Tag Archive | geneva conventions

MSF continues to press for real answers on Kunduz hospital bombing

doctors without borders us credibility

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.

msf staff

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.

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U.S. struggles to provide answers on Kunduz attack

top cartoon (1)

It has been over a week since the U.S. military’s deadly strike on the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) field hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, and despite personal assurances from President Barack Obama for a “transparent” internal inquiry, there still remain far more questions than answers regarding the tragedy.

As the Washington Post reported Saturday, “the military … has said that the hospital was ‘mistakenly struck,’” but it “has declined to provide full details of the incident while its investigators examine what occurred in the worst example of errant U.S. air power in recent years.”

An AC-130H gunship from the 16th Special Operations Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Fla., jettisons flares as an infrared countermeasure during multi-gunship formation egress training on Aug. 24, 2007. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Julianne Showalter) (RELEASED)

An AC-130, the U.S. gunship that attacked the MSF hospital on Oct. 3 2015.

These full details would include answers to such basic questions as: Did the military know that the target was a hospital before launching the strike in the early morning hours of Oct. 3? If they did not know at first that their target was a working hospital with patients, civilians and medical workers inside, why did they not immediately abort the mission when MSF called U.S. military headquarters in a frantic attempt to stop the bombing?

And, by the way, who ordered the attack?

In testimony to Congress last week, General John Campbell, who serves as commander of the Resolute Support Mission and the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, stated on multiple occasions that there is a “rigorous procedure” for vetting targets, but was unfortunately not pressed on what that rigorous procedure entails.

“When the Afghans call for fire, that’s not an automatic response,” Campbell told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday. “Every day the Afghans ask me for close air support and we just don’t go fire some place. We go through a rigorous procedure to put aerial fires on the ground – a U.S. process, under the U.S. authorities.”

A logical follow-up question might have been: what does that rigorous procedure entail? Or, if your process is so rigorous, why did you not know that the target that you bombed with an AC-130 gunship was indeed a hospital? After all, MSF had provided you with the coordinates of their hospital, had they not? Don’t you have some database you could cross-check, or at least an old-fashioned map on the wall with “do not bomb” areas marked with thumbtacks or something?

It is quite simply not credible to claim that the United States was unaware that the target was a hospital before launching the attack. If, however, one is inclined to give the world’s most advanced military the benefit of the doubt that the initial strike was the result of some sort of bureaucratic snafu – in spite of all of its “rigorous procedures” – the fact that U.S. and Afghan military officials were again informed after staff at the hospital became aware of the bombardment, and yet continued to bomb for another half-hour, should put to rest the notion that the attack was just a “mistake.”

The specifics as laid out by MSF, and generally not disputed in any way by the U.S. military, should lead any reasonable person to the unavoidable conclusion that the attack was a deliberate, premeditated war crime – most likely motivated by animosity over the fact that MSF treats all patients, including Taliban combatants, without discrimination, based on longstanding principles of medical ethics. And yet, the mantra being repeated endlessly by politicians and the media is that the hospital was bombed “by mistake.”

Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) both made this claim in relation to Gen. Campbell’s Senate testimony last week, and it has been reiterated endlessly in the media, despite the reality that there has been no official determination of how and why this bombing took place – and certainly no independent international investigation as called for by Doctors Without Borders.

Rather than providing answers, Pentagon officials are offering to make “condolence payments” to the families of the 22 people slain in the U.S. attack and are saying that “appropriate payments” will be made toward the repair of the hospital they bombed.

“The Department of Defense believes it is important to address the consequences of the tragic incident,” said Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook on Saturday. “One step the department can take is to make condolence payments to civilian non-combatants injured and the families of civilian non-combatants killed as a result of U.S. military operations.”

Considering the amount of noise that the victims of this assault have made, it’s hard to view this offer as anything other than a coldly calculated and rather crude attempt at throwing around hush money – on the U.S. taxpayers’ dime – to get MSF to cease its demands for an independent investigation.

To its everlasting credit, however, MSF is declining the Pentagon’s offer. The organization said on Sunday that it has not officially received any details of the compensation announced by the Pentagon, but that it has a longstanding policy “to not accept funding from any governments for its work in Afghanistan and other conflicts around the world.”

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning charity added: “This policy allows us to work independently without taking sides and provide medical care to anyone who needs it. This will not change.”

thanks but no thanks msf

As the Pentagon stonewalls, MSF continues to press for answers, invoking a never-before used mechanism known as the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC) to investigate the incident. The IHFFC has acknowledged that it has been contacted by Doctors Without Borders and says that it “stands ready to undertake an investigation but can only do so based on the consent of the concerned State or States.”

In other words, good luck with that. The United States must consent to the investigation, and considering its intransigence so far, there is no reason to believe that the U.S. government will suddenly submit to a truly impartial, independent investigation into the “tragic incident,” or war crime that occurred on October 3.

Apparently, the United States is unconcerned about how its image is affected by this stonewalling, which appears to many people as a tacit admission of guilt. The only conceivable reason for the U.S. to block an independent investigation is because it knows that someone within the U.S. chain of command ordered a deliberate strike on a working hospital, a grave breach of international law for which someone should be prosecuted as a war criminal.

To demand justice for the victims of the U.S. attack on the Kunduz hospital, click here.

cartoon msf bombing

Senate softball-questioning on Kunduz attack underlines the need for a credible independent investigation

Tuesday’s display at the Senate Armed Services Committee, in which General John Campbell testified about the security situation in Afghanistan and talked a bit about the U.S. airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital last weekend that killed and maimed dozens of civilians, provided one of the clearest indications yet that there is no reason to trust an internal inquiry and that an independent investigation is absolutely necessary.

For the most part, Senate Committee members sidestepped the topic of the Kunduz attack altogether, focusing their questions instead on overall U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, with a bit of discussion on the recent revelations of rampant child abuse, pedophilia and sex slavery in the country by the U.S.’s Afghan allies.

