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.
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.
Led by the United States, the international community has in recent days grown increasingly critical of the Syrian government for its indiscriminate use of barrel bombs on civilian populations. President Barack Obama highlighted the issue in his address to the United Nations Monday, noting that Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad “drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children,” and Secretary of State John Kerry drove the point home Tuesday by calling on Russia and Iran to force Assad to stop using these weapons.
The Iranians and the Russians, Kerry said, are “in a position, in exchange perhaps for something that we might do, they might decide to keep Assad from dropping barrel bombs,” which are essentially oil drums packed with explosives and shrapnel that are rolled out the back door of military helicopters. To be sure, they are heinous weapons which are most likely illegal under international conventions.
But what about the U.S.’s close ally in the region, Saudi Arabia? What sort of reaction is there for the Saudi regime’s use of barrel bombs on civilians in its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen? Of course, when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s massive violations of human rights, including its use of both cluster bombs and barrel bombs, there is only deafening silence from Washington, which continues to shower Riyadh with military assistance.
The U.S. arms transfers to Saudi Arabia are likely a violation of the recently adopted Arms Trade Treaty, as Amnesty International explained in a fact sheet published last month. “In June-July 2015, Amnesty International researchers investigated eight airstrikes carried out by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in different parts of Yemen which resulted in scores of deaths and injuries to civilians, and demonstrated a clear failure to abide by the requirements of international humanitarian law,” noted Amnesty.
In response, Amnesty called for strict safeguards in the supply of weapons and their use In line the Arms Trade Treaty, which has been signed but not ratified by the United States:
Amnesty International is calling on States supplying weapons and ammunition to adopt a preventive approach and apply strict safeguards in order to mitigate and remove the substantial risk of the arms being used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law; States must carry out rigorous risk assessments against strict human rights criteria before authorizing any arms transfer/military assistance; States must also implement robust post-delivery controls on all transfers. The Saudi Arabia-led military coalition involved directly or indirectly in air strikes or other military operations must refrain from carrying out indiscriminate attacks or direct attacks on civilians, including through the use of unguided air bombardment in densely populated areas.
In another recent report, Amnesty International pointed out that its assistance “makes the United States partly responsible for civilian casualties resulting from unlawful attacks” in Yemen. Amnesty also noted that “the countries that supplied the weapons have a responsibility to ensure that they are not used to commit violations of international law.”
The human rights group further described the situation in Yemen as dire. “Prior to the conflict, more than half of Yemen’s population was in need of some humanitarian assistance,” according to Amnesty. “That number has now increased to more than 80 percent, while a coalition-imposed blockade on commercial imports remains in place in much of the country and the ability of international aid agencies to deliver desperately needed supplies continues to be hindered by the conflict.”
Not only is the United States fueling this humanitarian disaster with its no-questions-asked weapons transfers, it is also directly assisting the Saudis with in-air refueling, combat-search-and-rescue support, and providing intelligence on target selection. It is also providing the Saudis banned cluster munitions which are being used against Yemeni civilians.
The U.S. is also directly killing Yemeni civilians through its drone strikes concentrated in the eastern part of the country, with attacks this month killing a number of innocent people. Altogether, since 2002 there have been at least 127 U.S. drone strikes on Yemen that have killed an estimated 100 civilians and injured hundreds more.
In addition, the U.S. government is providing crucial diplomatic support to the Saudi regime’s campaign at the United Nations to block a human rights inquiry into its assault on Yemen. A proposal submitted by the Netherlands last week calls for the UN Human Rights Council to launch a probe into abuses committed by all parties in Yemen, but Saudi Arabia and its key allies appear determined to prevent such an investigation.
“Saudi diplomats have robustly lobbied Asian, African and European states through their capitals or missions in Geneva,” reported the New York Times. While President Barack Obama has so far remained silent on the resolution, U.S. allies Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates “have argued for shelving [the] plans,” according to Foreign Policy journalist Colum Lynch.
Quite simply, without support from the United States military the Saudis would not be able to sustain its war either politically or logistically, lacking the capability to independently carry out airstrikes over Yemen for any period of time. Yet, when pressed about the U.S. support for Saudi war crimes, U.S. officials simply say, “I would refer you to the Saudis.”
This is why U.S. statements on Syria’s use of barrel bombs should be taken with a grain of salt. It is simply not credible for the United States to feign outrage over war crimes taking place in Syria while enabling war crimes taking place in Yemen. At the very least, there should be some consistency introduced to U.S. foreign policy which would both increase U.S. credibility and prevent the needless suffering of civilians.
Click here to sign a petition calling for a halt of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
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.
From the United Nations and the European Union to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to the governments of China and Afghanistan, voices are being raised around the world demanding accountability in response to the long-delayed release of the U.S. Senate’s CIA torture report.
