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.
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.
Two major developments took place on Tuesday regarding the ongoing travesty of justice known as Guantanamo Bay. Taken together, the developments once again demonstrate how drastically out of step the United States is with the global community when it comes to human rights and international norms, and in particular how contemptuous the U.S. Congress remains of nearly universal international opinion on the Guantanamo Bay abomination.
On the same day that the U.S. Senate voted 91-3 in favor of a military spending bill that obstructs President Obama’s plans to close the Guantanamo prison camp by prohibiting transfers of detainees, one of Europe’s leading human rights bodies issued a comprehensive report reiterating the international community’s calls to close the detention facility and to either bring the remaining detainees to trial or free them.
The scathing 280-page report issued by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights also calls for the full investigation of human rights violations at the prison, including torture, as well as prosecutions of those responsible.
“There is a clear need for full transparency and accountability in addressing the violations of the human rights of detainees, including torture, that have occurred at the Guantanamo detention facility, and as part of the CIA rendition program,” said Omer Fisher, Deputy Head of ODIHR’s Human Rights Department. “Detainees have a right to redress, including access to justice, to compensation, and to medical rehabilitation.”
The report analyses compliance with international human rights standards of the detention and proceedings before U.S. military commissions, demands accountability for human rights violations both at Guantanamo and in the CIA’s illegal rendition and torture program, and specifies the right of victims to claim redress for arbitrary detention and ill-treatment. Regarding the CIA’s rendition and torture program, the report makes clear not only the United States but 27 other OSCE countries are guilty of participating and enabling this gross violation of human rights.
Detention and interrogation practices are examined in some detail. According to the report’s executive summary:
A wide variety of sources, including leaked ICRC reports and official reports have pointed to numerous instances of abuse at Guantánamo under the Bush administration. Interviews with former Guantánamo detainees have provided ODIHR with further information on the severity of abuses inflicted upon them during their detention and interrogations. Practices were reportedly designed to break detainees’ will, cause stress and make them co-operate with and wholly dependent on their interrogators who had total control over their level of isolation, access to comfort items and basic needs such as access to food, drinkable water, sunlight or fresh air. The lack of co-operation with interrogators and non-compliance with constantly changing prison rules were punished, including by the removal of basic items and prolonged isolation. Documented cases corroborated by ODIHR interviews of former detainees indicate the routine use of excessive force against detainees by the Initial Reaction Forces and during the force-feeding of hunger strikers.
Other areas of focus of the report include the use of physical isolation, which “remains the norm for a number of detainees kept in segregated cells with access to two to four hours of recreation per day, alone or with one other detainee.”
The OSCE takes issue with U.S. claims that single-cell confinement does not amount to solitary confinement, noting that “all detainees who spend 22 hours a day in segregated cells are undoubtedly held in solitary confinement.” This isolation “can lead to severe impact on detainees’ health and its effect can be even more pronounced in cases of individuals suffering mental distress from past abuses,” the OSCE points out.
“Solitary confinement combined with the prospect of indefinite detention is even more likely to amount to torture or ill-treatment,” notes the OSCE.
Hunger strikes and force feeding are another area of concern. According to the executive summary:
The reportedly substantial deterioration of confinement conditions during hunger strikes, including the most recent mass hunger strike of 2013 seems to constitute a system of punishment or reward implemented to break the hunger strike and discourage detainees from continuing to protest. Should gathered information be true, such practices would be unjustifiable and would violate a number of international human rights standards, including prison standards and the right of detainees to peacefully protest. It may also violate the prohibition of torture or ill-treatment.
As this report was being published yesterday, the Senate was voting overwhelmingly to thwart Obama’s plans to shutter the Guantanamo facility by maintaining a ban on transferring detainees. The bill adopted Tuesday imposes restrictions on moving any of the 112 remaining detainees to the United States or foreign countries. The measure had passed the house by a vote of 370-58 last week, and although Obama officially opposes the Guantanamo provisions, the White House has indicated that he will sign it into law anyway.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook however said that it is premature to say that Congress has blocked the efforts to close Guantanamo. “Let’s wait to see what the plan finally looks like,” he said. “The folks who are crafting that plan have been working very hard on this for months. … This is not going to deter the department from moving forward.”
