Just a couple weeks past the symbolic 100-day marker of the Trump presidency, prominent Democrats are increasingly urging the president’s impeachment for alleged improprieties related to the so-called “Russiagate” controversy. More than two dozen Democratic members of congress — and a couple Republicans — have already alluded to the possibility of initiating impeachment proceedings, and following Donald Trump’s recent firing of FBI Director James Comey, those calls are intensifying.
Democratic Rep. Al Green of Texas last week became the first congressman to call for Trump’s impeachment from the floor of the House of Representatives.
“I rise today with a heavy heart,” Green said in a dramatic speech. “I rise today with a sense of responsibility and duty to the people who have elected me, a sense of duty to this country, a sense of duty to the Constitution of the United States of America. I rise today, Mr. Speaker, to call for the impeachment of the President of the United States of America for obstruction of justice.”
The congressman went on to describe the reasons he feels impeachment is necessary. Stating that “our democracy is at risk,” Green explained that when President Trump “fired the FBI director who was investigating the President for his connections to Russian involvement in the President’s election,” the president unlawfully obstructed justice into a federal investigation.
For the sake of the rule of law, the congressman stated that Congress must initiate impeachment proceedings to ensure the principle of no one being above the law is upheld. His calls have been echoed by senators and congressmen speaking out on television talk shows and Twitter, indicating a growing trend in Washington toward the real possibility of removing this president less than a year into his first term.
There are two things noteworthy about these developments. One is that the very basis for the impeachment calls rests on a number of assumptions that may very well lack any basis in fact. For all of the talk about Trump’s alleged “collusion” with the Russian government, what is left unsaid is that the “collusion” allegations relate to a fundamentally unproven assertion – that the Russian government actually interfered in Election 2016 as part of a plot to ensure that Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8 presidential election.
This alleged “interference” amounted to a supposed clandestine plot to hack the Democratic National Committee’s emails and provide the contents to WikiLeaks in order to make Clinton look bad and expose the DNC’s unfair handicapping of the insurgent Bernie Sanders campaign during the Democratic primary elections. In other words, Russia allegedly “meddled” in the election by helping to expose how corrupt the U.S. electoral system is. (It should be noted that the veracity of the emails’ contents is not disputed.)
Although this conspiracy theory has been endlessly promoted in the U.S. media and is essentially accepted as a self-evident truth by Democratic partisans, it should not be forgotten that it lacks any proof whatsoever and that there are a number of alternative possibilities for how WikiLeaks obtained the incriminating emails from the DNC.
One such theory is that they were provided by former DNC staffer Seth Rich, who was mysteriously murdered in a so-called “botched robbery” on the streets of Washington, DC, on July 10, 2016. This is the possibility that WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange alluded to when he offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in Rich’s killing.
Although WikiLeaks has a strict policy of not naming its sources, the reward for information about the Rich murder coupled with the fact that Assange has unequivocally stated that Russia was not the source of the leaks should raise at least a few doubts about the “official conspiracy theory,” i.e. the theory promoted by mainstream media, the U.S. intelligence community and the Democratic Party that Russia – in collusion with the Trump campaign – somehow “meddled” in the election.
(For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin has also unequivocally denied being the source of the DNC email leaks. “Read my lips – no,” he said when asked whether Russia had interfered in the U.S. election.)
It should also be noted that the closest thing to evidence to back up this official conspiracy theory amounts to a series of unproven assertions put forward by the U.S. intelligence community, which it should be recalled, has been known to tell a lie or two on occasion. In an “analytic assessment” published Jan. 6, the Director of National Intelligence concluded that the Kremlin had hacked the DNC emails in an effort to undermine Clinton’s campaign.
The official report however offers nothing approaching hard evidence of allegation of Russian interference, which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others have called an “act of war.” Indeed, the report states upfront that its sources and methods for reaching its conclusions remain “highly classified,” noting that “the Intelligence Community rarely can publicly reveal the full extent of its knowledge or the precise bases for its assessments, as the release of such information would reveal sensitive sources or methods and imperil the ability to collect critical foreign intelligence in the future.”
So, instead of offering proof, the report “covers the motivation and scope of Moscow’s intentions regarding US elections and Moscow’s use of cyber tools and media campaigns to influence US public opinion.” In other words, the intelligence community is offering its guesses as to why Moscow may have been motivated to engage in an “act of war” against the U.S. government without sharing a shred of proof that it actually did.
As former CIA analyst Ray McGovern describes it in a recent article,
The oft-cited, but evidence-free, CIA/FBI/NSA report of Jan. 6 – crafted by selected senior analysts, according to then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper – is of a piece with the “high-confidence,” but fraudulent, National Intelligence Estimate 15 years ago about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Basically, it’s propaganda designed to influence the American people of a predetermined conclusion – in this case that the Russian government is acting as a hostile power to interfere in “American democracy,” not unlike how the intelligence community 15 years ago worked to convince the American people that Iraq posed a grave threat with its non-existent weapons of mass destruction program.
Besides the complete lack of evidence to back up the official conspiracy theory of Russian interference in Election 2016, another thing striking about this line of attack against Trump is the fact that it ignores any number of other possibly impeachable offenses that have been committed by Trump since the day he took office.
These include violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which is intended to prevent corruption and conflict of interests by ensuring that nobody holding a position of trust with the United States government can receive payments from foreign governments, whether gifts or a salary or profits.
As Richard Painter, former ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, explained before Trump even took the oath of office,
If you have somebody who’s making profits from dealing with foreign governments or companies controlled by foreign governments, that person must dispense with those profits, cannot receive that money, while holding any position of trust with the United States government. That applies to every U.S. government employee, including the president. And so, what this means is that, for Donald Trump, if he’s going to hold onto these business enterprises, which present a whole range of other conflict of interest problems, to satisfy the Constitution, at a bare minimum, what he’s going to have to do is get the foreign government money and money from foreign government-controlled corporations out of his business enterprise. And this includes foreign diplomats staying at the hotels at government expense, foreign governments having big parties in his hotels and canceling reservations at the Four Seasons, going over to the Trump Hotel, to curry favor. All of that is unconstitutional.
Interestingly, however, Democrats have apparently eschewed this line of attack in favor of the “Russiagate” narrative, effectively letting Trump off the hook for a very real constitutional issue in favor of highly dubious and unproven accusations of “collusion” with an “adversarial power” in “undermining American democracy.”
Another area of concern that Democrats appear to be turning a blind eye to is regarding the mounting evidence of war crimes committed since Trump was sworn in as president last January.
The war crimes began within days of Trump’s inauguration, with Navy SEALs conducting a raid in Yemen on January 29 raid ending up with dozens of innocents killed and the loss of a $70 million MV-22 Osprey aircraft.
As Charles Pierson describes the deadly raid at CounterPunch,
Two deaths stand out. One was the Trump Administration’s first combat fatality: 36- year old Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens.
The second was an 8-year old American citizen, Nawar Al-Awlaki. Nawar’s father was the US-born cleric and Al-Qaeda recruiter and propagandist, Anwar Al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki was assassinated in a US drone strike in Yemen on September 30, 2011. Shortly afterwards, Nawar’s 16-year old brother Abdulrahman was also killed by a US drone, probably inadvertently.