The report’s 500-page executive summary — the full 6,000 pages are still classified — details gruesome techniques used against prisoners detained for suspected ties to terrorism, including practices such as near drowning, forcing detainees to stand on broken legs, threatening to kill or rape detainees’ family members, forced “rectal feeding” and “rectal hydration,” and disturbing details on a medieval “black site” prison in Afghanistan known as the Salt Pit, where at least one detainee froze to death.
The brutal interrogation sessions lasted in many cases non-stop for days or weeks at a time, leading to effects such as “hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm and self-mutilation,” and produced little to no useful information – raising serious questions about whether the torturers were motivated by genuine intelligence-gathering concerns or were simply acting out of sadism and cruelty.
While some voices being raised, such as those of the UN and Amnesty International, have been explicit in their calls for criminal prosecutions of the architects of the torture policies detailed in the report, others such as the EU and the governments of U.S. allies such as Great Britain are a bit more muted and conciliatory to the U.S. government.
Nevertheless, virtually all are unequivocally condemning the U.S. regime of enforced disappearances, extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention and torture that has defined U.S. counter-terrorism policies since Sept. 11, 2001.
Some of the strongest words have come from the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism Ben Emmerson, who stated unequivocally on Tuesday 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 prosecuted.
In a statement issued following the release of the report, the UN rapporteur said:
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, “The U.S. attorney general is under a legal duty to bring criminal charges against those responsible,” he added.
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 torture report is the “start of a process” toward prosecutions, because the “prohibition against torture is absolute,” Ban’s spokesman said.
The UN’s calls were echoed by those of Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, who in separate statements demanded that the individuals responsible for these policies be brought to justice.
Noting that the Senate report “must not be end of story,” Amnesty International lamented that limited Justice Department investigations into CIA interrogations were ended in 2012 with no charges. “Access to justice for those who endured abuses has been systematically blocked by U.S. authorities, including on the grounds of state secrecy,” noted Amnesty.
Said Erika Guevara, Americas Director of Amnesty International:
The declassified information contained in the summary, while limited, is a reminder to the world of the utter failure of the USA to end the impunity enjoyed by those who authorized and used torture and other ill-treatment. This is a wake-up call to the USA, they must disclose the full truth about the human rights violations, hold perpetrators accountable and ensure justice for the victims. This is not a policy nicety, it is a requirement under international law.
The ACLU’s Hini Shamsi stated:
The release of the Senate’s torture report summary is a tipping point and a reminder that the United States has never fully reckoned with a past that includes waterboarding, stress positions, beatings, sleep deprivation, threats of harm to children and other family members, among many devastatingly cruel acts. Once again, Americans, all of us, have an opportunity to choose how we end this story, whether that’s responsibly, with a full return to our laws and values, or shamefully, by failing to act now that the report summary is released. A conclusion that begins to heal wounds and rebuild U.S. credibility as a defender of rights instead of a perpetrator of rights violations consists of five parts, all of which work together to ensure that our nation never tortures again.
Shamsi offered a blueprint for accountability that includes the appointment of a special prosecutor, CIA reform, apologies to victims, and full disclosure.
Human Rights Watch said that President Obama should use his last two years in office to prosecute the crimes that the report has revealed. HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth noted that “the Senate report summary should forever put to rest CIA denials that it engaged in torture, which is criminal and can never be justified.”
In an op-ed published by Reuters, Roth called out the lawyers of the Bush administration who provided legal rationales for torture, noting that “it is regrettable that those senior George W. Bush administration lawyers have escaped accountability for their complicity in torture, given their obligation as public officials and their ethical duty as lawyers to uphold the law.”
Their twisted justifications were not impartial interpretations of legal provisions but rather a judicial cover for criminality. “At minimum, they should have been disciplined for malpractice, if not prosecuted as accomplices,” wrote Roth.
Prosecution should also include the senior Bush officials who authorized torture and oversaw its use. To President Obama’s credit, he stopped the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” from the moment he took office six years ago. But he has steadfastly refused to permit a broad investigation of the use of torture after 9/11, allowing only a narrow investigation into unauthorized interrogation techniques that resulted in no prosecutions.
Unless the Senate report’s revelations lead to prosecution of officials, torture will remain a “policy option” for future presidents, noted HRW.
The group described in detail U.S. hypocrisy on the issue of torture, providing an annotated table consisting of past statements of the U.S. government condemning other governments for the very same tactics that it has defended when employed by the CIA and U.S. military.
Noting that for years the U.S. denied that these techniques constituted torture, HRW noted plainly that many clearly do. “International bodies and U.S. courts have repeatedly found that ‘waterboarding’ and other forms of mock execution by asphyxiation constitute torture and are war crimes,” the group pointed out.
Other authorized techniques, including stress positions, hooding during questioning, deprivation of light and auditory stimuli, and use of detainees’ individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress, violate the protections afforded all persons in custody – whether combatants or civilians – under the laws of armed conflict and international human rights law, and can amount to torture or “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.” Accordingly, the United Nations Committee against Torture and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture have clearly stated that these techniques are torture.