Even if the plan goes forward, it’s not clear exactly how much impact it would have on ensuring U.S. compliance with international law. Since Obama’s plan would essentially import Guantanamo to the United States while keeping intact the system of indefinite arbitrary detention without charge, the physical closing of the facility in Cuba would largely be symbolic. As a recent letter to the New York Times by Steven W. Hawkins, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, explained:
The purpose of closing Guantánamo should be to end the human rights violation of indefinite detention without charge — not merely move it to a new location and change Guantanámo’s ZIP code. If the United States does not intend to prosecute a detainee in a fair trial, it should release him. No exceptions.
This call for charging and trying Gitmo detainees or releasing them was echoed by the OSCE report released Tuesday. “Notwithstanding the complexity of the cases before the military commissions, the right to be tried without undue delay has likely been violated in a number of cases,” explained the OSCE. The report goes on:
This right, as recognized under international human rights and humanitarian law and contained in OSCE commitments, applies from the first official charges until the final judgment on appeal. ODIHR is gravely concerned that the US government has intentionally deprived the Guantánamo detainees of this right by excluding the applicability of certain speedy trial rights to cases before the military commissions. The lack of longstanding established procedures and precedent of the military commissions and the hindrances to holding regular hearings due to the remote location of Guantánamo are examples of US government actions that have contributed to the slow path of the proceedings. ODIHR is not aware of particular conduct of the defendants that had led to significant delays. Moreover, lengthy detention, including of 12-13 years in some cases, is likely a violation of the right to liberty and security which applies to pre-trial detention and provides individuals arrested or detained for criminal charges with the right to be tried within a reasonable time or released.
The Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Michael Georg Link, will present the findings of the report Thursday at OSCE headquarters in Vienna. The OSCE is an intergovernmental organization whose membership includes all of the member countries of the European Union, NATO and the Commonwealth of Independent States. The U.S. is one of its charter members, having signed its founding document, the Helsinki Final Act, in 1975.
To join the international grassroots campaign to close Guantanamo, click here.
Earlier this month, UN Special Rapporteur Sarah Cleveland presented a draft report on follow-up to the concluding observations of the UN’s Human Rights Committee regarding the compliance of the United States with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Human Rights Committee on July 13 discussed the progress report, which found the U.S. response to previous inquiries to be largely unsatisfactory.
“The Special Rapporteur briefly overviewed the system of the assessment of replies by States parties,” noted the Human Rights Committee on its website, “which included a scale from A – ‘largely satisfactory’ to C2 – ‘response received, but not relevant to the recommendations’.”
Specifically, regarding the U.S.:
While the United States of America had provided information on convictions of four Blackwater contractors for their crimes in Iraq, the Committee required information on investigations, prosecutions or convictions of United States’ Government personnel in Iraq. The Committee regretted that no action had been taken to incorporate the doctrine of command responsibility into the criminal law. The Committee reiterated its concern about the reports that the immunity provided by “Stand Your Ground” laws had expanded. Transfer and/or trial of detainees from Guantanamo ought to be sped up; even today, a number of people were administratively detained there without being charged or tried. Given the lack of specific information provided by the State party on measures to ensure that interference with the right to privacy, in line with the established principles, and regardless of the nationality or location of the individual under surveillance, the Committee reiterated its request for information.
The full U.S. grades are as follows:
As journalist Kevin Gosztola further explained the grading scale:
To understand the grades, “B1″ means “substantive action” took place but the committee still wants more information. “B2″ means some initial action was taken. “C1″ means US replied to UN but did not take actions to implement recommendation. “C2″ means US replied, and the reply was irrelevant to the committee’s recommendation. “D1″ means US did not cooperate with the committee on this recommendation.
While the U.S. received a relatively high “B1″ grade for declassifying part of the report of the Senate report on torture and a “B2″ grade for investigating cases of unlawful killing, torture and other ill-treatment, unlawful detention, and enforced disappearances, and expediting the release of detainees from Guantanamo Bay, no “A” grades were given for anything.
The committee issued a “C2″ grade for the continued detention of detainees at Guantanamo and in facilities in Afghanistan. For its mass surveillance policies, received a “C1″ grade for failing to ensure surveillance complies with the ICCPR.
The worst grade given was a “D1″ for a lack of access to remedies for victims of surveillance abuse.
In response to these poor grades, the U.S. Human Rights Network urged the Obama administration to follow up on ensuring full compliance with the United States’ human rights obligations.