Thanks to the US, the Awlakis—father, son, and daughter—are together again. It’s too bad the Awlakis can’t thank the Pentagon themselves.
Besides this incident, the routine use of flying robots (commonly known as “drones”) to rain death from above half-way around the world has shot up 432% under the Trump administration, continuing a trend started under the Bush-43 administration and intensified under President Obama to use unmanned aerial vehicles to indiscriminately kill terrorist suspects while also terrorizing civilian populations.
Indeed, Trump has killed enormous numbers of civilians in drone strikes, many of which have taken place far from any battlefield, in places such as Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. However, according to international humanitarian law, the legal use of military force are limited only to areas of “armed conflict.”
Because the United States is not involved in an armed conflict with Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, nor has any of these countries attacked the United States, Trump’s actions are violations of the United Nations Charter.
Other violations of the UN Charter include recent attacks on Syria, which were carried out both in violation of international law and without congressional authorization. Congressman Ted Lieu responded to news last week that the U.S. military bombed forces allied with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad with a tweet denouncing the attack as “frickin illegal.”
“Trump does not have Congressional authorization to attack Syria, a country that has not attacked U.S.,” Lieu pointed out.
While Lieu’s complaint was a welcome departure from the deafening silence that usually accompanies acts of U.S. military aggression, it should be kept in mind that voices such as his are the exception to the rule. And compared to the growing chorus of calls for impeachment over unfounded “Russiagate” allegations, the voices in the wilderness complaining of U.S. war crimes remain few and far between.
What this indicates is that while the U.S. ruling class – or what is commonly referred to as the “deep state” – has grown increasingly weary of Trump’s friendly moves toward Russia, what it doesn’t seem to mind is a policy of war crimes. Indeed, when Trump carries out acts of military aggression, he is generally lauded across the political spectrum for acting “presidential” and showing “leadership.”
In other words, what the deep state cannot abide is rapprochement, what it really wants is endless war.
President Donald Trump this week proposed a $54 billion boost in U.S. military spending, representing a nearly 10 percent increase, to be funded by cuts to domestic spending and foreign aid. As the National Priorities Project points out, the proposed increase is more than the annual budgets of the Department of Homeland Security ($48 billion), Housing and Urban Development ($38 billion), Department of Energy ($30 billion), Department of Justice ($29 billion), and Department of State ($29 billion).
It is also well above the annual budgets of Environmental Protection Agency and National Science Foundation, which come in at $8 and $7 billion a piece. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in stark contrast, only receives $485 million a year and the National Endowment for the Arts just $148 million. “Domestic and foreign aid spending already account for less than half of the federal discretionary budget,” the National Priorities Project points out, while the Pentagon accounts for “more than half of the annual discretionary budget” at more than $600 billion a year.
Yet, President Trump proudly stated last night in an address to a joint session of Congress that he is pushing for the biggest military spending hike in generations. “I am sending the Congress a budget that rebuilds the military, eliminates the Defense sequester, and calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history,” he said. Of course, he failed to mention that the U.S. already spends about as much as the next 12 countries combined.
Trump’s proposed increase in military spending is part of a broader budget plan that includes massive cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. So, basically, less Sesame Street, more war.
Besides questions of national priorities at a time when the country faces a host of problems on issues across the board – from crumbling infrastructure to the fact that more than 43 million people are living in poverty – the sharp increase in “defense” spending at a time of rising global instability and distrust likely means that other countries will feel compelled to follow suit in order to keep up.
Recalling the fact that Trump recently indicated his willingness to kick off a global arms race, actually stating in December 2016 “let it be an arms race” in response to criticisms of his flippant remarks about nuclear weapons, the military increases that he is now proposing should be understood as an opening salvo in what is sure to be a growing trend towards militarization and war.
This is a troubling development by any standard, but for a country with as long a history of aggression and atrocities as the United States, it is even more worrying.
Notably, the U.S. has just been exposed for using depleted uranium munitions during air raids in Syria, despite a vow not to use the toxic, radioactive and legally ambiguous weapons in the battlefield. Foreign Policy magazine reported two weeks ago that Air Force A-10 attack planes fired more than 5,000 rounds of 30mm depleted uranium rounds during a pair of assaults on convoys in an ISIS-controlled part of eastern Syria in November 2015 despite the fact that the weapons have been linked to cancer and birth defects.
Trump’s budget proposals also come just after the release of a major report detailing trends in global military spending and arms transfers. The report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found that the volume of international transfers of major weapons has grown continuously since 2004 and increased by 8.4 per cent between 2012 and 2016. Notably, SIPRI found, “transfers of major weapons in 2012-16 reached their highest volume for any five-year period since the end of the cold war.”
The five biggest exporters – the United States, Russia, China, France and Germany – together accounted for 74 percent of the total volume of arms exports, while the U.S. alone accounted for a disproportionate one-third of the total. The lion’s share of its arms transfers went to the Middle East, fueling conflicts there in Syria, Yemen and Israel-Palestine, likely contributing significantly to the refugee crisis that is now destabilizing Europe.
As SIPRI reports:
With a one-third share of global arms exports, the USA was the top arms exporter in 2012–16. Its arms exports increased by 21 per cent compared with 2007–11. Almost half of its arms exports went to the Middle East.
‘The USA supplies major arms to at least 100 countries around the world—significantly more than any other supplier state’, said Dr Aude Fleurant, Director of the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme. ‘Both advanced strike aircraft with cruise missiles and other precision-guided munitions and the latest generation air and missile defence systems account for a significant share of US arms exports.’
Not only is the United States fueling global conflict through its conventional military spending and arms sales around the world, but it is also potentially triggering a new nuclear arms race with the possibility of ending life on earth. This is at the same time that growing global efforts are being made to ban nuclear weapons once and for all with an ultimate goal of total nuclear disarmament.
As Trump recently told Reuters, “It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.”
Yet, as Matthew Rosza recently pointed out, writing at Salon,
This statement seems to contradict New START, a strategic arms limitation treaty that requires America and Russia to have an equal number of strategic nuclear weapons for 10 years as of February 2018. It was reported by Reuters earlier this month that Trump denounced that treaty as a bad deal during a Jan. 28 conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear organization, noted however that “Donald Trump’s Plan to be Leader of the Nuclear Pack Is Nuts.”
“Scientists now calculate that as few as 100 nuclear weapons used in a war in South Asia would put enough smoke and particulates in the atmosphere to enshroud the Earth in a cloud for 2 to 3 years, dropping global temperatures about 2 to 3 degrees,” according to Ploughshares.
That, as it turns out, is enough to devastate most food crops in the world. The resulting famine could kill one billion people. The panic, global mass migrations, desperation and chaos would likely result in the end of nation states.
Make it a war with 200 or 300 nuclear weapons, and all that human beings have accomplished over the millennia would be wiped out. We would be well into Mad Max scenarios.
There are some 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world. The U.S. and Russia have almost 95 percent of them. That is much more than we need for any conceivable military mission. China, for example, only has about 260 weapons, yet that seems to do a pretty good job of deterring anyone from attacking them.
With these concerns in mind the United Nations is convening negotiations this month on “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” This new international agreement will place nuclear weapons on the same legal footing as other outlawed weapons of mass destruction, many of which the United States continues to use, manufacture and to supply to other countries, in blatant violation of international norms.