The European Union added its two cents on Wednesday saying that the Senate report “raises important questions about the violation of human rights by the U.S. authorities,” according to a statement by European Commission spokeswoman Catherine Ray. Despite the lack of accountability for these violations, Ray essentially praised President Barack Obama for ending the program in 2009 when he took office and for allowing the publication of the Senate’s findings.
“This report is a positive step in confronting publicly and critically the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation program,” she said.
EU member states “recognize President Obama’s commitment to use his authority to ensure that these methods are never used again,” she added.
Not to be outdone in this exercise in diplomatic fellatio, the United Kingdom seemed to go out of its way to downplay the seriousness of the crimes described by the Senate report. UK Prime Minister David Cameron said that “after 9/11 there were things that happened that were wrong,” when he was asked about the report.
“Those of us who want to see a safer, more secure world, who want to see this extremism defeated, we won’t succeed if we lose our moral authority, if we lose the things that make our systems work and our countries successful,” Cameron said.
The German government welcomed the report and said that “torture can never be justified.” However, Obama has clearly spoken out against torture and in favor of human rights, according to the statement.
Other governments were less kind.
Asraf Ghani, president of Afghanistan – the site of some of the most deplorable acts of torture and maltreatment detailed in the report – called the report “shocking” and said that the CIA’s brutal interrogation program “violated all accepted norms of human rights in the world.”
President Ghani, who assumed his position in September, added, “There is no justification for such acts and human torturing in the world.”
Frequent targets of U.S. criticism such as China and North Korea also weighed in, using the opportunity to point out that the U.S. is being hypocritical for highlighting their human rights abuses while whitewashing its own.
“As Human Rights Day approaches, high-profile cases of violations within American borders and by its agencies abroad are being scrutinised, especially as it pertains to be a defender of civil liberties globally,” the Chinese state-owned Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary on Tuesday.
North Korea condemned the CIA’s “inhuman torture” methods highlighted in the Senate report. Pyongyang said the revelations posed a major test to the credibility of the UN Security Council, which it accused of “shutting its eyes” to rights violations by one of its permanent members while criticizing North Korea’s rights record.
Newspapers around the world have also raised harsh objections to the U.S. torture program and its attendant impunity that has seemingly become official United States policy. As the International Business Times reported on Wednesday,
Several international media outlets covered the extensive report of the five-year Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into the harsh techniques used to interrogate terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
In Europe, columnists were angry with the U.S. for broadcasting an image of fairness and freedom while conducting torture behind the scenes. Bild, Germany’s leading tabloid, wrote that the torture report’s verdict that the CIA torture techniques ultimately didn’t work “cannot be beat for uniqueness.” Austria’s Kleine Zeitung ran a front-page photo with a superimposed headline reading “America’s Shame.”
The IBT article continued:
In the United Kingdom, a headline in the Daily Mail summed up its reaction to the report: “A truly black day for the ‘civilized’ West.” The opinion piece said the Senate committee’s release, “demolished the boast of the world’s most powerful democracy that it inhabits a higher moral universe than the terrorists it condemns as barbarians.” …
Spain’s prominent newspaper El País led its homepage with the CIA torture report Wednesday, with multiple stories chronicling what role the Bush administration played in allowing the enhanced interrogation tactics, as well as criticism of the report from former spies. Its main headline read in Spanish: “US uncovers the dirty war of the Bush era.”…
Colombia’s El Tiempo published multiple stories about the CIA torture report, its top headline blasting “The ‘unholy’ methods of the CIA after September 11.” …
Ecuador’s El Universo focused on how the CIA misled Congress. Its top headline read, “The CIA acted ‘more brutal’ than what it told Congress, says report.” Cuba’s official Granma newspaper followed a similar path. It’s website carried the CIA story toward the bottom of its homepage with the headline: “CIA interrogations, more brutal than thought.” …
The privately owned Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm featured a report detailing the methods used by the CIA to torture prisoners, highlighting the use of diapers and anal feeding. The Israeli daily Haaretz focused its coverage on the CIA’s citation of an Israeli Supreme Court ruling to justify its legal case for torture.
Seemingly oblivious to the worldwide condemnations of the CIA’s torture program and the seriousness of the international calls for accountability and justice, President Obama used the publication of the Senate report as an opportunity to tout the virtues of the United States, and actually praised the Central Intelligence Agency for its professionalism in carrying out its responsibilities.
In a stomach-turning, hypocrisy-laden statement focused on the well-worn but highly discredited notion of “American Exceptionalism,” Obama said:
Throughout our history, the United States of America has done more than any other nation to stand up for freedom, democracy, and the inherent dignity and human rights of people around the world. As Americans, we owe a profound debt of gratitude to our fellow citizens who serve to keep us safe, among them the dedicated men and women of our intelligence community, including the Central Intelligence Agency. Since the horrific attacks of 9/11, these public servants have worked tirelessly to devastate core al Qaeda, deliver justice to Osama bin Laden, disrupt terrorist operations and thwart terrorist attacks. Solemn rows of stars on the Memorial Wall at the CIA honor those who have given their lives to protect ours. Our intelligence professionals are patriots, and we are safer because of their heroic service and sacrifices.