Last May, a review by the UN Human Rights Council found that the United States is in violation of international human rights standards as enshrined not only in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but also in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other landmark human rights treaties – some of which the U.S. refuses to ratify.
President Barack Obama issued one of his most hypocritical statements in weeks when he scolded Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday for his alleged support of separatist rebels operating in eastern Ukraine.
“He’s got to make a decision,” Obama said of Putin. “Does he continue to wreck his country’s economy and continue Russia’s isolation in pursuit of a wrong-headed desire to re-create the glories of the Soviet empire? Or does he recognize that Russia’s greatness does not depend on violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries?”
Hearing the president of the United States lecture others about the importance of respecting countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity was a bit like listening to a serial rapist lecturing other men about the importance of respecting women’s rights.
Of course, as Obama was uttering these duplicitous platitudes – the hypocrisy of which went completely unchallenged by the journalists in attendance at the press conference – the United States was continuing to violate the sovereignty of multiple countries, including Syria and Pakistan.
On the same day that Obama insisted on Russia’s respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, the U.S. launched nine air strikes in Syria, attacks that are unauthorized by the UN Security Council and against the stated wishes of the Syrian government, rendering them a blatant violation of international law.
Six of the air strikes were concentrated around Kobani near the Turkish border and three near the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, according to the U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force. One of the air strikes apparently killed an entire family of seven, including five children, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In Pakistan, the U.S. has been carrying out drone strikes for years, in complete disregard of the repeated protests of the Pakistani government complaining about the violations of that country’s sovereignty. As recently as last month, Pakistan’s Foreign Office condemned a U.S. drone strike that killed at least five people in North Waziristan, reiterating its stance that such attacks are a violation of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“A drone strike on May 16, 2015 resulted in a number of casualties in the Mana area of North Waziristan agency,” said the Foreign Office in a statement.
“These (strikes) generate distrust among the local populace at a time when Operation Zarb-e-Azb is moving ahead decisively and the focus of the government is shifting towards rehabilitation of the civilian population. We reiterate our call for a cessation of such strikes,” the Foreign Office said.
But the U.S. can’t be bothered to acknowledge or apologize for its blatant violations of international law, or its routine, tragic killings of innocent people. It is now being sued in fact by the families of two Yemeni men killed in 2012, alleging they were innocent bystanders hit by missiles from a U.S. drone strike and calling for an acknowledgement of their unlawful deaths.
In a wrongful death lawsuit filed June 7, the families of Salem bin Ali Jaber and Waleed bin Ali Jaber said their deaths “violated the laws of war and norms of customary international law” and “provide a case study of the failures of the drone war.”
The strike on Aug. 29, 2012 “killed two innocent members of a prominent local family, Salem bin Ali Jaber and Waleed bin Ali Jaber,” according to the complaint. “By this complaint, the estates of Salem and Waleed seek to hold accountable those responsible for their wrongful deaths.”
The lawsuit does not seek any monetary relief, but rather a declaratory judgement and an apology. As the complaint points out,
Rarely but occasionally, the U.S. government addresses the reality that its drones kill innocents, and expresses official regret. Only weeks ago the President addressed the nation about two other innocents killed by a U.S. drone: an Italian citizen and an American, who were mistakenly hit in a drone strike in Pakistan while being held hostage by al Qaeda. In his televised statement, the President explained that “the [victims’] families deserve to know the truth,” and claimed that his apology showed the U.S. is willing “to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”
There is a simple question at the heart of this claim. The President has now admitted to killing innocent Americans and Italians with drones; why are the bereaved families of innocent Yemenis less entitled to the truth?
Even as the United States does occasionally concede that it sometimes kills innocent people, which is at least a tacit confirmation that its actions are not exactly in accordance with international law, it still can’t resist the temptation to point its bloody finger at others for doing the same thing.
Not only did President Obama just issue that hypocritical warning to Russia, but a number of “progressive” lawmakers have just published an op-ed in the journal Foreign Affairs expressing the urgent need to confront Russia and China over their alleged violations of international norms.
In “Principles for a Progressive Foreign Policy,” Democratic senators Chris Murphy, Brian Schatz, and Martin Heinrich warn that “traditional powers such as Russia and China are challenging international norms and pushing the boundaries of their influence.”
In response to these new challenges, as well as threats such as pandemic disease and global climate change, “the United States [must] think anew about the tools that it will use to lead the world, including reaching beyond the military budget to rediscover the power of non-kinetic statecraft.”