When the subject of the hospital bombing was addressed, the senators generally asked rather mundane questions that avoided tackling the most pertinent issues. No one asked, for example, who had personally authorized the attack, whether the United States knew that the target was a hospital before launching airstrikes, or if it did not know initially, at what point the picture came into focus that U.S. bombs were landing on a medical facility protected under international law.

Instead, questions focused on who had requested the attack, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the committee, and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) both asking the general if it was true that the strike was called in by the Afghans.

Gen. Campbell, who currently serves as commander of the Resolute Support Mission and the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, responded to these softball questions by reiterating the latest U.S. account of the atrocity – that it was the Afghans who called in the strike but that the ultimate decision for carrying it out went up the U.S. chain of command, going through a “rigorous” process of vetting the target.

He was asked no follow-up questions on what this “rigorous” process might entail, and if it is indeed so rigorous, why it is that the United States, which had been repeatedly provided the coordinates for the MSF hospital, would have launched a strike on a clearly marked medical facility.

There were also no questions posed to the general about whether it is in fact true that MSF staff had frantically called their contacts in U.S./NATO command to tell them — in real time — that the hospital was under attack, calls which were apparently ignored while the strikes continued in 15-minute intervals for the next hour.

These would have been pertinent questions to ask, because they would have forced the general to go on record regarding what the United States knew and when the United States knew it regarding the target that it was hitting. This is important because if the United States knew that it was bombing a hospital, this would be considered a grave breach of international law – a war crime and an atrocity for which U.S. officials must be held accountable.

Attacking the sick and wounded, as in bombing a hospital, is a clear violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, which states:

(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;

If the United States knew that it was bombing a medical facility, this would also be a grave breach of Customary International Humanitarian Law, as explained by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which states on its website:

Medical personnel exclusively assigned to medical duties must be respected and protected in all circumstances. They lose their protection if they commit, outside their humanitarian function, acts harmful to the enemy.

But rather than attempting to determine what the U.S. knew about the target that it bombed for more than an hour early Saturday morning, instead the senators asked technical questions, which seemed geared more towards deflecting and obfuscating the issue than getting to the heart of the matter. The toughest question probably came from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who asked the general whether he would be opposed to a truly independent investigation into the tragedy.

But even Sen. Shaheen engaged in some whitewashing by stating upfront that the tragedy was an “accident,” despite the fact that there is still no indication that the attack on the hospital was not a deliberate and premeditated war crime.

This theme of portraying the atrocity as an accident continued after the hearing, with senators going on television to reiterate the key talking points of the U.S. military’s cover story – namely that this was a terrible mistake and a tragedy but that no one could have ever carried out this sort of crime intentionally.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) went on MSNBC following the hearing to reiterate that the bombing was a “horrible mistake,” and further explained Gen. Campbell’s testimony regarding the allegedly “rigorous vetting” that took place in the U.S. chain of command leading up to and during this assault.

Although Kaine was in the hearing as a member of the Armed Services Committee, he opted not to ask the general any questions about the tragedy. On MSNBC however, he had quite a bit to say about it:

It seems clear that what is taking place is a systematic whitewash of this incident, with all relevant officials assuming their assigned roles to obfuscate and confuse with technocratic jargon and feel-good rhetoric designed to reassure the American people of the moral rectitude of their military. The only problem is that Doctors Without Borders is refusing to play along and is continuing to demand real answers.

The group is seeking to invoke a never-used body, the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, to investigate the U.S. bombing of its hospital. As BBC reported Wednesday,

MSF said it did not trust internal military inquiries into the bombing that killed at least 22 people.

The International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC) was set up in 1991 under the Geneva Conventions.

The US says last Saturday’s bombing was a mistake. It came amid efforts to reverse a Taliban takeover of Kunduz.

MSF says the co-ordinates of the hospital were well-known and its bombing could not have been a mistake. The aid agency – winner of the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize – has said it is proceeding from the assumption that the attack was a war crime.

MSF is also continuing to plead its case in the media, refusing to allow the military’s PR machine to sweep the atrocity under the rug. This is Doctors Without Borders Executive Director Jason Cone speaking with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday:

Supporters of MSF’s calls for an independent investigation include Human Rights Watch, the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam International, and Greenpeace. To add your name to a petition calling for justice for Doctors Without Borders, click here.

msf says enough

U.S. bombing of hospital in Afghanistan a grave breach of international law

Fires burn in the MSF emergency trauma hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, after it was hit and partially destroyed by aerial attacks on October 3, 2015. - MSF

Fires burn in the MSF emergency trauma hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, after it was hit and partially destroyed by aerial attacks on October 3, 2015.
– Photo by MSF

In 14 years of war and occupation the U.S. military has committed some serious atrocities in Afghanistan, but few compare to the war crime committed over the weekend when the United States repeatedly bombed a hospital in the northern city of Kunduz for over an hour – killing 22 medical workers and patients, including three children, and injuring 37 other people.

Perhaps realizing the truly grave nature of the assault on the Doctors Without Borders hospital, the U.S. has changed its story a number of times attempting to explain its actions. While originally indicating that it was an accident, the military then claimed that its bombing of the hospital was in response to enemy fire from the facility.

On Monday, however, General John Campbell, who commands the 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and holds ultimate responsibility for Saturday’s attack, said that it was actually “called in” by Afghan commanders. But as the New York Times reported on Monday, there was no clarification given on the discrepancies between the various U.S. accounts:

General Campbell’s comments … did not clarify the military’s initial claims that the strike, which killed 22 people, had been an accident to begin with. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has repeatedly said that there had been no fighting around the hospital, and that the building was hit over and over by airstrikes on Saturday morning, even though the group had sent the American military the precise coordinates of its hospital so it could be avoided.

Campbell even acknowledged that his new story was “different” than the two earlier stories, while failing to explain precisely why the stories differed so greatly from day to day. “An airstrike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat and several civilians were accidentally struck,” he said. “This is different from the initial reports which indicated that U.S. forces were threatened and that the airstrike was called on their behalf.”