In the years after 9/11, with legitimate fears of further attacks and with the responsibility to prevent more catastrophic loss of life, the previous administration faced agonizing choices about how to pursue al Qaeda and prevent additional terrorist attacks against our country. As I have said before, our nation did many things right in those difficult years. At the same time, some of the actions that were taken were contrary to our values. That is why I unequivocally banned torture when I took office, because one of our most effective tools in fighting terrorism and keeping Americans safe is staying true to our ideals at home and abroad.
He went on to trumpet his own commitment to human rights in rather misleading and self-serving statements about how he supposedly ended torture and pushed for the publication of the Senate report:
I will continue to use my authority as President to make sure we never resort to those methods again.
As Commander in Chief, I have no greater responsibility than the safety and security of the American people. We will therefore continue to be relentless in our fight against al Qaeda, its affiliates and other violent extremists. We will rely on all elements of our national power, including the power and example of our founding ideals. That is why I have consistently supported the declassification of today’s report. No nation is perfect. But one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better.
These comments are almost completely false. Obama has neither used his full “authority as President to make sure we never resort to those methods again,” nor “consistently supported the declassification” of the Senate report. In fact, as many Senate Democrats have complained, he has fought tooth and nail to prevent the publication of the report, and more substantially, by blocking prosecutions of the architects and practitioners of the CIA’s torture program, he has virtually ensured that torture will remain a “policy option” for future presidents, as Human Rights Watch has warned.
Rejecting these claims as the empty platitudes and self-serving obfuscations that they are, several grassroots organizations are holding a series of nationwide demonstrations over the next week to demand accountability from the CIA, as well as its sister organization and partner in crime, the NSA.
For a full list of events, click here.
With Bradley Manning’s court martial trial finally set to begin next week — more than three years after his initial arrest on suspicion of being the source of the biggest leak of classified documents in U.S. history — various campaigns are gaining momentum to ensure that he receives a fair and transparent trial, and to urge the world’s leading human rights organizations to recognize Manning as a political prisoner or prisoner of conscience.
A petition at Avaaz calls on Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, in particular, to take a stand in support of this imprisoned whistleblower:
It is very important that the two biggest human rights organizations acknowledge Bradley Manning as a “Political Prisoner” and/or “Prisoner of Conscience” before his trial begins on June 3, 2013. If his actions can be misconstrued as “aiding the enemy” by the law, despite his providing the information to the public at large via “non-enemy” news sources, this sets the precedent of criminalizing of all future whistleblowers.
A blog called Amnesty for Bradley Manning, using the hashtag #Amnesty4Manning on Twitter, has also been launched with the sole purpose of pressuring Amnesty International to declare Manning a prisoner of conscience. Advocating that Amnesty International’s members and the general public call, email, tweet and send postcards to the Secretariat of Amnesty International, the #Amnesty4Manning campaign notes,
Manning has been imprisoned for over three years and was subjected to psychological torture accompanied by highly abusive treatment for nine of those months. Torture techniques included solitary confinement, humiliation, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, and stress positions of being shackled in a 6’ x 8’ cell. Through his imprisonment, Manning has exposed the dark side of the US justice system which keeps his case shrouded in secrecy. One has to question what the US government is doing behind closed doors. Why shield the public from information regarding his case?
Pointing out that Amnesty International’s own website urges members of the public to contact them with information on human rights violations, #Amnesty4Manning states, “It’s time we give them a call.” The campaign provides contact information for Amnesty International and even offers several printable postcards that can be mailed to the Secretariat in London.
Although the concept of “political prisoner” is rather ill-defined in international law, several workable definitions have been proposed over the years, including by Amnesty International. Under some of these definitions, it seems clear that Manning would qualify.
As Amnesty International has explained its use of the term “political prisoner,”
In AI’s usage, the term includes any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner’s acts, the acts in themselves, or the motivation of the authorities. “Political” is used by AI to refer to aspects of human relations related to “politics”: the mechanisms of society and civil order, the principles, organization, or conduct of government or public affairs, and the relation of all these to questions of language, ethnic origin, sex or religion, status or influence (among other factors). The category of political prisoners embraces the category of prisoners of conscience, the only prisoners who AI demands should be immediately and unconditionally released, as well as people who resort to criminal violence for a political motive. In AI’s use of the term, here are some examples of political prisoners:
- a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime carried out for political motives, such as murder or robbery carried out to support the objectives of an opposition group;
- a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime committed in a political context, such as at a demonstration by a trade union or a peasants’ organization;
- a member or suspected member of an armed opposition group who has been charged with treason or “subversion”.