To their credit, these senators acknowledged that in order for the U.S. to have any credibility on the world stage, it “should practice what it preaches regarding civil and human rights, and defend its values internationally.”
“Actions abroad that are illegal under U.S. law and out of step with American values, such as torture, must be prohibited,” they continued. “Human rights and gender equality should not be viewed as secondary to security issues, but appropriately recognized as essential to long-term global stability.”
The senators are only partially right, and they left unsaid the most important thing – namely that violations must not only be “prohibited” but also prosecuted and punished. Torture of course is already “prohibited,” as is murder and violations of countries’ territorial integrity, so what the U.S. really needs to do is punish those who violate the law.
And please, stop hypocritically blaming others for doing the same thing.
Far from being the global champion of human rights that it fancies itself as, the United States is in fact a flagrant violator of international human rights standards as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other landmark human rights treaties – some of which the U.S. refuses to ratify. This was the unmistakable conclusion of the U.S.’s Universal Periodic Review for compliance on human rights norms at the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this week.
Delegates from many of the 117 countries taking part in the UPR lambasted the United States’ record of civil rights violations in the context of the nationwide epidemic of police brutality. The representative from Nambia, for example, said U.S. officials must “collaborate closely with marginalized communities to fix the broken justice system that continues to discriminate against them, despite recent waves of protest over racial profiling and police killings of unarmed black men.”
“Chad considers the United States of America to be a country of freedom, but recent events targeting black sectors of society have tarnished its image,” said Awada Angui, the delegate from that country.
The barrage of criticism led James Cadogan, senior counselor in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, to concede that the United States has a problem with police violence.
“We must rededicate ourselves to ensuring that our civil rights laws live up to their promise,” he said at the review on Monday. “The tragic deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Ohio, and Walter Scott in South Carolina have… challenged us to do better and to work harder for progress.”
But even while admitting its own shortcomings, the U.S. couldn’t resist the instinctual temptation to tout its record. As Mary McLeod, acting legal adviser to the U.S. Dept of State, put it, “We’re proud of the work we’ve done since our last UPR.”
Most UN Human Rights Council delegations and civil society observers strongly disagreed. One of the recurring themes in the interventions that took place on Monday was the U.S.’s failure to ratify a number of key human rights treaties and protocols, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, since its last periodic review in 2010. As Human Rights Watch noted,
In its 2010 review, the United States agreed to “consider” ratifying ICESCR, CEDAW, CRC, and CRPD (92.10, 92.11, 92.20, 92.21); ratifying ILO Convention Nos. 100 and 111 (92.22 and 92.26); ratifying the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (92.28); signing the Migrant Worker Treaty (92.30); lifting reservations to the ICCPR and other ratified human rights treaties (92.47, 92.48, 92.49); and establishing a national human rights institution (NHRI) at the federal level (92.74). To date, however, no new human rights treaty has been signed or ratified, no reservations, understandings or declarations have been lifted, and no NHRI established. The UPR is ineffective if limited to a conceptual exercise, and no country should claim success by accepting recommendations that require no identifiable outcomes or even proof of a deliberative process. The United States has failed to implement a number of other recommendations from its prior review. These include recommendations involving national security, criminal justice and policing, treatment of immigrants, and privacy, as detailed below, as well as overarching recommendations, such as agreeing to incorporate human rights training and education strategies in public policies (92.87). This submission also touches on issues that the United States did not address in its prior UPR but should consider in its upcoming review.
“The U.S. has little progress to show for the many commitments it made during its first Universal Periodic Review,” U.S. advocacy director at Human Rights Watch Antonio Ginatta told VOA News.
Brazil raised objections to the United States’ mass surveillance program, urging that all surveillance polices and measures comply with human rights law regardless of nationality, noting the importance of the principle of proportionality. The Brazilian delegation also criticized the U.S. record on migrant rights, and called for the elimination of police brutality.
The U.S. also heard criticism over the continued use of the death penalty.
The Belgian delegation said the U.S. should take specific measures to eliminate racial bias and wrongful convictions leading to executions. Swedish UN representative Anna Jakenberg Brinck called for a “national moratorium on the death penalty aiming at complete abolition.” Other countries, including France, pushed for “full transparency” in the types of drugs being administered to kill prisoners, following news that some death row inmates experienced inordinate pain and suffering during their executions.