For more information on the nuclear ban negotiations, visit the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
A little more than two weeks into the presidency of Donald J. Trump, it is clear that his administration is shaping up to be one of the most hostile to international norms in recent memory. While George W. Bush once dismissed a reporter’s question about whether his Iraq policies conformed with international law by joking, “International law? I better call my lawyer,” Trump’s attitude toward rule of law principles was summed up by a tweet today disparaging a “so-called judge” who put a nationwide hold on the implementation of his travel ban on nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries.
“The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!” Trump tweeted.
The travel ban has sparked a national and international outcry, with demonstrations taking place at airports across the country and numerous world leaders weighing in on Trump’s controversial executive order to halt entries into the United States by citizens of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
“Discrimination on nationality alone is forbidden under human rights law,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad Al Hussein. “The U.S. ban is also mean-spirited, and wastes resources needed for proper counter-terrorism.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed regret over the U.S. government’s entry ban and explained the U.S.’s international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention in a phone call with Trump, Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.
“The Refugee Convention requires the international community to take in war refugees on humanitarian grounds. All signatory states are obligated to do. The German government explained this policy in their call yesterday,” Seibert said.
The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s human rights and humanitarian committee chair Ignacio Sanchez Amor expressed concerns that the ban on refugees represents a major step backward in the international community’s efforts to develop a cohesive response to the refugee and migrant crisis, and noted that on humanitarian grounds the United States cannot send refugees back to countries where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.
“This is the core principle of non-refoulement that is at the heart of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and is now a widely accepted norm,” he said.
Sanchez Amor also pointed out that the travel ban is contrary to the spirit of the OSCE’s founding document, which the United States signed along with 34 other countries of North America, Europe and Eurasia in 1975.
“To the extent that this travel ban may affect those with dual nationalities or residents of OSCE countries, I note that it may contravene the 1975 Helsinki Final Act’s stipulation that signatories should ease regulations concerning movement of citizens within the OSCE area,” he said.
In this document, the United States agreed:
to facilitate wider travel by their citizens for personal or professional reasons and to this end they intend in particular:
– gradually to simplify and to administer flexibly the procedures for exit and entry;
– to ease regulations concerning movement of citizens from the other participating States in their territory, with due regard to security requirements.
In addition to whipping up a frenzy of international condemnation over the travel ban, the Trump administration is also drawing fire for his nominations to lead the nation’s intelligence services. Yet, despite serious concerns about Trump’s pick to lead the CIA, Mike Pompeo, for his pro-torture statements and lax attitude about the use of mass surveillance, the U.S. Senate confirmed him on Jan. 23 by a vote of 66-32.
“Pompeo’s responses to questions about torture and mass surveillance are dangerously ambiguous about whether he would endorse abusive practices and seek to subvert existing legal protections,” said Human Rights Watch’s Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno. “Pompeo’s failure to unequivocally disavow torture and mass surveillance, coupled with his record of advocacy for surveillance of Americans and past endorsement of the shuttered CIA torture program, make clear that he should not be running the CIA.”
Democratic Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said Pompeo was the “wrong man for the job.”
“He has endorsed extreme policies that would fundamentally erode liberties and freedoms of our people without making us safer,” Wyden said. He said Pompeo’s answers to questions from some senators have been “vague” and “contradictory,” making it impossible to know what Pompeo believes.
Nevertheless, his nomination sailed through the Senate, likely paving the way for a return to torture as U.S. policy, as President Trump has promised to do on numerous occasions. The president recently even defended torture on national television, stating unequivocally that it “works.”
Shortly following Pompeo’s confirmation, his deputy director at the CIA was named as Gina Haspel, who, according to the New York Times “played a direct role in the CIA’s ‘extraordinary rendition program,’ under which captured militants were handed to foreign governments and held at secret facilities, where they were tortured by agency personnel.”
She also ran the CIA’s first black site prison in Thailand and oversaw the brutal interrogations of two detainees, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.
In addition, she played a vital role in the destruction of interrogation videotapes that showed the torture of detainees both at the black site she ran and other secret agency locations. As The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald explains:
The concealment of those interrogation tapes, which violated both multiple court orders as well the demands of the 9/11 Commission and the advice of White House lawyers, was condemned as “obstruction” by Commission Chairs Lee Hamilton and Thomas Keane. A special prosecutor and Grand Jury investigated those actions but ultimately chose not to prosecute.
As if these developments were not bad enough, it also looks as if Trump is going to continue the reckless drone assassination program that was developed by his predecessor, Barack Obama. In one of his first military actions as president, Trump ordered an attack on a village in Yemen on Jan. 29 that killed as many as 23 civilians, including a newborn baby and an eight-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki.
Nawar was the daughter of the al-Qaida propagandist and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a September 2011 US drone strike in Yemen. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman was killed in a second drone strike soon afterwards.
Following the tragic killing of this young girl, The Guardian pointed out that Trump has previously endorsed killing relatives of terrorist suspects, which is a war crime. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” he told Fox News in December 2015.
The human rights organization Reprieve pointed out:
Secret US strikes, in countries where the US is not at war, are widely considered to violate international law. Previous research by Reprieve has found that, in attempts to kill 41 named individuals in Yemen and Pakistan, US strikes killed some 1,147 unknown men, women and children.
It looks as though this is one policy area that we should expect some continuity between Obama and Trump. It also looks as if Trump will be moving rapidly to reinstate the torture regime that was halted by Obama in 2009. It should be noted, however, that the use of torture – although illegal – was never prosecuted by the Obama administration, and this lack of law enforcement ensured that it would remain a “policy option” for a fascist president like Donald Trump to pull off the shelf.
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.
Roth 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.
The 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.”
It 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.
Although the past year brought a glimmer of hope that there might be some accounting for the eight years of lawlessness and criminality that reigned while George W. Bush was in the White House, with the former president reportedly canceling a planned trip to speak at the Switzerland-based United Israel Appeal last December amid calls by several human rights groups for Swiss authorities to arrest him for authorizing torture, one of the greatest crimes of the 21st century remained unpunished, with not a single prosecution of the architects of the Iraq war, which was launched March 19-20, 2003.
For 13 years, the Iraq war aggressors have walked free despite being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents, the absolute destruction of a nation, and facilitating the rise of ISIS, the most brutal terrorist group on the planet. The lack of prosecutions continues to confirm that the concept of “international justice” remains an illusion, to paraphrase Bob Marley, to be pursued but never attained. The lack of prosecutions is especially glaring considering the fact that Chelsea Manning is serving a grossly disproportionate 35-year prison sentence for revealing evidence of U.S. war crimes in Iraq and other state secrets.
It is not Chelsea Manning who should be in prison, but the Iraq war’s chief architects, including Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and the chief war criminal George W. Bush. They are the ones who launched an aggressive war, what Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Jackson once denounced as “the greatest menace of our time.”
Jackson noted in 1945 that “to start an aggressive war has the moral qualities of the worst of crimes.” The Nuremberg tribunal, he said, had decided that “to initiate a war of aggression … is not only an international crime: it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of whole.”