A definition of “political prisoner” recently adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe includes the following criteria:
a. if the detention has been imposed in violation of one of the fundamental guarantees set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols (ECHR), in particular freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and information, freedom of assembly and association;
b. if the detention has been imposed for purely political reasons without connection to any offence;
c. if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of;
d. if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons; or,
e. if the detention is the result of proceedings which were clearly unfair and this appears to be connected with political motives of the authorities.” (SG/Inf(2001)34, paragraph 10).
According to a more concise definition of the term in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, a political prisoner is “someone who is in prison because they have opposed or criticized the government of their own country.”
It’s clear that under any number of these criteria, Manning would qualify as a political prisoner, if not a prisoner of conscience. He was clearly motivated by his conscience and out of concern over the evidence of war crimes, corruption and general wrongdoing committed by his government that he was privy to as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq. Further, the potential sentence he faces of death or life in prison for the “aiding the enemy” charge that the government is pursuing would clearly be out of proportion to the offense he is accused of.
Regarding his decision to provide the documents to WikiLeaks, Manning explained before making his decision in online chat logs with his friend Adrian Lamo (who ultimately betrayed him), that his motivations were purely altruistic, concerned for example by “how the first world exploits the third,” and recognizing that the information could have a great impact on the earth’s entire population:
(12:15:11 PM) bradass87: hypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time… say, 8-9 months… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?
(12:16:38 PM) bradass87: or Guantanamo, Bagram, Bucca, Taji, VBC for that matter…
(12:17:47 PM) bradass87: things that would have an impact on 6.7 billion people
(12:21:24 PM) bradass87: say… a database of half a million events during the iraq war… from 2004 to 2009… with reports, date time groups, lat-lon locations, casualty figures… ? or 260,000 state department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world, explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective?
He further elaborated on his motives in full testimony at a pretrial hearing earlier this year, which was later leaked and posted on YouTube:
Manning said he was particularly disturbed by a 39-minute video showing Apache helicopter pilots laughing during a 2007 attack in Baghdad that killed a number of civilians and a Reuters journalist:
They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life, and referred to them as quote-unquote “dead bastards,” and congratulated each other on their ability to kill in large numbers. At one point in the video there is an individual on the ground attempting to crawl to safety. The individual is seriously wounded. Instead of calling for medical attention to the location, one of the aerial weapons team crew members verbally asks for the wounded person to pick up a weapon so that he can have a reason to engage. For me, this seemed similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.
According to his statement, after being rebuffed by his commanding officer, to whom he attempted to bring information of human rights abuses in Iraq, and after being rejected by traditional news outlets such as the Washington Post and New York Times, he ultimately decided to release a trove of classified information to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
Manning provided three important bodies of documents to WikiLeaks: the Iraq war logs, which consist of 391,000 field reports, including the notorious video of the Apache helicopter gunning down a crowd of Iraqi civilians and Reuters journalists in July 2007 (killing over a dozen of them and injuring several small children). This batch of information also included documentation of the Haditha massacre in which 24 Iraqi civilians, most of them women, children and the elderly, were systematically murdered by U.S. Marines (a crime for which the perpetrators were never punished).
Following that release by WikiLeaks, there were 90,000 Afghan war logs, providing a devastating portrayal of the deteriorating war in Afghanistan. The war logs, made public in July 2010, revealed how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents in Afghanistan and how a secret “black” unit of special forces has hunted down suspected Taliban leaders for “kill or capture” without trial. Another document of great public interest expressed suspicion that the Pakistanis were arming and funding the Afghan insurgency.
And, finally, Manning’s document release included 260,000 diplomatic cables, possibly the most controversial of his leaks, since the sheer volume called into question whether his actions demonstrated any self-restraint or caution. These leaks, however, also included some of most explosive revelations, and arguably had the most impact globally, including providing the spark for the Arab Spring.
These leaks included details on how the U.S. government had lobbied to keep down the minimum wage in Haiti so as to keep manufacturing costs low for American employers and also provided documentation of Tunisian corruption, which played a role in the revolution there.
In addition, the leaked State Department cables revealed that the United States had been routinely violating the Vienna Convention by committing espionage against UN officials. As the Guardian reported on Nov. 28, 2010, “Washington is running a secret intelligence campaign targeted at the leadership of the United Nations, including the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon and the permanent security council representatives from China, Russia, France and the UK.”
More recently, the Cablegate documents have provided the backbone for research by the U.S.-based NGO Food and Water Watch, which recently released a report based on an extensive analysis of the cables. Significantly, Food and Water Watch found that “The U.S. State Department has launched a concerted strategy to promote agricultural biotechnology, often over the opposition of the public and governments, to the near exclusion of other more sustainable, more appropriate agricultural policy alternatives.”