The U.S.-led war on terror and the ongoing impunity related to the crimes of torture committed by the CIA were other areas of concern. One of the key demands of the UN delegations was for Washington to take measures to prevent acts of torture, to prosecute perpetrators, and to ensure that victims of torture were afforded redress and assistance.
Guantanamo was also raised, with some delegations including the United Kingdom recalling the pledge to close the prison by President Barack Obama back in January 2009 and regretting that it hasn’t happened yet. The UK called for an expedited effort to shut down the detention facility once and for all. More than 100 NGOs submitted reports on various aspects of U.S. human rights shortcomings, which are collected at the website UPR Info.
“Today was a demonstration of the no confidence vote that world opinion has made of the United States as a country that considers itself a human rights champion,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the Human Rights Program of the American Civil Liberties Union. “I think that there was a clear message from today’s review that the United States needs to do much more to protect human rights and to bring its laws and policies in line with human rights standards.”
The UPR takes place every four years to scrutinize the human and civil rights practices of each of the UN’s 193 member nations.
The United States government is finding itself on the defensive this month, being taken to court over a host of policies that violate constitutional and international law.
First, on March 10, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Wikimedia Foundation, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA and other groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. National Security Agency challenging one of its mass surveillance programs that the plaintiffs say violates Americans’ privacy and makes individuals worldwide less likely to share sensitive information.
In particular, the lawsuit focuses on the NSA’s “upstream” surveillance, which involves the NSA’s tapping into the physical infrastructure of the internet, compromising Americans’ online communications with each other and with the rest of the world.
As explained by the ACLU:
In the course of its surveillance, the NSA copies and combs through vast amounts of Internet traffic, which it intercepts inside the United States with the help of major telecommunications companies. It searches that traffic for keywords called “selectors” that are associated with its targets. The surveillance involves the NSA’s warrantless review of the emails and Internet activities of millions of ordinary Americans.
“This kind of dragnet surveillance constitutes a massive invasion of privacy, and it undermines the freedoms of expression and inquiry as well,” said ACLU Staff Attorney Patrick Toomey. “Ordinary Americans shouldn’t have to worry that the government is looking over their shoulders when they use the Internet.”
The lawsuit argues that the NSA is infringing on the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights and violating their privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment. The complaint also argues that the surveillance oversteps the authority granted by Congress under the FISA Amendments Act.
In explaining why her group joined the lawsuit, Human Rights Watch General Counsel Dinah Pokempner described the significant damage done by the NSA’s surveillance to the work of defending human rights around the world:
When Human Rights Watch can’t assure the privacy of the people with whom we work to expose and halt human rights abuses, we can’t protect their security either. Lives are in the balance, not to mention freedom of information, association, and speech.
Activists in Ethiopia, defense attorneys in France, and officials working in Indonesia won’t call or email us sensitive information about ongoing rights violations because they rightly fear surveillance. We have to get the facts face-to-face or not at all, and either way, that’s costly. People know the domestic government may well have an intelligence partnership with the US, and any leak of US-monitored communications may result in arbitrary arrest, prosecution, assault, or worse.
Last year, we documented the pall that surveillance has thrown over journalists and lawyers in the US, who now must go to extreme lengths to protect their confidential communications, or just forgo the reporting and defense strategies that keep our society informed, fair, and accountable.
HRW and the other groups in the lawsuit said that upstream surveillance “reduces the likelihood” that clients, journalists, foreign government officials, victims of human rights abuses and other individuals will share sensitive information with them.
Lila Tretikov, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales wrote in the New York Times that they were concerned about where data on their users ends up after it is collected by the NSA. Noting close intelligence ties between the United States and Egypt, they said a user in Egypt would have reason to fear reprisal if she edited a page about the country’s political opposition.
The day after the lawsuit was filed challenging the NSA’s mass surveillance, the Associated Press sued the State Department to force the release of email correspondence and government documents from Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. The legal action was a response to Clinton’s attempts to circumvent transparency laws by using a private email account while she headed the State Department and followed repeated requests filed under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act that have gone unfulfilled, according to the AP.
As the news agency explained in a March 11 article,
The FOIA requests and the suit seek materials related to her public and private calendars; correspondence involving aides likely to play important roles in her expected campaign for president; and Clinton-related emails about the Osama bin Laden raid and National Security Agency surveillance practices.