When it comes to Iraq, the accumulated evil of the whole is difficult to fully comprehend. In 2003, Iraq was a country that had already been devastated by a U.S.-led war a decade earlier and crippling economic sanctions that caused the deaths of 1.5 million Iraqis (leading to the resignation of two UN humanitarian coordinators who called the sanctions genocidal). Following the U.S. invasion and occupation, another million or so were killed, and by 2014, a former CIA director conceded that Iraq no longer existed.
“I think Iraq has pretty much ceased to exist,” said Michael Hayden. “It’s divided into three parts. … I don’t see them getting back together and we need to deal with that reality.”
In other words, the United States completely destroyed a sovereign nation. It is therefore no exaggeration to call the 2003 invasion of Iraq one of the great crimes of history, and it does not reflect well on the international community that it has allowed the architects to escape any meaningful punishment for 13 years.
What follows is a partial accounting of some of the more brazen violations of international law related to the U.S. war on Iraq, which prosecutors may feel free to use as the basis for a criminal probe.
Although the invasion didn’t officially begin until March 20, 2003 (still the 19th in Washington), the United States had been threatening to attack the country as early as January 2003, with the Pentagon publicizing plans for a so-called “shock and awe” bombing campaign in what appeared to be a form of psychological warfare against Iraq in violation of the UN Charter.
“If the Pentagon sticks to its current war plan,” CBS News reported on January 24, “one day in March the Air Force and Navy will launch between 300 and 400 cruise missiles at targets in Iraq. … [T]his is more than number that were launched during the entire 40 days of the first Gulf War. On the second day, the plan calls for launching another 300 to 400 cruise missiles.”
A Pentagon official warned: “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad.”
The effect of these threats particularly on Iraqi youth was profound. A group of psychologists published a report in January 2003 describing the looming war’s effect on children’s mental health.
“With war looming, Iraqi children are fearful, anxious and depressed,” they found. ”Many have nightmares. And 40 percent do not think that life is worth living.”
The Pentagon’s vaunted “shock and awe” attack began with limited bombing on March 19-20, as U.S. forces unsuccessfully attempted to kill Saddam Hussein. Attacks continued against a small number of targets until March 21, 2003, when the main bombing campaign began. U.S.-led forces launched approximately 1,700 air sorties, with 504 using cruise missiles.
The attack was a clear violation of the UN Charter, which stipulates that “Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.” The only exception to this is in the case of Security Council authorization, which the U.S. did not have.
Desperate to kill Hussein, Bush ordered the bombing of an Iraqi residential restaurant on April 7. A single B-1B bomber dropped four precision-guided 2,000-pound bombs. The four bunker-penetrating bombs destroyed the target building, the al Saa restaurant block and several surrounding structures, leaving a 60-foot crater and unknown casualties.
Diners, including children, were ripped apart by the bombs. One mother found her daughter’s torso and then her severed head. U.S. intelligence later confirmed that Hussein wasn’t there.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime on April 9, the U.S. action in Iraq took on the character of an occupation, and as the occupying power, the U.S. was bound by international law to provide security. But in the post-war chaos, in which looting of Iraq’s national antiquities was rampant, U.S. forces stood by as Iraq’s national museum was looted and countless historical treasures were lost.
Despite the fact that U.S. officials were warned even before the invasion that Iraq’s national museum would be a “prime target for looters” by the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, set up to supervise the reconstruction of postwar Iraq, U.S. forces took no action to secure the building. In protest of the U.S. failure to prevent the resulting looting of historical artefacts dating back 10,000 years, three White House cultural advisers resigned.
“It didn’t have to happen”, Martin Sullivan – who chaired the President’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Property for eight years – told Reuters news agency. The UN’s cultural agency UNESCO called the loss and destruction “a disaster.”
During the course of the war, according to a four-month investigation by USA Today, the U.S. dropped 10,800 cluster bombs on Iraq. “The bomblets packed inside these weapons wiped out Iraqi troop formations and silenced Iraqi artillery,” reported USA Today. “They also killed civilians. These unintentional deaths added to the hostility that has complicated the U.S. occupation.”
U.S. forces fired hundreds of cluster munitions into urban areas from late March to early April, killing dozens and possibly hundreds of Iraqi civilians. The attacks left behind thousands of unexploded bomblets that continued to kill and injure civilians weeks after the fighting stopped.
(Because of the indiscriminate effect of these duds that keep killing long after the cessation of hostilities, the use of cluster munitions is banned by the international Convention on Cluster Munitions, which the United States has refused to sign.)
Possibly anticipating a long, drawn-out occupation and counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq, in a March 2003 memorandum Bush administration lawyers devised legal doctrines justifying certain torture techniques, offering legal rationales “that could render specific conduct, otherwise criminal, not unlawful.”
They argued that the president or anyone acting on the president’s orders are not bound by U.S. laws or international treaties prohibiting torture, asserting that the need for “obtaining intelligence vital to the protection of untold thousands of American citizens” supersedes any obligations the administration has under domestic or international law.
“In order to respect the President’s inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign,” the memo stated, U.S. prohibitions against torture “must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his Commander-in-Chief authority.”
Over the course of the next year, disclosures emerged that torture had been used extensively in Iraq for “intelligence gathering.” Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh disclosed in The New Yorker in May 2004 that a 53-page classified Army report written by Gen. Antonio Taguba concluded that Abu Ghraib prison’s military police were urged on by intelligence officers seeking to break down the Iraqis before interrogation.
“Numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees,” wrote Taguba.
These actions, authorized at the highest levels, constituted serious breaches of international and domestic law, including the Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of Prisoners of War, as well as the U.S. War Crimes Act and the Torture Statute.
While these are some of the more obvious examples U.S. violations of international law from the earliest days of the invasion of Iraq, for which no one has been held to account, the crimes against the Iraqi people only continued and intensified over the years.
There was the 2004 assault on Fallujah in which white phosphorus – banned under international law – was used against civilians. There was the 2005 Haditha massacre, in which 24 unarmed civilians were systematically murdered by U.S. marines. There was the 2007 “Collateral Murder” massacre revealed by WikiLeaks in 2010.
All of these crimes are calling out for punishment and the passage of time does not diminish their severity in any way, shape or form. Indeed, with Iraq still reeling from an ongoing civil war and with President Obama joining his predecessors as the fourth consecutive American president to bomb that poor country, it is clear that accountability is still needed for these disastrous policies and war crimes.
A good place to start would be arresting George W. Bush and putting him on trial in The Hague.
Human Rights Watch issued a damning report yesterday offering new evidence that Saudi Arabia has been using U.S.-made and -supplied cluster munitions on civilians in war-torn Yemen, despite a nearly universal global ban on the weapons. Their use may violate both international and United States law, HRW pointed out.
The report, which includes photographs showing unexploded U.S. cluster bombs in Yemen, is putting new pressure on the United States over support for its close ally Saudi Arabia, at a time when an international campaign is growing for a moratorium on arms transfers to the human rights-abusing dictatorship.
“The Americans have sold arms and furnished training and expertise to a Saudi-led coalition that has faced widespread criticism for what rights groups call an indiscriminate bombing campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels in nearly a year of fighting,” the New York Times reported.