The report, Biotech Ambassadors: How the U.S. State Department Promotes the Seed Industry’s Global Agenda, further explains,
The State Department worked especially hard to promote the interests of Monsanto, the world’s biggest biotech seed company in 2011. Monsanto appeared in 6.1 percent of the biotech cables analyzed between 2005 and 2009 from 21 countries. The State Department exercised its diplomatic persuasion to bolster Monsanto’s image in host countries, facilitate field-testing or approval of Monsanto crops and intervene with governments to negotiate seed royalty settlements.
Taken together, the State Department cables, the Afghan war logs and the Iraq war logs have been highly embarrassing for the United States government, and have undermined the regime of secrecy that the Obama administration has so aggressively attempted to maintain.
This secrecy is now playing out in Manning’s trial itself, which has been marked by an extraordinary lack of openness. In response to the secrecy surrounding the trial, a group of prominent journalists has filed a lawsuit calling on the military judge presiding over the trial to “grant the public and press access to the government’s filings, the court’s own orders, and transcripts of the proceedings.” None of these have been made available to the public to date.
“Secret trials are commonplace in dictatorships, but have no place in this country.” said co-plaintiff Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. “The Obama administration conducts unconstitutional dragnet surveillance of journalists to uncover protected sources, and targets whistleblowers with unprecedented use of the espionage act.”
WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, who has been granted political asylum by the Ecuadorean government to protect him from persecution by the U.S., has gone so far as to call Manning’s upcoming court martial a “show trial.”
“This is a show trial,” he explained on Democracy Now. “The trial is meant to go for 14 to 16 weeks, And the prosecution, the Pentagon and possibly White House is hungry for this.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights goes to federal court in two weeks to argue the lawsuit seeking press and public access to the court-martial proceedings and documents. For the time being, the Freedom of the Press Foundation is crowd-funding donations to hire a grassroots court stenographer to record trial transcripts, as the U.S. government has so far refused to make transcripts available to the public.
A “Mass Rally for Bradley Manning” is taking place at the site of the court martial at Fort Meade, MD, on June 1 to demand a fair trial for the accused Army private. “Now is the time to get loud and show the government why you oppose the over-prosecution of this brave whistleblower,” says the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Over the past week, international bodies such as the European Parliament and the UN Human Rights Committee have raised grave concerns over continuing U.S. lawlessness in its prosecution of the war on terror, and in particular the travesty of justice known as Guantanamo Bay.
In a resolution adopted last Thursday, the day of President Obama’s big speech attempting to reassure the American public and the international community about drones and Gitmo, the European Parliament noted concern for the well-being of the hunger striking prisoners at Guantanamo and especially those being force-fed. The EP expressed anxiety in particular over the mental and physical condition of the prisoners, “a number of whom have been subjected to torture or inhuman and degrading treatment.”
The European Parliament reiterated its call on the US authorities “to close the Guantánamo Bay detention camp immediately and prohibit the use of torture and ill-treatment in all circumstances” and called “for those inmates who have been cleared for release to be released, transferred to their home countries or other countries for resettlement, and for the remaining detainees to be charged in a civil court with fair trial standards.”
The body also criticized the military commissions that have been set up to try some Guantanamo detainees, as these commissions “do not meet international fair trial standards.”
It further pointed out that the continuing detention without charge or trial of these 166 men is contrary to basic principles of justice. Arbitrary detention “is in clear breach of international law and that this severely undermines the United States’ stance as an upholder of human rights,” noted the resolution.
As British journalist Andy Worthington explained,
As far as current action is concerned, involving European countries directly, the European Parliament resolution is noteworthy for its call for the coordination of “a joint EU Member States’ initiative” not only “to urge the US President to act” on revisiting his failed promise to close Guantánamo, but also to offer to “receive additional Guantánamo inmates on European soil, especially the approximately dozen men cleared for release who cannot return to their home countries.”
Testifying at the UN Human Rights Committee today, High Commissioner on Human Rights Navi Pillay warned that U.S. counter-terror policies are violating human rights and undermining international law. She criticized in particular Obama’s failure to close Guantanamo and admonished European nations for participating in the forced disappearance program dubbed “extraordinary rendition” by the United States.
“The United States’ failure to shut down the Guantanamo detention centre has been an example of the struggle against terrorism failing to uphold human rights, among them the right to a fair trial,” Pillay said.
The continuing indefinite detention of many of these individuals amounts to arbitrary detention, in breach of international law, and the injustice embodied in this detention centre has become an ideal recruitment tool for terrorists. I have repeatedly urged the Government of the United States of America to close Guantanamo Bay in compliance with its obligations under international human rights law. I therefore acknowledge President Obama’s statement last Thursday outlining practical steps towards closing the detention facility, such as the lifting of the moratorium on transferring relevant detainees to Yemen. I encourage the United States to ensure that all such measures are carried out in compliance with its obligations under international human rights law. In the meantime, so long as Guantanamo remains open, the authorities must make every effort to ensure full respect for the human rights of detainees, including those who choose to go on hunger strike.