“After careful deliberation and exhausting our other options, The Associated Press is taking the necessary legal steps to gain access to these important documents, which will shed light on actions by the State Department and former Secretary Clinton, a presumptive 2016 presidential candidate, during some of the most significant issues of our time,” said Karen Kaiser, AP’s general counsel.
The suit filed by the AP came a day after Clinton broke her silence about her use of a private email account while she was America’s top diplomat. In defending her actions – which were widely seen as a crude attempt to avoid government transparency requirements – the likely 2016 Democratic presidential candidate claimed that her decision to forgo the official State Department email system was simply a matter of personal convenience.
“At the time, this didn’t seem like an issue,” Clinton said in a March 11 press conference. Clinton insisted she was not violating any rules or seeking to hide her communications.
“I fully complied by every rule I was governed by,” she claimed.
The senior-most executive branch official in charge of freedom-of-information matters for over a quarter-century flatly disagreed. Daniel Metcalfe, whose job it was to help four administrations interpret the Freedom of Information Act, offer advice, and testify before Congress on their behalf, called Clinton’s explanation laughable.
“What she did was contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the law,” said Metcalfe. “There is no doubt that the scheme she established was a blatant circumvention of the Freedom of Information Act, atop the Federal Records Act.”
Said AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll: “The Freedom of Information Act exists to give citizens a clear view of what government officials are doing on their behalf. When that view is denied, the next resort is the courts.”
Another challenge to the U.S. government playing out in the courts is a lawsuit filed this week against the lawless and secretive CIA drone assassination program being carried out by the Obama administration. The ACLU sued the White House in federal court on March 16 in an attempt to compel the release of classified information regarding the program of extrajudicial assassinations.
The lawsuit seeks in particular disclosure of the criteria for placing individuals on the administration’s “kill list.”
“The public should know who the government is killing and why it’s killing them,” said ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer quite reasonably. “There’s no good reason why legal memos relating to the targeted-killing program should be secret in their entirety. Nor is there any legitimate justification for the government’s refusal to acknowledge individual strikes or to disclose civilian casualties or to disclose the procedures under which individuals are added to government ‘kill list.’”
An article by Matthew Spurlock, Legal Fellow at the ACLU National Security Project, explained why the ACLU decided to take the administration to court:
Our government’s deliberative and premeditated killings – and the many more civilian deaths from the strikes – raise profound legal and ethical questions that ought to be the subject of public debate. The Obama administration has made numerous promises of greater transparency and oversight on drones. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama pledged to make lethal targeting “more transparent to the American people and the world” because “in our democracy, no one should just take my word for it that we’re doing things the right way.”
But the administration has failed to follow through on these commitments to openness, and it is continuing to withhold basic information. When it has released anything – or been compelled to by lawsuits – discussion of crucial aspects of the program have been omitted or redacted. This lack of transparency makes the public reliant on the government’s self-serving and sometimes false representations about the targeted-killing program.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that 2,442 to 3,942 people in Pakistan have been killed by CIA drone strikes since 2004. Hundreds more people are thought to have been killed by U.S. drones in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.
The White House has formally acknowledged that four of those killed by U.S. drone strikes were United States citizens, one of whom was just 16 years old.
The U.S. has come under intense international criticism over its drone assassination program for years, with a February 2014 report issued by Ben Emmerson, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, urging the United States to ensure that “any measures taken to counter terrorism, including the use of remotely piloted aircraft, comply with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, in particular the principles of precaution, distinction and proportionality.”
Another UN report, issued by the UN Human Rights Committee in March 2014, expressed grave concern about the U.S.’s practice of targeted killings by drones, particularly “the lack of transparency regarding the criteria for drone strikes, including the legal justification for specific attacks, and the lack of accountability for the loss of life resulting from such attacks.”
Despite these concerns, the United States has decided to not only continue its drone assassination program but to begin exporting drones to countries around the world so that they may also begin remotely assassinating people without charge or trial.
Rather hypocritically, the Obama Administration has said that prospective purchasers of “unmanned aerial systems” must meet certain restrictions set out in the State Department’s “Fact Sheet”. For one, purchasers must use armed drones “in accordance with international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, as applicable.”
Unfortunately, it will be the United States – perhaps the world’s most frequent and flagrant violator of international law – determining whether these standards are met.