So here we have the Pentagon blatantly contradicting itself – repeatedly – and manipulating the media, falsely portraying the attack as somehow justified or legal. But even the new explanation offered by the military does not clarify whether the United States knew that it was bombing a hospital, which is a grave violation of international humanitarian law even if there were enemy combatants in the vicinity.

no weapons msfAs MSF has stated, it had repeatedly given notification to the U.S. military of its coordinates, including five days before the attack, and even called the U.S. military during the bombing urging them to stop the attack – all to no avail. The bombing continued for more than a half-hour after the U.S. had been contacted by MSF, with several strikes pounding the clearly identified hospital, incinerating patients in their beds.

Attacking the sick and wounded, even if the intended targets are enemy combatants, is a clear violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, which states:

(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;

If the United States knew that it was bombing a medical facility, this would also be a grave breach of Customary International Humanitarian Law, as explained by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which states on its website:

Medical personnel exclusively assigned to medical duties must be respected and protected in all circumstances. They lose their protection if they commit, outside their humanitarian function, acts harmful to the enemy.

This rule, the ICRC explains,

goes back to the 1864 Geneva Convention and was repeated in the subsequent Geneva Conventions of 1906 and 1929.  It is now set forth in the First, Second and Fourth Geneva Conventions of 1949.  Its scope was expanded in Article 15 of Additional Protocol I to cover civilian medical personnel in addition to military medical personnel in all circumstances.  This extension is widely supported in State practice, which generally refers to medical personnel without distinguishing between military or civilian medical personnel.  It is also supported by States not, or not at the time, party to Additional Protocol I.

This very clearly stated law of war, dating back 151 years and elaborated upon in multiple conventions and protocols, explains why the United States and Afghan allies will go to great lengths to portray the MSF hospital as engaged in combat in some way. However, these claims are vociferously disputed by the victims of this assault.

MSF said that it is “disgusted” by statements justifying violence, calling them essentially an “admission of a war crime.”

As MSF stated Monday:

Today the US government has admitted that it was their airstrike that hit our hospital in Kunduz and killed 22 patients and MSF staff. Their description of the attack keeps changing—from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government. The reality is the US dropped those bombs. The US hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff. The US military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack. With such constant discrepancies in the US and Afghan accounts of what happened, the need for a full transparent independent investigation is ever more critical.

independent investigation kunduzFor these reasons, MSF is calling for an independent investigation of the incident, as opposed to the internal inquiry that the Pentagon is promising. So far, it seems that the international community is relatively united in its condemnation of the U.S. war crime, with the ICRC saying it was “deeply shocked by the bombing” and “strongly condemn[ing] such violence against patients, medical workers and facilities.”

The ICRC noted that “under international humanitarian law (IHL), the civilian population, medical personnel, ambulances and medical facilities must be respected and protected in all circumstances, and the work of medical personnel must be facilitated.”

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called the event “utterly tragic, inexcusable, and possibly even criminal.”

Zeid also called for a “swift, full and transparent investigation.”

However, as we have often seen, when the U.S. starts fully throwing its diplomatic weight around, often these war crimes and atrocities end up swept under the rug. It’s therefore up to civil society to keep the pressure on.

The victims of this crime – whether alive or dead – absolutely demand it.

MSF Sweden demanding an independent investigation.

MSF Sweden demanding an independent investigation.

Without prosecutions, Senate’s ‘reaffirmation’ of torture prohibition largely meaningless

cia torture report

Human rights groups are welcoming the Senate’s adoption yesterday of an anti-torture amendment as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2016, despite the fact that it doesn’t provide for any accountability to those who have authorized or committed torture in the past.

Officially called “the reaffirmation of the prohibition on torture,” the amendment, introduced last week by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), effectively prohibits U.S. officials from using torture techniques including mock executions, sexual humiliation, hooding prisoners and waterboarding by requiring they follow the U.S. Army Field Manual. It was adopted by a vote of 78-21.

“Without this amendment, abuses committed in the name of national security, such as forced rectal feeding and mock burials, would be all too easy for the CIA to repeat in a climate of fear-mongering about terrorism,” said Amnesty International USA’s executive director, Steven W. Hawkins.

Human Rights First praised what it called the “historic bipartisan amendment that prevents the future use of torture by any U.S. government agency.” The legislation, according to the group, will “ensure that the use of torture or cruel treatment is never again the official policy of the United States.”

But will it?

The fact remains that the torture techniques authorized by the White House and committed by the CIA in the years following 9/11 were already illegal – serious violations of both international law and domestic law – so it’s not entirely clear what is new about this “reaffirmation” of the prohibition on torture.

In fact, torture has long been banned by Common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions, which was further codified by the 1987 UN Convention Against Torture (CAT). The CAT provides a clear-cut definition of what constitutes the practice — which the U.S. is clearly guilty of as documented in the Senate report on torture released last year.

As stated in Article 1 of the CAT:

[T]orture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

The CAT further unambiguously states that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

As a state party to both the Geneva Conventions and the CAT, the United States has adopted domestic legislation to ensure compliance with the treaties’ provisions. The War Crimes Act punishes any grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, including any violation of Common Article 3.

The Torture Statute, formally known as Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113C of the U.S. Code, provides for life in prison, or even the death penalty if the victim dies, for anyone who commits, attempts, or conspires to commit torture outside the United States. (Domestic incidents of torture are covered by state criminal statutes.)

The law consists of three sections (2340, 2340A, and 2340B), which define the crime of torture.

(1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;

(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—

(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;

(C) the threat of imminent death; or

(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and

(3) “United States” means the several States of the United States, the District of Columbia, and the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States.

In other words, it is not enough for the Senate to simply “reaffirm” a so-called “torture ban.” There is a legally binding obligation under the Convention Against Torture, in fact, to “take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction” and to “make these offences punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature.”