As Human Rights Watch documented:
Recently transferred US-manufactured cluster munitions are being used in civilian areas contrary to US export requirements and also appear to be failing to meet the reliability standard required for US export of the weapons. …
Human Rights Watch believes the Saudi Arabia-led coalition of states operating in Yemen is responsible for all or nearly all of these cluster munition attacks because it is the only entity operating aircraft or multibarrel rocket launchers capable of delivering five of the six types of cluster munitions that have been used in the conflict.
Cluster bombs contain submunitions, or bomblets, that disperse widely and kill indiscriminately, especially when used in civilian areas. Many bomblets can fail to explode, effectively becoming landmines that continue to pose a threat to civilians for years to come.
Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch and chair of the international Cluster Munition Coalition, noted that the use of these weapons violates international norms. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, as well as their US supplier, are blatantly disregarding the global standard that says cluster munitions should never be used under any circumstances,” he said. “The Saudi-led coalition should investigate evidence that civilians are being harmed in these attacks and immediately stop using them.”
John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, said in a statement Sunday night: “We have seen the Human Rights Watch report, and are reviewing it. Obviously we remain deeply concerned by reports of harm to civilians and have encouraged the Saudi-led coalition to investigate reports of civilian harm.”
While HRW points out that any use of any type of cluster munition should be condemned, there are two additional disturbing aspects to the use of the particular model being used in Yemen – CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons – which are notoriously unreliable, leaving unacceptable amounts of unexploded ordinance on the ground to terrorize civilians for years to come.
“First, U.S. export law prohibits recipients of cluster munitions from using them in populated areas, as the Saudi coalition has clearly been doing,” HRW said. “Second, U.S. export law only allows the transfer of cluster munitions with a failure rate of less than 1 percent. But it appears that Sensor Fuzed Weapons used in Yemen are not functioning in ways that meet that reliability standard.”
The Convention on Cluster Munitions was adopted in Dublin on May 30, 2008 by 107 states and signed in Oslo on Dec. 3, 2008. It became binding international law when it entered into force on Aug. 1, 2010. A total of 118 states have joined the Convention, as 98 States parties and 20 Signatories.
In the treaty, states parties have agreed to never use cluster munitions, nor “develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer to anyone, directly or indirectly, cluster munitions,” nor “assist, encourage or induce anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention.”
The U.S. is one of the few remaining holdouts, one of what the international community calls the “dirty dozen of cluster munitions.”
In a Jan. 12 letter to President Obama, Megan Burke, the director of the Cluster Munition Coalition urged him to “demand that Saudi-led coalition members stop using cluster munitions,” and said the United States “should investigate its own role in the recent strikes.”
To add your name to an Avaaz petition calling on world leaders “to stand up and say ‘NO’ to Saudi Arabia and their atrocities,” click here.
Another U.S.-based petition, calling on Washington to “Stop Supporting – and Start Punishing – Saudi Arabia” is available here.
If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged. – Noam Chomsky, 1990
In recent days, numerous commentators have criticized irresponsible discourse within the GOP presidential field over whether to reinstate torture and implement other war crimes – such as carpet bombing – as official U.S. policy. The 2008 Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain, even felt compelled to weigh in this week by calling out the “loose talk” in the Republican race.
McCain took the Senate floor Tuesday to condemn remarks by his Republican colleagues regarding the use of torture, stating that “these statements must not go unanswered because they mislead the American people about the realities of interrogation, how to gather intelligence, what it takes to defend our security and at the most fundamental level, what we are fighting for as a nation and what kind of nation we are.”
Indeed, with presidential frontrunner Donald Trump calling his chief rival Ted Cruz a “pussy” for hinting that he might show some degree of restraint in the use of torture, it’s clear that on the Republican side, the discussion has gone off the rails. This has led respected human rights groups to remind the U.S. of its moral and legal obligations not to engage in sadistic and cruel practices such as waterboarding.
“Waterboarding meets the legal definition of torture, and is therefore illegal,” recalled Human Rights First’s Raha Walla. “Torture under U.S. and international law means acts that cause severe mental or physical pain or suffering. There’s no question that waterboarding meets that definition.”
Amnesty International’s Naureen Shah also issued a rebuttal to the debate over waterboarding, which she described as “slow-motion suffocation.” She pointed out the obvious that “the atrocities of the armed group calling itself Islamic State and other armed groups don’t make waterboarding okay.” This was in response to statements by Trump and others that since Islamic State terrorists chop off people’s heads, the U.S. is right to respond with its own forms of brutality.
(“Do we win by being more like [the Islamic State]?” George Stephanopoulos asked Trump last Sunday. “Yes,” Trump responded. “I’m sorry. You have to do it that way.”)
Writing in The Guardian Wednesday, human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith observed:
There was once a consensus that torture was immoral; even today, any sensible person knows torture is of little use if you want accurate information. Yet the current crop of Republican presidential candidates have been trying to outbid one another with promises of barbarism: Senator Ted Cruz confirmed that he favours simulated drowning, which he classifies as an “enhanced interrogation technique” (EIT) that falls short of torture. (The Spanish Inquisition was rather more honest, and called it tortura del agua.) “The Donald” immediately trumped his rival: he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”.
In a similar vein, The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain and Dan Froomkin noted on Tuesday that the GOP is apparently competing over which candidate would commit the worst war crimes, including but not limited to torture and encompassing other atrocities such as carpet bombing. As the journalists pointed out:
In recent months, one candidate or another has promised to waterboard, do a “helluva lot worse than waterboarding,” repopulate Guantánamo, engage in wars of aggression, kill families of suspected terrorists, and “carpet bomb” Middle Eastern countries until we find out if “sand can glow in the dark.”
The over-the-top bombast plays well in front of self-selected Republican audiences — the crowd responded to the description of Cruz Monday night with full-throated chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” But such promises of future criminality from potential presidential nominees have outraged many legal experts.
While it is clearly troubling that the leading contenders for the Republican nomination are so eagerly trying to outdo each other on who would be the worst war criminal, what is perhaps equally troubling is that candidates on the Democratic side also seem committed to policies that could in fact qualify as war crimes.
It should be recalled that while the Republicans are speaking about hypothetical war crimes that they would like to commit if elected, there is a leading Democratic candidate who is already guilty of war crimes committed under her watch.
As Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a major proponent of armed intervention and regime change in Libya, which – despite occasional claims to the contrary – was in no way authorized by the UN Security Council, making it a breach of the UN Charter.
When the Libyan civil war began in mid-February 2011, Clinton stated unequivocally that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi “must go now, without further violence or delay.”
Despite Arab countries’ reservations about regime change, Clinton helped convince Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan that a simple no-fly zone would be insufficient and argued that aerial bombing would also be necessary. Clinton then persuaded Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that his country should abstain on the UN resolution authorizing force against Gaddafi, and she was instrumental in getting the rest of the Security Council members to approve Resolution 1973, which established a “no-fly zone.”
With this resolution secured, the U.S. promptly decided to overstep its authority, “interpreting” the authorization as carte blanche to implement a policy of regime change.
The Arab League, which had tentatively lent support to Resolution 1973, promptly objected to the bombing campaign. “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians,” said Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa on March 20, 2011.
Despite the narrow limitations placed on the U.S. and NATO forces by the Security Council to enforce a no-fly zone in order to protect civilians, the Western powers soon made it clear that their objective was not simply to protect civilians, but to aid the rebels in the their efforts to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.