I am dismayed by the continuing failure of many European States to undertake public and independent investigations of past involvement in the U.S. renditions programme, under which terrorist suspects were captured and delivered to interrogation centres without regard for due process. Some of them still languish in Guantanamo. Last September, the European Parliament denounced obstacles that have been encountered by a number of parliamentary and judicial inquiries into this topic. Credible and independent investigations are a vital first step towards accountability, and I call on States to make this a priority.
Last July, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly – a 323-member organization comprising lawmakers from Europe, North America and Central Asia – also adopted a resolution condemning the Obama administration’s blocking of European investigations into extraordinary rendition.
Supporting the criminal investigation carried out by Polish authorities into the rendition program and welcoming attempts by British parliamentarians to ascertain the level of the United Kingdom’s involvement, the resolution “insists that the United States Government co-operates with European investigations” and “calls upon the United States to release any pertinent information to appropriate investigators.”
Needless to say, since then, the U.S. has not adequately dealt with the rendition question. A 213-page report published earlier this year by the Open Society Justice Initiative documented how the CIA conspired with dozens of governments around the world to build a secret extraordinary rendition and detention program that spanned the globe and that the United States has failed to conduct effective investigations into these policies.
To date, the U.S. and the vast majority of the other 54 governments involved have refused to acknowledge their participation, much less compensate the victims, or hold accountable those most responsible for the program and its abuses, the Open Society concluded.
In its report on the U.S. human rights situation released last week, Amnesty International criticized the lack of accountability for deaths that have occurred in secret detention by the United States.
“The absence of accountability for crimes under international law committed under the administration of President George W. Bush in relation to the CIA’s programme of secret detention was further entrenched,” lamented Amnesty, noting in particular the lack of investigations into the deaths of two men who were believed to be tortured to death in U.S. custody.
Further, Amnesty International expressed concern over the use of drone strikes by the U.S. which amount to a policy of “extrajudicial executions in violation of international human rights law.”
The international community is voicing growing concern that the United States is violating a host of international obligations on the rights of minorities, including immigrants, indigenous people and African Americans. At the core of these concerns is a police culture that routinely disregards the rights of people of color, as seen in immigration enforcement practices in the American Southwest as well as recent high-profile cases such as the death of Trayvon Martin.
In the case of Trayvon Martin, self-appointed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, fatally shot the 17-year-old African American inside a gated community in Sanford, Florida, on February 26. Despite audio recordings of a 911 call indicating that Zimmerman was aggressively pursuing the frightened youth in defiance of police instructions to back down, law enforcement accepted Zimmerman’s claim that he shot Martin in self-defense.
Zimmerman has not been arrested or charged in the incident, leading to a national uproar over the shooting and the botched police response. Rallies have been held across the country, drawing primarily African-American crowds but with significant multiracial support.
The incident has drawn comparisons to earlier killings of blacks that were treated with impunity, particularly that of Emmett Till, an African-American boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 at the age of 14 after being accused of flirting with a white woman. As the African-American lifestyle magazine Uptown pointed out,
Trayvon is Emmett Till.
Trayvon and Emmett were teenagers. Both were visiting relatives. Both were murdered by civilians. Both were missing for three days. But here is where Trayvon’s case takes a departure from Emmett’s: Emmett was accused, wrongfully, of course, of whistling at a white woman, and, thus, violating a white supremacist social more of that era. What did Trayvon do? Nothing. He was just there. Trayvon was killed simply for Being While Black.
In the peak of lynching in the United States, from 1882 to 1920, thousands of African Americans were murdered by vicious lynch mobs, crimes that were rarely if ever prosecuted. The memory of this history is at the heart of the movement for justice in the Trayvon Martin killing.
“No police have the power to be the judge, the jury and the legislature,” said Rev. Al Sharpton at a rally in Sanford last weekend. “We are not going back to the days when we were killed and nobody did nothing about it. There will be justice for Trayvon Martin.”
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay weighed in on the case Thursday, calling for an “immediate investigation” into the circumstances surrounding the shooting.
“As High Commissioner for Human Rights, I call for an immediate investigation,” Pillay told reporters. “Justice must be done for the victim. It’s not just this individual case. It calls into question the delivery of justice in all situations like this.”
Highlighting the apparently two-tiered justice system in the United States, Pillay said that “the law should operate equally in respect of all violations. I will be awaiting an investigation and prosecution and trial and of course reparations for the victims concerned.”
The High Commissioner’s comments came just days after the release of an Amnesty International report that extensively documents the routine human rights violations of people of color in the American Southwest, in this case, immigrants and indigenous people.
The report describes the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, which has been reflected in the explosion of new draconian laws across several states, including Alabama, Arizona and Georgia. As Amnesty documents, immigrants in the USA are increasingly facing discriminatory treatment from federal immigration officials, who are collaborating to a greater extent than ever with state and local law enforcement agencies.