For its part, Amnesty International did acknowledge yesterday – despite generally welcoming the Senate vote – that more must be done to bring the United States into compliance with its international obligations:

This legislation is one step of many that the U.S. government must take to guard against a return to torture and other ill-treatment and abide by its international human rights obligations. The U.S. government has not brought any criminal charges against those responsible for torture and enforced disappearances in the CIA secret detention program. Nor has the U.S. government withdrawn U.S. reservations to UN human rights treaties—reservations that the George W. Bush-era Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel exploited to write permission slips for torture and other ill-treatment.

The torturers in the CIA have for too long been protected by the Obama administration and U.S. Department of Justice, even while human rights defenders and whistleblowers such as John Kiriakou, Jeffrey Sterling and Chelsea Manning have been sent away for long prison terms for much less serious offenses. It is long past time for this double standard to be lifted and the committers (and authorizers) of torture to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Growing concern over human rights crisis as Guantanamo hunger strike marks 100 days

The United States is coming under intense international criticism for its increasingly troubling record on torture and impunity, indefinite detention and the ongoing travesty of justice known as Guantanamo Bay.

As a hunger strike at Guantanamo involving over 100 prisoners enters its 100th day, calls are growing for the United States to end its method of force feeding that the UN has described as torture and for President Obama to finally live up to his longstanding promise to close the prison.

On Friday May 17, human rights groups and activists will mark the 100th day of the hunger strike by delivering over 300,000 petitions to the White House urging the president to take action. Hundreds of U.S. activists have already joined a hunger strike in solidarity with the Guantanamo prisoners. Actions are also being held outside the United States, including one in London on Saturday May 18 in which protesters will be creating a “murder scene” outside the U.S. Embassy to draw awareness to the potentially fatal consequences of the hunger strike and the U.S. government’s responsibility for it.

UN officials have also become increasingly vocal in their denunciations of the Obama administration’s policies, with El Hadji Malick Sow, head of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, calling the U.S. policy of indefinite detention “a flagrant violation of international law.” Earlier this month, Sow explained that dozens of detainees are already cleared for release but continue to languish in the prison alongside those designated for indefinite detention without trial.

“Of those,” Sow said, “56 are Yemeni nationals who have been denied release based solely on their nationality and on the political situation in Yemen, which constitutes a clear violation of the principle of non-discrimination and renders their detention arbitrary.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, added, “At Guantánamo, the indefinite detention of individuals, most of whom have not been charged, goes far beyond a minimally reasonable period of time and causes a state of suffering, stress, fear and anxiety, which in itself constitutes a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.”

Drawing depicting the agony of force-feeding by Matt Rota

Drawing depicting the agony of force-feeding by Matt Rota

Many of the striking detainees are being force-fed a nutritional supplement through tubes inserted in their noses, a practice considered torture by many experts. As Kent Sepkowitz, an infectious-disease specialist in New York City, describes the process,

The hardware used in force feeding is very cheap and basic, though as with all medical equipment, there are ever more fancy versions. The procedure is this: after squirting a lubricant into one nostril, a two-foot long clear plastic tube of varying caliber, usually about as thick around as fat pencil, is snaked through the nose, down the back of the throat, and into the stomach. An X-ray is then performed to make certain the tube is placed correctly into the stomach or small intestine and not into the lung. Once confirmed, a liquid diet can be delivered and up to 2,000 calories a day provided—more than enough to keep a person alive.

During my training, I placed countless feeding tubes (and larger hoses to pump stomachs). Without question, it is the most painful procedure doctors routinely inflict on conscious patients. The nose—as anyone knows who ever has received a stinger from an errant baseball—has countless pain fibers. Some patients may scream and gasp as the tube is introduced; the tear ducts well up and overflow; the urge to sneeze or cough or vomit is often uncontrollable. A paper cup of water with a bent straw is placed before the frantic and miserable patient and all present implore him to Sip! Sip! in hopes of facilitating tube passage past the glottis and into the esophagus and stomach.

The procedure is, in a word, barbaric.

One detainee, Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, in an op-ed published by the New York Times last month, offered an account of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this barbaric procedure:

I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.

I am still being force-fed. Two times a day they tie me to a chair in my cell. My arms, legs and head are strapped down. I never know when they will come. Sometimes they come during the night, as late as 11 p.m., when I’m sleeping.

UN Special Rapporteur on health Anand Grover has stressed that “health care personnel may not apply undue pressure of any sort on individuals who have opted for the extreme recourse of a hunger strike.”

She added that it is also not acceptable to use threats of forced feeding or other types of physical or psychological coercion against individuals who have voluntarily decided to go on a hunger strike. The American Medical Association has also condemned such force-feedings as a violation of “core ethical values of the medical profession.”

On May 13, a coalition of 20 human rights organizations sent Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel a letter stating unqualified opposition to the ongoing force-feeding. As the letter makes clear, the Guantanamo force-feeding procedures constitute cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in violation of international norms:

Because of force-feeding’s invasive nature, the World Medical Association (WMA), the preeminent international organization in the field of medical ethics and practice, has repeatedly condemned force-feeding of competent prisoners. The WMA’s Tokyo Declaration, adopted in 1975, states that doctors shall respect a competent prisoner’s right to refuse artificial feeding. And, in its Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers, adopted in 1991 and revised in 2006 in large part due to developments in Guantánamo, the WMA states that “[f]orcible feeding is never ethically acceptable. Even if intended to benefit, feeding accompanied by threats, coercion, force or use of physical restraints is a form of inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Force-feeding as used in Guantánamo violates Common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, which bar cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment, the coalition also points out.

Nevertheless, 40 additional military medical personnel have been sent to Guantanamo to assist with the controversial procedure.

But the torturous force-feedings are not the only way that the American prison guards are routinely tormenting their detainees.