This initial breach of international law was then compounded by subsequent war crimes, as documented by Amnesty International in the war’s aftermath.
“Scores of Libyan civilians who were not involved in the fighting were killed and many more injured, most in their homes, as a result of NATO airstrikes” in the bombing campaign to depose Gaddafi, Amnesty noted. “Regrettably,” continued Amnesty, “NATO has yet to address these incidents appropriately, including by establishing contact and providing information to the victims and their relatives about any investigation which might have been initiated.”
The war also led to an exacerbation of the security crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, fueling the civil war in nearby Syria and facilitating the rise of the Islamic State, as well as directly contributing to the refugee and migrant crisis that began to destabilize Europe.
Besides that disastrous foreign policy blunder, Clinton was also a primary supporter of the 21st century’s first major war of aggression, the 2003 unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq.
For years, Clinton was a vocal supporter of this war despite its numerous documented atrocities, defending her 2002 vote as senator to authorize the invasion as necessary to counter Saddam Hussein’s alleged (but ultimately nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction program. It wasn’t until last year – 13 years after the U.S. invasion – that she finally acknowledged that her support for that war had been a “mistake.”
The other Democratic presidential contender, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, has been much more consistent in his opposition to both the Iraq war and the Libya intervention, but unfortunately has embraced other policies with questionable status under international law. He has said, for example, that as president, he would be willing to use drone strikes as liberally as President Obama has, despite serious questions about this policy’s legality.
In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press last October, host Chuck Todd asked Sanders if drones or special forces would play a role in his counter-terror plans.
“All of that and more,” Sanders said. “Look, a drone is a weapon. When it works badly, it is terrible and it is counterproductive. When you blow up a facility or a building which kills women and children, you know what? … It’s terrible.”
Collateral damage by drones is not only terrible, but the very use of drones has been shown to lower the threshold for use of force, as demonstrated by a recent study by two U.S. academics.
In ‘The Ethics of Drone Strikes: Does Reducing the Cost of Conflict Encourage War?’ James Walsh and Marcus Schulzke report on how public attitudes towards the use of armed force change when unmanned drones are used in comparison to the deployment of other types of force. Analysis of the results show, write Walsh and Schulzke, “that participants are more willing to support the use of force when it involves drone strikes.”
This in turn makes U.S. military intervention more likely, as it does the inevitable collateral damage and war crimes that go along with it.
Besides drone strikes, it also appears that Sanders is committed to a Middle East policy that would empower one of the world’s worst human rights abusers to take a leading role in the region.
Saudi Arabia, despite its record as an egregious violator of human rights both at home and in neighboring countries such as Bahrain and Yemen, has long relied on the United States as its leading arms supplier.
As explained in a Congressional Research Service background paper published earlier this month:
Obama Administration officials have referred to the Saudi government as an important regional partner, and U.S. arms sales and related security cooperation programs have continued with congressional oversight. Since October 2010, Congress has been notified of proposed sales to Saudi Arabia of fighter aircraft, helicopters, naval vessels, missile defense systems, missiles, bombs, armored vehicles, and related equipment and services, with a potential value of more than $100 billion.
Since March 2015, the U.S.-trained Saudi military has used U.S.-origin weaponry, U.S. logistical assistance, and shared intelligence to carry out strikes in Yemen. Some Members of Congress have expressed skepticism about Saudi leaders’ commitment to combating extremism and the extent to which they share U.S. policy priorities. Nevertheless, U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism ties reportedly remain close, and Saudi forces have participated in some coalition strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria since 2014.
Thousands of civilians have been killed by coalition airstrikes since March of last year, according to the UN, and Human Rights Watch field investigations have uncovered evidence that many airstrikes were unlawfully indiscriminate, hitting residential homes, markets, healthcare facilities, and schools where there was no military target.
To make matters worse, Saudi Arabia has been dropping cluster bombs on residential neighborhoods, which HRW describes as “serious violations of the laws of war” due to “the inherently indiscriminate nature of cluster munitions.”
“The deliberate or reckless use of cluster munitions in populated areas amounts to a war crime,” HRW said in a statement last month.
Despite these violations, Sanders has urged Saudi Arabia to become more involved in the fight against ISIS, specifically stating that the brutal dictators of Riyadh should “get their hands dirty” – prompting peace activist David Swanson to ask, “Who has dirtier hands than Saudi Arabia?”
While Sanders is still probably the least likely of the U.S. presidential contenders to embrace war crimes should he win the election this November – and certainly deserves points for calling out Hillary Clinton’s friendly relationship with Henry Kissinger, one of the most notorious American war criminals of the 20th century – he should keep in mind that even enabling atrocities of a third party such as Saudi Arabia can make a president culpable for these crimes.
According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,
A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State” (Article 16 of the International Law Commission, “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts,” (2001) which were commended by the General Assembly, A/RES/56/83).
Further, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and the Arms Export Control Act authorizes the supply of U.S. military equipment and training only for lawful purposes of internal security, “legitimate self-defense,” or participation in UN peacekeeping operations or other operations consistent with the UN Charter.
If Sanders wants to truly distinguish himself from Clinton – not to mention the blood-thirsty would-be war criminals on the Republican side – he should make clear that he would not only refrain from torture and wars of aggression, but also the enabling of war crimes by dubious allies such as Saudi Arabia, or for that matter Israel.
To add your name to a petition calling on the United States and other governments of the world to stop providing Saudi Arabia with weaponry until the Saudi government ends its military aggression and abuse of human rights, click here.
In the clown show known as the Republican presidential primary race, candidates are providing a clear – if, albeit, unintentional – case as to why prosecutions of the Bush-era CIA torture program are absolutely essential, and why it is so damaging that the Obama administration has shirked its responsibilities in this regard for more than seven years.
As human rights groups have long maintained, prosecuting Bush administration and CIA officials involved with the torture of terrorism suspects in the post-9/11 period is necessary so that torture is not repeated in the future by subsequent administrations who – because of previous decisions not to prosecute – may consider themselves above the law.
Indeed, this is precisely why there is a requirement under international law for allegations of torture to be investigated and prosecuted – so that torture does not become a “policy option” to be utilized or shelved depending on the political whims of the day.
This is a point that Amnesty International, for one, drove home following the release in late 2014 of a portion of the U.S. Senate’s report on the use of torture by the CIA during the Bush administration. In a statement entitled “Senate summary report on CIA detention programme must not be end of story,” Amnesty lamented that limited Justice Department investigations into CIA interrogations were ended in 2012 with no charges.
Human Rights Watch concurred, noting that unless the release of the Senate report leads to prosecutions, torture will remain a “policy option” for future presidents.
Needless to say, these exhortations have largely fallen on deaf ears, with no prosecutions launched whatsoever. Instead, the U.S. Congress responded with a largely meaningless and toothless “reaffirmation” of the ban on the torture – a totally redundant and unnecessary piece of legislation since torture has long been unambiguously banned under international law, the United States Constitution and U.S. statutory law.
Now, just as HRW, Amnesty and others have warned, this lack of law enforcement is having the predictable effects: contenders for the Republican nomination – including very possibly the next president of the United States – are making clear their plans to bring back waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques, and to once again make torture the official policy of the United States government.