Amnesty notes that the anti-immigrant sentiment is not only affecting undocumented migrants, but also legal residents in the United States. Citizens of indigenous nations and members of Latino communities who are U.S. citizens or lawfully reside in the USA are more likely to be harassed about their immigration status and to be detained for minor offenses as a pretext for checking their identity through the immigration system.
“While it is generally accepted that countries have the right to regulate the entry and stay of non-nationals in their territory, they can only do so within the limits of their human rights obligations,” reads the Amnesty report. “The US government has an obligation under international human rights law to ensure that its laws, policies and practices do not place immigrants at an increased risk of human rights abuses.”
The basis of human rights is the recognition of the inherent dignity and worth of every human being, Amnesty explains. “Under international law, all migrants without exception of any kind are entitled to: the right to life; the right not to be tortured or ill-treated; the right not to be subject to impermissible discrimination; the right to recognition before the law; and the right not to be subject to slavery.”
(The relevant legal framework cited include: ICCPR Art. 6; and Migrant Workers Convention Art. 9; ICCPR Art. 7; CAT Art. 2; and Migrant Workers Convention Art. 10.; ICCPR Art. 2(1), Art. 26; ICESCR Art. 2(2); CRC Art. 2(1); ICERD Art. 1(1); and CEDAW Art. 1.; ICCPR Art. 16; and Migrant Workers’ Convention Art. 24.; ICCPR Art. 8(1) & (2); and Migrant Workers Convention Art. 11(1)); ICCPR Art. 11; Migrant Workers Convention Art. 20(1)).)
The United States has ratified, and is therefore obliged to adhere to, many of these key human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD); and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Amnesty’s report, however, shows that the USA is failing in a number of its obligations under international law to ensure these rights as they pertain to the immigrant and indigenous communities in the Southwest. Among its findings:
- Recent immigration policy in certain border areas has pushed undocumented immigrants into using dangerous routes through the U.S. desert; hundreds of people die each year as a result.
- Immigration enforcement in the USA is a federal responsibility. Federal immigration officials are increasingly working in collaboration with state and local law enforcement agencies but improper oversight of state and local law enforcement has led to increased racial profiling.
- Increasingly, state laws and local policies are creating barriers to immigrants accessing their basic human rights, including rights to education and essential health care services. While these laws are targeting non-citizens, these policies are also impacting U.S. citizen children.
- Recent legislation enacted or proposed in several states targets immigrant communities and places them, Indigenous communities and other minority communities at risk of discrimination.
Perhaps the most notorious offender when it comes to respecting the rights of Latinos is Maricopa Country Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who long before his state of Arizona passed its draconian anti-immigrant law known as SB 1070, was already taking it upon himself to enforce federal immigration laws with whatever means he deems appropriate.
In 2009, he stated publicly that “he would continue to exercise authority to enforce federal immigration laws in the field,” citing a non-existent federal statute to justify immigration stops and inquiries.
The sheriff added that he “would drive those caught on the streets to the border if federal officers refused to take them into custody.”
His aggressive practices as sheriff include heavily armed raids of Latino communities in neighborhoods, fast food restaurants, elementary schools and low-income areas. Some have dubbed the tactics “brown hunting.”
To its credit, the federal government has taken on some of Arpaio’s more appalling abuses, with the Department of Justice launching an investigation of the sheriff in 2008 for racial profiling and various civil rights violations.
In December 2011, the Justice Department announced the findings of its three year investigation, concluding that Arpaio has committed an extensive array of civil rights abuses against Latinos, including a pattern of racial profiling and discrimination and carrying out heavy-handed immigration patrols based on racially charged citizen complaints.
The Justice Department said that Arpaio agreed to outside supervision, but a day before settlement negotiations were to begin, Arpaio refused to agree to a court-appointed monitor to oversee changes in his department, one of the Justice Department’s requirements.
“We believe that you are wasting time and not negotiating in good faith,” wrote Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy L. Austin Jr. in a letter to Arpaio’s attorney. “Your tactics have required DOJ to squander valuable time and resources.”
The DOJ said that Arpaio’s refusal of a court-appointed monitor was a deal-breaker that would end settlement negotiations and result in a federal lawsuit.
The investigation of Arpaio and his department is one of 17 probes the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is conducting of police and sheriff departments — the most in its 54-year history. Other departments being investigated include those in New Orleans; Newark; Seattle; Puerto Rico; Portland, Ore.; and East Haven, Conn.
The DOJ has also promised to investigate the shooting of Trayvon Martin for possible civil rights violations.
While these DOJ investigations are welcome developments, a more comprehensive effort may be needed for the United States to bring itself into compliance with international humanitarian law as it pertains to minority rights, race relations and policing.
Among the recommendations that Amnesty International offers in its report include suspending all immigration enforcement programs pending a review by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General to determine whether the programs can be implemented in a nondiscriminatory manner.
The human rights group also calls on all state governments to ensure that their legislation respects immigrants’ rights including freedom from discrimination and the right to due process.