One of the hunger strikers, British citizen Shaker Aamer, recently described in an open letter the abuse he is suffering at the hands of the Guantanamo prison authorities since the hunger strike began:

My treatment was bad before, but since the beginning of April I have been treated with particular venom. They started by taking my medical things. I had an extra blanket to lessen my rheumatism, but that was soon gone. My backbrace went at the same time. The pressure socks I had to keep the build-up of water down did not last long. Then they came for my toothbrush. Next, my sheet was taken, along with my shoes. My legal documents vanished soon after, leaving me only my kids’ drawings on the wall. They were the last to go.

And now I am left alone. Since 8am Monday, April 15, I have had nothing, not even my flip-flops. I am meant to sleep on concrete, and when I say alone, I mean alone in a very lonely world. The bean hole is what they call the small hatch on the door through which they normally pass my food. Recently they have started using a padlock to close it all day long. The OIC [Officer In Charge] keeps the key so no one else can open it.

The fact that the U.S. prison guards continue to torture these helpless detainees is particularly troubling considering the fact that the remaining men Guantanamo are not considered a threat to the United States. As Ben Emmerson, the Special Rapporteur on countering terrorism, recently explained: “All relevant security-related Government agencies or authorities have expressly certified that those detainees do not represent a threat to US security.”

Yet, in a nightmarish Kafkaesque and Orwellian situation, they remain locked up in a state of legal limbo, with little hope of ever seeing their loved ones again. As Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay since 2002, explained in the New York Times,

I do not want to die here, but until President Obama and Yemen’s president do something, that is what I risk every day.

Where is my government? I will submit to any “security measures” they want in order to go home, even though they are totally unnecessary.

I will agree to whatever it takes in order to be free. I am now 35. All I want is to see my family again and to start a family of my own.

In the midst of this hunger strike, a high-level U.S. task force last month issued a bombshell report on detainee treatment which concluded, without reservation, that the United States has engaged in a systematic policy of torture in the years since 9/11.

“The Report of the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment” is the product of more than two years of research, analysis and deliberation by the Task Force members and staff. It is considered the most comprehensive, bipartisan investigation into the detention and treatment of suspected terrorists yet published, providing painstaking details about the past and current treatment of suspected terrorists detained by the U.S. government during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo and the CIA’s secret “black site” prisons.

“Perhaps the most important or notable finding of this panel is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture,” the report reads. “This finding, offered without reservation, is not based on any impressionistic approach to the issue. … Instead, this conclusion is grounded in a thorough and detailed examination of what constitutes torture in many contexts, notably historical and legal.”

The United States may not declare a nation guilty of engaging in torture and then exempt itself from being so labeled for similar if not identical conduct, the task force pointed out, noting that in some cases the torture has been approved at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

In a section on Guantanamo, the report described the prison camp as “a major testing ground for the government’s policy of engaging in highly coercive interrogation techniques, practices designed to visit torment on detainees in the expectation or hope they would give up important and usable intelligence to help fight the new style of war in which the United States found itself.”

In other words, Guantanamo is a torture camp. “It was the principal place where the government’s mostly unannounced shift in policy from detention for prosecution to detention for interrogation occurred.”

Rather than being brought quickly before some tribunal, detainees would be held at length for another purpose — interrogation. The view of the detainees as an intelligence resource to be mined contributed to the rapid deterioration of the human rights situation in the torture camp and to the extreme techniques deemed acceptable by authorities.

Now, 11 years on, the detainees have had enough and in an act of desperation have engaged in the only recourse they have left, to refuse food. But rather than address their legitimate grievances or work for a political solution to the crisis, the Pentagon and the Obama administration have opted instead to increase the level of torture used against the detainees.

It is a national disgrace and a human rights catastrophe of the highest order.

To demand justice for the Guantanamo prisoners, visit Close Guantanamo, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Code PinkAmnesty International and Cage Prisoners.

gitmo hungerstrike

U.S. complicity in Israeli war crimes in Gaza


A Palestinian man sits next to the body of his one-year-old son Iyad Abu Khoussa during the baby’s funeral in Bureij refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, 18 November. The child was killed when an Israeli warplane fired a missile at the fence of his family’s home; two other small children were wounded in the strike. (Ashraf Amra / APA images)

With the death toll of Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip continuing to rise, President Barack Obama is voicing the United States’ unconditional support for the bombing, raising questions of legality in relation to U.S. backing of potential Israeli war crimes.

In the latest news, three Palestinians were killed in two separate strikes in Gaza on Tuesday morning. The latest deaths pushed the Palestinian death toll to 112, with the number of injuries over 920, and came after a night of relative calm – the first to see no fatalities since the Israeli air campaign began nearly a week ago.

As the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reported yesterday,

The number of Palestinians killed by Israeli Occupation Forces in the course of the offensive on the Gaza Strip, that is ongoing for the sixth consecutive day, has increased to 87, including 58 civilians. The civilian deaths include 18 children and 12 women. Over the past 24 hours, many civilian casualties, mostly women and children, have been reported, as Israeli forces have bombarded populated houses, in the vast majority of cases without any prior warning. A number of houses have been destroyed over their residents, causing several civilian casualties. Additionally, Israeli forces have attacked civilian and governmental facilities located in densely-populated areas, and a number of civilian vehicles.

In a grave incident on Sunday afternoon, 18 November 2012, Israeli forces killed 8 members of the al-Dalu family in Gaza City. Another 2 members of the family are still missing, since Israeli warplanes bombarded the family home. 2 neighbours, including 1 elderly woman, were also killed, while 9 civilians, including 2 children and 3 women, were wounded.

As the killing intensified, President Obama weighed in to fully back Israel’s “right to defend itself” and placed the blame for the conflict squarely at the feet of Hamas. “There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders,” he said, referring to the homemade rockets fired by Hamas, not the high-tech weaponry used by Israel against the people of Gaza.