In the presidential debate on Jan. 28, for example, Sen. Marco Rubio insinuated that under his administration, indefinite detention and torture would be most welcome. “If we capture terrorists,” he said, “they’re going to Guantánamo, and we will find out everything they know.” Despite this rather oblique allusion to bringing back the policy of torture which officially ended in 2006, none of the other candidates, or the debate moderators, even raised an eyebrow.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the debate on Feb. 6 included a virtual competition among candidates Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump to see who would be the most brutal and lawless in the treatment of suspected terrorists. All three candidates voiced support for waterboarding, with Trump pledging to reintroduce the technique – and introduce even more draconian and lawless techniques – if elected: “I would bring back waterboarding, and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” he said.
As the Huffington Post explained, “Trump was out-brutalizing Cruz, who said he would only use waterboarding sparingly, in emergency scenarios.”
Rubio also reiterated his support for waterboarding, saying that terrorism cases should not be held to the same humane legal standards of traditional law enforcement. In fact, he explicitly stated that interrogating suspected terrorists is not a law enforcement function:
Well, when people talk about interrogating terrorists, they’re acting like this is some sort of law enforcement function. Law enforcement is about gathering evidence to take someone to trial, and convict them. Anti-terrorism is about finding out information to prevent a future attack so the same tactics do not apply.
And, it is true, we should not be discussing in a widespread way the exact tactics that we’re going to use because that allows terrorist to know to practice how to evade us.
He also made it clear that the travesty of justice of Guantanamo should be kept open indefinitely:
But, here’s the bigger problem with all this, we’re not interrogating anybody right now. Guantanamo’s being emptied by this president. We should be putting people into Guantanamo, not emptying it out, and we shouldn’t be releasing these killers who are rejoining the battlefield against the United States.
As for Trump, when pressed this weekend on his statements about bringing back waterboarding and devising even more brutal torture methods, he decided to double down rather than backtrack.
On Sunday, the real-estate-mogul-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-presidential-contender appeared on “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos. The appearance included this remarkable exchange on torture:
STEPHANOPOULOS: As president, you would authorize torture?
TRUMP: I would absolutely authorize something beyond waterboarding. And believe me, it will be effective. If we need information, George, you have our enemy cutting heads off of Christians and plenty of others, by the hundreds, by the thousands.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Do we win by being more like them?
TRUMP: Yes. I’m sorry. You have to do it that way. And I’m not sure everybody agrees with me. I guess a lot of people don’t. We are living in a time that’s as evil as any time that there has ever been. You know, when I was a young man, I studied Medieval times. That’s what they did, they chopped off heads. That’s what we have …
STEPHANOPOULOS: So we’re going to chop off heads …
TRUMP: We’re going to do things beyond waterboarding perhaps, if that happens to come.
Interestingly, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – the only two remaining candidates for the Democratic Party – appeared on the same programs as Trump on Sunday, and while they commented freely on other aspects of the Republican debate, neither said anything about Trump’s call for torture.
Although it is only a matter of speculation, perhaps they were a bit reticent to comment on the torture question because they know that the only reason that this is even up for debate in the year 2016 is because for nearly eight years under Obama, the torture question has been systematically swept under the rug.
While Democrats may like to claim the moral high ground in “opposing torture,” they have in fact actively enabled torture by preventing prosecutions of torturers to take place. This is why the international community has been so adamant on the matter of prosecutions and has issued such rare public denunciations of the United States on this issue.
Following the release of the Senate torture report’s executive summary over a year ago, there was a veritable cacophony of demands for prosecutions, with some of the strongest words coming from the United Nations.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism Ben Emmerson stated unequivocally that senior officials from the Bush administration who sanctioned crimes, as well as the CIA and U.S. government officials who carried them out, must be investigated and prosecuted:
It is now time to take action. The individuals responsible for the criminal conspiracy revealed in today’s report must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes. The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorised at a high level within the US Government provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability.
International law prohibits the granting of immunities to public officials who have engaged in acts of torture. This applies not only to the actual perpetrators but also to those senior officials within the US Government who devised, planned and authorised these crimes.
He further emphasized the United States’ international obligation to criminally prosecute the architects and perpetrators of the draconian torture methods described in the report:
As a matter of international law, the US is legally obliged to bring those responsible to justice. The UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances require States to prosecute acts of torture and enforced disappearance where there is sufficient evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction. States are not free to maintain or permit impunity for these grave crimes.
It is no defence for a public official to claim that they were acting on superior orders. CIA officers who physically committed acts of torture therefore bear individual criminal responsibility for their conduct, and cannot hide behind the authorisation they were given by their superiors.
In particular, he added, “The U.S. attorney general is under a legal duty to bring criminal charges against those responsible.”
Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that it’s “crystal clear” under international law that the United States has an obligation under the UN Convention against Torture to ensure accountability.
“In all countries, if someone commits murder, they are prosecuted and jailed. If they commit rape or armed robbery, they are prosecuted and jailed. If they order, enable or commit torture — recognized as a serious international crime — they cannot simply be granted impunity because of political expediency,” he said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed hope that the partial release of the torture report is the “start of a process” toward prosecutions, because the “prohibition against torture is absolute,” Ban’s spokesman said.
Well, a year has passed and it is all too clear that there was no process being started with the release of the Senate torture report — and in fact, it was probably hoped by official Washington that this would be the end of the story.
But following the one-year anniversary of the Senate torture report being released, Human Rights Watch reiterated its calls for prosecutions in a 153-page report, “No More Excuses: A Roadmap to Justice for CIA Torture.” The HRW report, released Dec. 1, 2015, challenges claims that prosecutions are not legally possible and outlines U.S. legal obligations to provide redress to victims of torture. It also details actions that other countries should take to pursue criminal investigations into CIA torture.
Of course, this report, like virtually all other calls for justice on the torture question over the past seven years, has been studiously ignored by the Obama administration and official Washington. And with the Republicans now falling over each other to pledge their allegiance to illegal policies of torture and brutality, we are seeing the fruits of Obama’s refusal to uphold the laws of the land.
Despite the U.S. military’s cover story for its latest war crime in Afghanistan – the Oct. 3 bombing of a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz – being rather firmly in place, MSF is not giving up its quest for accountability, nor ceasing its calls for clarification on whether the United States still recognizes the rules of war as they apply to protections of medical facilities.
In a press release issued Monday, MSF reported on its latest action to bring attention to this case, a rally held last week across the street from the White House. The group delivered thousands of pages of printouts listing the names of more than half a million people who signed the MSF petition demanding an independent inquiry.
As MSF explains,
We did this to honor the staff members and patients who died that night and to continue our ongoing effort to get answers to lingering questions about how such a horrific incident could take place – how a well identified, fully-functioning hospital could be targeted with precise and overwhelming fire power for more than an hour. As it happened, just days after our gathering in Washington, DC, we shared the sad news that our own investigations of the incident and its aftermath had revealed that the death toll from the attacks now stands at 42 people, including 14 MSF staff members.
In continuing its calls for an independent investigation, MSF is rejecting the U.S. version of events that led to the heinous and dastardly attack on the hospital. As the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, told reporters last month, the military’s internal inquiry into the assault had determined that it was “a tragic but avoidable accident caused primarily by human error.”
