the attention of the world.”

Indeed, the world has been taking notice, not just of this particular incident, but in general the ongoing epidemic of police violence and the criminalization of homeless people in the United States.

Just last month, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a scathing report documenting serious human rights abuses in the United States, including the nationwide problem of police brutality, in particular against people of color and the homeless.

In a section called “Criminalization of homelessness,” the Human Rights Committee expressed concern about reports of “criminalization of people living on the street for everyday activities such as eating, sleeping, sitting in particular areas etc.”

The Committee noted that such criminalization raises concerns of discrimination and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment under articles 2, 7, 9, 17,and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and urged the U.S. to “abolish criminalization of homelessness laws and policies at state and local levels.”

In another section on “Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials,” the Human Rights Committee found that across the country, there is an unacceptably “high number of fatal shootings by certain police forces, including, for instance, in Chicago, and reports of excessive use of force by certain law enforcement officers including the deadly use of tasers, which have a disparate impact on African Americans.”

In order to bring its practices in line with international norms on law enforcement, the UN recommended that the U.S. government should:

(a) step up its efforts to prevent the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers by ensuring compliance with the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers; (b) ensure that the new CBP directive on use of deadly force is applied and enforced in practice; and (c) improve reporting of excessive use of force violations and ensure that reported cases of excessive use of force are effectively investigated, alleged perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions, that investigations are re-opened when new evidence becomes available, and that victims or their families are provided with adequate compensation.

The Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers that the Human Rights Committee referenced contains a number of guidelines that the U.S. would do well to implement in the interest of avoiding the unnecessary killings of civilians by police. For example,

Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.

5. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall:

(a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved;

(b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life;

(c) Ensure that assistance and medical aid are rendered to any injured or affected persons at the earliest possible moment;

(d) Ensure that relatives or close friends of the injured or affected person are notified at the earliest possible moment.

When tragedies do occur and police unnecessarily kill innocent people, the UN Basic Principles call for governments to “ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law.”

This is one area that is sorely lacking in the United States, with a general climate of impunity across the country for killer cops.

As a 2007 report prepared for the UN Human Rights Committee stated, the war on terror has “created a generalized climate of impunity for law enforcement officers, and contributed to the erosion of what few accountability mechanisms exist for civilian control over law enforcement agencies. As a result, police brutality and abuse persist unabated and undeterred across the country.”

“Systemic abuse of people of color by law enforcement officers has not only continued since 2001,” the report noted, “but has worsened in both practice and severity. According to a representative of the NAACP, ‘the degree to which police brutality occurs…is the worst I’ve seen in 50 years.’”

Even establishment publications such as the Wall Street Journal have noticed the troubling trend of rising police violence, dubbing the new breed of U.S. police officers “the warrior cop.” As a feature article in WSJ put it in August 2013,

Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop—armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.

In this context, while the new Justice Department report issued last week is certainly a welcome step towards some accountability, the fact is, much more is needed to bring U.S. police departments in line with international norms on law enforcement. A more comprehensive effort – including federal prosecutions of rogue cops – may be necessary if the United States is to bring itself into compliance with international policing norms.

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