Despite the high civilian casualties inflicted by Israel compared to the relatively low death toll on Israel’s side (only three Israelis have been reported killed in the fighting so far) Obama reiterated the U.S.’s unwavering support for Israel. “We are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians,” he said. “And we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself.”

While not surprising considering the fact that Israel has long been the world’s number one recipient of U.S. military aid, the president’s unequivocal backing for potential Israeli war crimes could place the United States in violation of international law, and possibly domestic law.

According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,

A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State” (Article 16 of the International Law Commission, “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts,” (2001) which were commended by the General Assembly, A/RES/56/83).

Further, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and the Arms Export Control Act  authorizes the supply of U.S. military equipment and training only for lawful purposes of internal security, “legitimate self-defense,” or participation in UN peacekeeping operations or other operations consistent with the UN Charter.

As the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation points out,

Because Israel misuses U.S. weapons to commit human rights abuses of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, including, but not limited to:  the injuring and killing of civilians, the destruction of Palestinian civilian infrastructure, the severe restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement, and the expropriation of Palestinian land and resources for Israeli settlements, it is pertinent to investigate whether Israel is violating U.S. laws aimed at ensuring that U.S. military aid and weapons are appropriately and legally used.

Given that U.S. military aid to Israel “directly contributes to Israel’s systematic human rights violations against Palestinians,” both Congress and the President “must utilize the investigative and reporting mechanisms found in these laws and hold Israel accountable for any and all violations of these laws as required,” concludes the U.S. Campaign.

While supporters of Israel and most American media outlets claim that Israel is simply retaliating against provocations from Hamas — choosing to begin the story of the latest round of violence in Gaza on November 10 when four Israeli soldiers were wounded by Palestinian fire — in fact, just two days before this incident, a 13 year old Palestinian boy was killed in an Israeli military incursion into Gaza.

Further, as respected scholar Phillis Bennis notes, the Israeli attacks did not begin as a response to rockets fired from Gaza, but rather with Israel’s assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari on November 14. “History is determined by when you start the clock,” Bennis points out.

Political dissident Noam Chomsky argues that there is no such thing as the concept of self-defense in the context of military occupation. “You can’t defend yourself when you are militarily occupying someone else’s land,” he says. “Call it what you like, it is not self-defense.”

When it comes to the legal issues of Israeli war crimes and U.S. complicity, as a backdrop to the current fighting, the 2009 UN Goldstone Report provides a stark reminder that Israel is responsible at least for “internationally wrongful acts,” if not wanton crimes against humanity.

The United Nations fact-finding mission on the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict (dubbed Operation Cast Lead by the Israeli military) found clear evidence that Israeli forces committed serious war crimes and breaches of humanitarian law, which in some cases may have amounted to crimes against humanity.

“We came to the conclusion, on the basis of the facts we found, that there was strong evidence to establish that numerous serious violations of international law, both humanitarian law and human rights law, were committed by Israel during the military operations in Gaza,” the head of the mission, Justice Richard Goldstone, said in September 2009.

Non-governmental organizations placed the overall number of persons killed by Israel between 1,387 and 1,417 during the operation.

The 575-page report found, inter alia, “that the conduct of the Israeli armed forces constitute grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in respect of wilful killings and wilfully causing great suffering to protected persons and as such give rise to individual criminal responsibility.”

It went on to criticize the “deliberate and systematic policy on the part of the Israeli armed forces to target industrial sites and water installations,” as well as the use of white phosphorus weapons:

Based on its investigation of incidents involving the use of certain weapons such as white phosphorous and flechette missiles, the Mission, while accepting that white phosphorous is not at this stage proscribed under international law, finds that the Israeli armed forces were systematically reckless in determining its use in built-up areas. Moreover, doctors who treated patients with white phosphorous wounds spoke about the severity and sometimes untreatable nature of the burns caused by the substance. The Mission believes that serious consideration should be given to banning the use of white phosphorous in built-up areas. As to flechettes, the Mission notes that they are an area weapon incapable of discriminating between objectives after detonation. They are; therefore, particularly unsuitable for use in urban settings where there is reason to believe civilians may be present.

Under intense pressure from Israel and the Jewish Lobby in the United States, Richard Goldstone issued a partial retraction and clarification of his report’s most controversial findings in April 2011. While his public disavowal of portions of the report received much fanfare from the Israel Lobby which hailed it as a total vindication of Israel’s actions in Operation Cast Lead, in fact it was a fairly limited retraction that also reaffirmed some of the original report’s important findings.

“The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion,” Goldstone wrote in the Washington Post. “While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee’s report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.”

Goldstone laid some of the blame for the report’s shortcomings on the fact that Israel refused to cooperate with his investigation: “Israel’s lack of cooperation with our investigation meant that we were not able to corroborate how many Gazans killed were civilians and how many were combatants.”

Nevertheless, Palestinian deaths over the past ten years are estimated in the thousands. According to the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which documents precisely which U.S.-supplied weapons are responsible for how many deaths, Israel killed at least 2,969 Palestinians from September 29, 2000 to December 31, 2009 – Palestinians who took no part in hostilities.

It is now clear that history is to some degree repeating itself in Israel’s current actions in the Gaza Strip (codenamed Operation Pillar of Defense). If anything, it could be said that the indications of intentional targeting of civilians are even stronger this time around than they were four years ago, with prominent Israeli leaders openly calling for war crimes and collective punishment to be inflicted on the people of Gaza.

Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, for example, was quoted by Haaretz as saying, “The goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages. Only then will Israel be calm for 40 years.”

Not to be outdone, Gilad Sharon, son of former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon wrote in an op-ed on Sunday that, “We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza…. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too…. This needs to end quickly – with a bang, not a whimper.”

For what it’s worth, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called today for an immediate ceasefire and said an Israeli ground operation in Gaza would be a “dangerous escalation” that must be avoided.

Unfortunately however, as we have seen in the past, the only real way to rein in Israel would be diplomatic pressure from its principle sponsor the United States – and with public pronouncements from the president granting Israel carte blanche to “defend itself,” this doesn’t look likely.