The investigation’s results, which were announced the day before Thanksgiving ensuring that they would receive the least possible amount of attention, determined that the airstrike on the trauma center “was a direct result of human error compounded by systems and signals failure.” Campbell said the crew aboard the AC-130 gunship “believed they were striking a different building several hundred meters away where there were reports of insurgents.”
The military’s improbable version of events – at least the fifth story that the U.S. has issued in justification of its actions – included something like a “perfect storm” of human and technical errors that led to the multiple airstrikes conducted against the hospital for an hour despite numerous phone calls and messages from MSF to U.S. military contacts imploring them to call off the bombing. (Those messages were apparently not relayed to the aircraft’s crew, which was limited by technical malfunctions, according to Campbell.)
“We failed to meet our own high expectations,” Campbell said. “Those who called and conducted the strike did not take procedures to verify this was a legitimate target.”
Of course, most people would expect that the U.S. military has at least a vague idea of what targets it is bombing on any given day, so Campbell’s characterization of these standards as “high” might ring hollow to some. Indeed, Doctors Without Borders objected to this account, noting that the new U.S. cover story raises more questions than answers, and that the lax U.S. standards regarding its bombing procedures are “shocking.”
Responding to the U.S. military investigation’s findings, Christopher Stokes, MSF’s general director, said, “The U.S. version of events presented today leaves MSF with more questions than answers. It is shocking that an attack can be carried out when U.S. forces have neither eyes on a target nor access to a no-strike list, and have malfunctioning communications systems.”
“The frightening catalog of errors outlined today illustrates gross negligence on the part of U.S. forces and violations of the rules of war,” Stokes added.
Of course, this assumes that the strike was actually done in error, which is a rather dubious and naive assumption indeed. As a list provided by The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz a few days after the Kunduz attack makes clear, the United States has a long and bloody track record of intentionally bombing civilian targets. A few of the more scandalous examples of U.S. attacks on civilian targets include the following (more details here):
Infant Formula Production Plant, Abu Ghraib, Iraq (January 21, 1991)
On the seventh day of Operation Desert Storm, aimed at evicting Iraq military forces from Kuwait, the U.S.-led coalition bombed the Infant Formula Production Plant in the Abu Ghraib suburb of Baghdad….
Air Raid Shelter, Amiriyah, Iraq (February 13, 1991)
The U.S. purposefully targeted an air raid shelter near the Baghdad airport with two 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs, which punched through 10 feet of concrete and killed at least 408 Iraqi civilians. …
Al Shifa pharmaceutical factory, Khartoum, Sudan (August 20, 1998)
After al Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the Clinton administration targeted the Al Shifa factory with 13 cruise missiles, killing one person and wounding 11. …
Train bombing, Grdelica, Serbia (April 12, 1999)
During the U.S.-led bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo war, an F-15E fighter jet fired two remotely-guided missiles that hit a train crossing a bridge near Grdelica, killing at least 14 civilians. …
Radio Television Serbia, Belgrade, Serbia (April 23, 1999)
Sixteen employees of Serbia’s state broadcasting system were killed during the Kosovo War when NATO intentionally targeted its headquarters in Belgrade. …
Chinese Embassy, Belgrade, Serbia (May 7, 1999)
Also during the Kosovo war, the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy in Serbia’s capital, killing three staff and wounding more than 20. …
Red Cross complex, Kabul, Afghanistan (October 16 and October 26, 2001)
At the beginning of the U.S-led invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. attacked the complex housing the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul. …
Al Jazeera office, Kabul, Afghanistan (November 13, 2001)
Several weeks after the Red Cross attacks, the U.S. bombed the Kabul bureau of Al Jazeera, destroying it and damaging the nearby office of the BBC. Al Jazeera’s managing director said the channel had repeatedly informed the U.S. military of its office’s location.
Al Jazeera office, Baghdad, Iraq (April 8, 2003)
Soon after the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the U.S. bombed the Baghdad office of Al Jazeera, killing reporter Tarek Ayoub and injuring another journalist. …
Palestine Hotel, Baghdad, Iraq (April 8, 2003)
The same day as the 2003 bombing of the Al Jazeera office in Baghdad, a U.S. tank fired a shell at the 15th floor of the Palestine Hotel, where most foreign journalists were then staying. Two reporters were killed …
When it comes to the attack on the Kunduz trauma center, the U.S. was well aware of the hospital’s location and indeed had been provided the precise coordinates just days before the assault. MSF has noted that “confirmation of receipt was received from both U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. army representatives, both of whom assured us that the coordinates had been passed on to the appropriate parties.”
MSF has also revealed that the United States government had inquired just two days before the strike whether there were any Taliban “holed up” in the facility, to which MSF replied that “the hospital was full of patients including wounded Taliban combatants.” According to MSF, there were approximately 20 Taliban patients in the hospital and three or four wounded government combatants.
This would seem to provide an obvious motive for the U.S. air strike – the elimination of the Taliban patients inside the hospital and the prevention of any future care being administered to U.S. enemies in Afghanistan.
Indeed, MSF has raised the possibility that the attack was intentional and has directly asked the U.S. government whether it still respects the Geneva Conventions’ protections of medical personnel. This, obviously, is highly relevant for MSF, which relies on these protections to perform its duties in conflict zones.
As MSF President Joanne Lieu wrote in the introduction to a report on the incident issued last month, “The attack on our hospital in Kunduz destroyed our ability to treat patients at a time when we were needed the most. We need a clear commitment that the act of providing medical care will never make us a target. We need to know whether the rules of war still apply.”
The MSF report also provided substantial circumstantial evidence that the U.S. strike was indeed a premeditated war crime, noting that the bombing consisted of “a series of multiple, precise and sustained airstrikes [that] targeted the main hospital building, leaving the rest of the buildings in the MSF compound comparatively untouched.”
MSF pointed out that the specific target hit in what appeared to be surgical strikes “correlates exactly with the GPS coordinates provided” to the United States, indicating that the U.S. may have used the coordinates to more precisely target the hospital.
Considering the obvious motive and the damning circumstantial evidence – not to mention the fact that the U.S. explanations for its actions have changed five times – you might think that the media would treat this attack as a possible war crime rather than a mistake or an accident. However, you would be dead wrong.
Despite the overwhelming preponderance of evidence pointing to an intentional and premeditated war crime, national media outlets such as the Associated Press routinely insert the words “accidental” and “mistaken” into their reporting, including their headlines, which have significant influence in shaping public perceptions.
“Death Toll in Accidental U.S. Airstrike on Kunduz Hospital Even Higher Than Thought,” read a Dec. 12 AP headline, while another, on Nov. 25 read “’Human Error’ Cited in Mistaken US Airstrike on Kunduz Hospital.”
At best, these preposterous and misleading headlines would be considered shoddy journalism, since there is no way of knowing – other than accepting at face value the self-serving proclamations of U.S. officials – that this airstrike was indeed an accident. At worst, it could be considered aiding and abetting the cover-up of a serious crime, making the AP and other media outlets accessories after the fact.
At the very least, U.S. media should withhold their judgments on whether it was an accident until an independent investigation has run its course – but of course, so far, the United States has systemically blocked that investigation from taking place.
To join Doctors Without Borders in calling for President Obama to stop blocking an impartial inquiry into this tragic incident, click here.