This is especially the case since Obama has steadily increased the amount of aid given to Israel during his presidency. In each of his budget requests to Congress between 2009 and 2012, Obama has asked for increases in U.S. military aid to Israel, with Congress obliging each year. President Obama’s FY2013 budget request includes a record $3.1 billion in military aid to Israel.

Nevertheless, public pressure is mounting to force the United States and Israel to de-escalate the conflict, with demonstrations taking place throughout the world against Israel’s aggression.

Efforts are also intensifying to place pressure on Israel through an economic boycott and divestment campaign, as well as calls to cut U.S. aid to Israel.

“All U.S. aid to Israel should be ended once and for all,” said the ANSWER Coalition in a statement.

The people of the United States stand against the government that speaks in our name and sends $3 billion of our tax dollars every year so that Israel can kill and colonize the people of Palestine. The fact that the Obama administration was briefed on Monday prior to the attack shows that these latest crimes are a joint U.S.-Israeli operation. The Pentagon immediately announced after the first wave of murderous assaults today that Israel was its ‘partner.’ Israel may be a partner of U.S. imperialism as it acts as an extension of Pentagon and CIA power in the Middle East. But it is absolutely not the partner of the people of this country who are horrified by its policy of endless war against the Palestinian people and all the peoples of the region.

Upcoming protest actions across the United States are listed here. Protests elsewhere around the world can be found here.

Sidestepping international obligations, Dems reiterate ‘torture ban,’ endorse ‘universal values’

Demonstrators march on the 2012 Democratic National Convention on Sept. 2. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The 2012 Democratic Party platform released yesterday offers a renewed pledge to close the prison camp at Guantanamo and reiterates President Obama’s ‘torture ban’ which he initiated his first week in office. In a section called “Advancing Universal Values,” the platform endorses the right of individuals “to speak their mind, assemble without fear, have access to information, worship as they please, and choose their own leaders.” Other universal values embraced by the Democrats “include dignity, tolerance, and equality among all people,” as well as the fair administration of justice.

“We must always seek to uphold these values at home, not just when it is easy, but, more importantly, when it is hard,” states the platform. It goes on to explain that upholding these values “is why the President banned torture without exception in his first week in office.”

What the platform fails to mention is that in fact there was no need for the president to “ban torture” in the first place, since torture has long been banned by both domestic and international law. Common Article 3 of the  four  Geneva  Conventions  of 1949 established a prohibition  against  torture, which was further codified by the 1987 UN Convention Against Torture. The Convention Against Torture provides a clear-cut definition of what constitutes the practice. As stated in Article 1:

[T]orture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

The Convention further unambiguously states that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

As a state party to both the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture, the United States has adopted domestic legislation to ensure compliance with the treaties’ provisions. The War Crimes Act punishes any grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, including any violation of Common Article 3.

The Torture Statute, formally known as Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113C of the U.S. Code, provides for life in prison, or even the death penalty if the victim dies, for anyone who commits, attempts, or conspires to commit torture outside the United States. (Domestic incidents of torture are covered by state criminal statutes.)

The law consists of three sections (2340, 2340A, and 2340B), which define the crime of torture.

(1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;

(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—

(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;

(C) the threat of imminent death; or

(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and

(3) “United States” means the several States of the United States, the District of Columbia, and the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States.

It is widely acknowledged that policies instituted by the previous administration openly violated these provisions of domestic law, and by failing to prosecute those crimes, the Obama administration is itself violating international law. It is not enough for Obama or the Democratic Party to simply reiterate that “the United States doesn’t torture.” There is a legally binding obligation under the Convention Against Torture to “take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction” and to “make these offences punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature.”

Under the provisions of the Convention, a state party that is not fulfilling its obligations to prosecute torture may be referred to a committee to adjudicate the matter.

The Democratic platform’s reiteration of Obama’s ‘torture ban’ comes less than a week after Attorney General Eric Holder announced that CIA agents would face no charges over the torture and death of detainees while in custody. On Thursday, the Justice Department announced it was ending a criminal investigation that had been probing the deaths of two men: one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. As Democracy Now reported, “Gul Rahman died in 2002 while being held at a secret CIA facility known as the ‘Salt Pit’ in Afghanistan. He had been shackled to a concrete wall in near-freezing temperatures. Manadel al-Jamadi died in 2003 while in CIA custody at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison. His corpse was photographed packed in ice and wrapped in plastic.”

Eric Holder said in a statement on Thursday, “Based on the fully developed factual record concerning the two deaths, the Department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Holder did not explain precisely what that “fully developed factual record” may have entailed, nor did he expand upon what “admissible evidence” there was, and perhaps more importantly, what sort of inadmissible evidence might exist. Instead, he injected seemingly irrelevant details about other investigations into “any possible CIA involvement with the interrogation and detention of 101 detainees who were alleged to have been in United States custody subsequent to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”

“A number of the detainees,” said Holder, “were never in CIA custody.” This, of course, implies that a number of the detainees were in CIA custody.

Rights groups slammed the Justice Department decision. “That the Justice Department will hold no one accountable for the killing of prisoners in CIA custody is nothing short of a scandal,” said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director.

The Justice Department has declined to bring charges against the officials who authorized torture, the lawyers who sought to legitimate it, and the interrogators who used it. It has successfully shut down every legal suit meant to hold officials civilly liable.

Continuing impunity threatens to undermine the universally recognized prohibition on torture and other abusive treatment and sends the dangerous signal to government officials that there will be no consequences for their use of torture and other cruelty. Today’s decision not to file charges against individuals who tortured prisoners to death is yet another entry in what is already a shameful record.

The Center for Constitutional Rights also criticized the decision and noted the importance of independent investigations.

Once again, the United States has shown it is committed to absolving itself of any responsibility for its crimes over the past decade. Today’s announcement belies U.S. claims that it can be trusted to hold accountable Americans who have perpetrated torture and other human rights abuses, and underscores the need for independent investigations elsewhere, such as the investigation underway in Spain, to continue. Impunity does not always cross borders.

Marjorie Cohn noted that the announcement is just the latest in a long line of betrayals by the Obama administration.

Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that his office would investigate only two incidents, in which CIA interrogations ended in deaths. He said the Justice Department “has determined that an expanded criminal investigation of the remaining matters is not warranted.” With that decision, Holder conferred amnesty on countless Bush officials, lawyers and interrogators who set and carried out a policy of cruel treatment.

Now the attorney general has given a free pass to those responsible for the deaths of Gul Rahman and Manadel al-Jamadi.

Both men died horrible deaths in U.S. custody. In 2002, Rahman froze to death after being stripped and shackled to a cold cement floor in the secret Afghan prison known as the Salt Pit. Al-Jamadi died after being suspended from the ceiling by his wrists. Tony Diaz, a U.S. military police officer who witnessed al-Jamadi’s torture, said that blood gushed from his mouth like “a faucet had turned on” when he was lowered to the ground. A military autopsy ruled al-Jamadi’s death a homicide.

As horrendous as they may have been, the two deaths are not unique. According to government data provided to the Associated Press, at least 108 people have died in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of them violently. However, only a quarter of those deaths have been investigated as possible abuse by U.S. personnel.

As the AP reported in Feb. 2009:

The figure, far higher than any previously disclosed, includes cases investigated by the Army, Navy, CIA and Justice Department. Some 65,000 prisoners have been taken during the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although most have been freed.

The Pentagon has never provided comprehensive information on how many prisoners taken during the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have died, and the 108 figure is based on information supplied by Army, Navy and other government officials.

“Despite the military’s own reports of deaths and abuses of detainees in U.S. custody, it is astonishing that our government can still pretend that what is happening is the work of a few rogue soldiers,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero in response to the revelation. “No one at the highest levels of our government has yet been held accountable for the torture and abuse, and that is unacceptable.”

Constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald noted that the revelation proved that “the unstated premise of every torture debate — that it was safely applied to a handful of detainees — is false.”

The Democratic Party platform however brushes aside these concerns, blandly stating that “Advancing our interests may involve new actions and policies to confront threats like terrorism, but the President and the Democratic Party believe these practices must always be in line with our Constitution, preserve our people’s privacy and civil liberties, and withstand the checks and balances that have served us so well.”

The disconnect between these empty words and the demonstrable reality is profound. If the Democratic Party really believes that counter-terrorism policies must be in line with the Constitution and civil liberties, they should simply enforce the laws that exist on the books. As their platform states, “We must always seek to uphold these values at home, not just when it is easy, but, more importantly, when it is hard.”

Urinating on corpses a violation of international law, not just military rules

The NATO command in Afghanistan has denounced the actions of a group of U.S. Marines who were caught urinating on killed Taliban fighters in a video posted to YouTube.

“A video recently posted on a public website appears to show U.S. military personnel committing an inappropriate act with enemy corpses,” said NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in a statement released Thursday. “This disrespectful act is inexplicable and not in keeping with the high moral standards we expect of coalition forces.”

ISAF said that “a United States Criminal Investigatory agency has launched an investigation,” which “will be thorough and any individuals with confirmed involvement will be held fully accountable.”

The U.S. Marine Corps has also vowed a full investigation. Those involved could face court martial proceedings for violating U.S. military rules which specifically forbid “photographing or filming… human casualties,” according to a CBS News report.

While photographing and filming corpses may violate U.S. military rules, the act of desecrating corpses by urinating on them is also a clear violation of the First Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, which forbids “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment,” and contains this provision specific to treatment of the dead:

Art. 17. Parties to the conflict shall ensure that burial or cremation of the dead, carried out individually as far as circumstances permit, is preceded by a careful examination, if possible by a medical examination, of the bodies, with a view to confirming death, establishing identity and enabling a report to be made. One half of the double identity disc, or the identity disc itself if it is a single disc, should remain on the body.

Bodies shall not be cremated except for imperative reasons of hygiene or for motives based on the religion of the deceased. In case of cremation, the circumstances and reasons for cremation shall be stated in detail in the death certificate or on the authenticated list of the dead.

They shall further ensure that the dead are honourably interred, if possible according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged, that their graves are respected, grouped if possible according to the nationality of the deceased, properly maintained and marked so that they may always be found. For this purpose, they shall organize at the commencement of hostilities an Official Graves Registration Service, to allow subsequent exhumations and to ensure the identification of bodies, whatever the site of the graves, and the possible transportation to the home country. These provisions shall likewise apply to the ashes, which shall be kept by the Graves Registration Service until proper disposal thereof in accordance with the wishes of the home country.

As soon as circumstances permit, and at latest at the end of hostilities, these Services shall exchange, through the Information Bureau mentioned in the second paragraph of Article 16, lists showing the exact location and markings of the graves, together with particulars of the dead interred therein.

The fact that a group of Marines would so cavalierly disregard these Geneva Convention requirements and felt confident enough to desecrate these corpses while being filmed begs the question of whether the military is properly instructing rank-and-file soldiers on international obligations.

Following World War II, the United States was one of the leading forces behind the Geneva Conventions, not only signing and ratifying them but sending the original signed copies to a vault in the State Department, where they remain to this day.

However, in January 2002, President George W. Bush decided that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to Taliban fighters. Ignoring advice from the State Department, Bush sided with the Pentagon and Justice Department declaring the Geneva Conventions invalid with regard to conflicts with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. He formalized this decision in a Feb. 7, 2002 presidential memorandum.

So, as the Marine Corps now investigates the soldiers captured on video urinating on Taliban corpses, it’s worth bearing in mind that these actions may emanate from a chain of command that has been poisoned by institutionalized lawlessness from the top down.

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