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.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
The latest mass shooting in the United States – yesterday’s massacre at a community college in western Oregon – is another painful reminder of the U.S.’s inability or unwillingness to rein in its gun control problem and bring its laws into conformity with international norms.
The problem of U.S. gun violence has long caught the attention of the international community, including at recent review conferences examining U.S. compliance with various international conventions, with diplomats and experts repeatedly noting that U.S. laws may not fulfill international obligations of the United States government to protect life.
Following a review of the United States early last year by the UN Human Rights Committee for adherence to obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Committee’s concluding observations included the following passage on U.S. gun violence:
While acknowledging the measures taken to reduce gun violence, the Committee remains concerned about the continuing high numbers of gun-related deaths and injuries and the disparate impact of gun violence on minorities, women and children. While commending the investigation by the United States Commission on Civil Rights of the discriminatory effect of the “Stand Your Ground” laws, the Committee is concerned about the proliferation of such laws which are used to circumvent the limits of legitimate self-defence in violation of the State party’s duty to protect life (arts. 2, 6 and 26).
To bring the U.S. epidemic of gun violence under control and to fulfill its obligation to effectively protect the right to life, the UN recommended that the United States should:
(a) Continue its efforts to effectively curb gun violence, including through the continued pursuit of legislation requiring background checks for all private firearm transfers, in order to prevent possession of arms by persons recognized as prohibited individuals under federal law, and ensure strict enforcement of the Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban of 1996 (the Lautenberg Amendment); and
(b) Review the Stand Your Ground laws to remove far-reaching immunity and ensure strict adherence to the principles of necessity and proportionality when using deadly force in self-defence.
At a review of U.S. compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, held later in 2014, the United States was again admonished for its failure to comply with international obligations on protecting the right to life. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) observed that gun violence disproportionately impacts racial and ethnic minorities:
The Committee is concerned at the high number of gun-related deaths and injuries which disproportionately affect members of racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans. It is also concerned at the proliferation of “Stand Your Ground” laws, which are used to circumvent the limits of legitimate self-defence, in violation of the State party’s duty to protect life, and have a disproportionate and discriminatory impact on members of racial and ethnic minorities (arts. 2, 5 (b) and 6).
As a recommendation, the Committee urged the U.S.
to take effective legislative and policy measures to fulfil its obligation to protect the right to life and to reduce gun violence, including by adopting legislation expanding background checks for all private firearm transfers and prohibiting the practice of carrying concealed handguns in public venues; increasing transparency concerning gun use in crime and illegal gun sales, including by repealing the Tiahrt Amendments; and reviewing the Stand Your Ground laws to remove far-reaching immunity and ensure strict adherence to the principles of necessity and proportionality when deadly force is used for self-defence.
The United States was again reminded of these recommendations during UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of the U.S. human rights situation in May 2015.
The CERD, the UN reminded the United States,
was concerned at the large number of gun-related deaths and injuries, which disproportionately affected members of racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans. It urged the United States to reduce gun violence by, inter alia, adopting legislation expanding background checks for all private firearms transfers and reviewing the “stand your ground” laws.57 The HR Committee58 and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences59 made similar recommendations.
Despite all of these recommendations, needless to say, the U.S. has not taken any meaningful steps to bring its gun laws into compliance with its international obligation to protect the right to life. The result: so far this year, there have been 294 mass shootings in America, including yesterday’s in Oregon.
Far from being the global champion of human rights that it fancies itself as, the United States is in fact a flagrant violator of international human rights standards as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other landmark human rights treaties – some of which the U.S. refuses to ratify. This was the unmistakable conclusion of the U.S.’s Universal Periodic Review for compliance on human rights norms at the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this week.
Delegates from many of the 117 countries taking part in the UPR lambasted the United States’ record of civil rights violations in the context of the nationwide epidemic of police brutality. The representative from Nambia, for example, said U.S. officials must “collaborate closely with marginalized communities to fix the broken justice system that continues to discriminate against them, despite recent waves of protest over racial profiling and police killings of unarmed black men.”
“Chad considers the United States of America to be a country of freedom, but recent events targeting black sectors of society have tarnished its image,” said Awada Angui, the delegate from that country.
The barrage of criticism led James Cadogan, senior counselor in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, to concede that the United States has a problem with police violence.
“We must rededicate ourselves to ensuring that our civil rights laws live up to their promise,” he said at the review on Monday. “The tragic deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Ohio, and Walter Scott in South Carolina have… challenged us to do better and to work harder for progress.”
But even while admitting its own shortcomings, the U.S. couldn’t resist the instinctual temptation to tout its record. As Mary McLeod, acting legal adviser to the U.S. Dept of State, put it, “We’re proud of the work we’ve done since our last UPR.”
Most UN Human Rights Council delegations and civil society observers strongly disagreed. One of the recurring themes in the interventions that took place on Monday was the U.S.’s failure to ratify a number of key human rights treaties and protocols, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, since its last periodic review in 2010. As Human Rights Watch noted,
In its 2010 review, the United States agreed to “consider” ratifying ICESCR, CEDAW, CRC, and CRPD (92.10, 92.11, 92.20, 92.21); ratifying ILO Convention Nos. 100 and 111 (92.22 and 92.26); ratifying the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (92.28); signing the Migrant Worker Treaty (92.30); lifting reservations to the ICCPR and other ratified human rights treaties (92.47, 92.48, 92.49); and establishing a national human rights institution (NHRI) at the federal level (92.74). To date, however, no new human rights treaty has been signed or ratified, no reservations, understandings or declarations have been lifted, and no NHRI established. The UPR is ineffective if limited to a conceptual exercise, and no country should claim success by accepting recommendations that require no identifiable outcomes or even proof of a deliberative process. The United States has failed to implement a number of other recommendations from its prior review. These include recommendations involving national security, criminal justice and policing, treatment of immigrants, and privacy, as detailed below, as well as overarching recommendations, such as agreeing to incorporate human rights training and education strategies in public policies (92.87). This submission also touches on issues that the United States did not address in its prior UPR but should consider in its upcoming review.
“The U.S. has little progress to show for the many commitments it made during its first Universal Periodic Review,” U.S. advocacy director at Human Rights Watch Antonio Ginatta told VOA News.
Brazil raised objections to the United States’ mass surveillance program, urging that all surveillance polices and measures comply with human rights law regardless of nationality, noting the importance of the principle of proportionality. The Brazilian delegation also criticized the U.S. record on migrant rights, and called for the elimination of police brutality.
The U.S. also heard criticism over the continued use of the death penalty.
The Belgian delegation said the U.S. should take specific measures to eliminate racial bias and wrongful convictions leading to executions. Swedish UN representative Anna Jakenberg Brinck called for a “national moratorium on the death penalty aiming at complete abolition.” Other countries, including France, pushed for “full transparency” in the types of drugs being administered to kill prisoners, following news that some death row inmates experienced inordinate pain and suffering during their executions.
The U.S.-led war on terror and the ongoing impunity related to the crimes of torture committed by the CIA were other areas of concern. One of the key demands of the UN delegations was for Washington to take measures to prevent acts of torture, to prosecute perpetrators, and to ensure that victims of torture were afforded redress and assistance.
Guantanamo was also raised, with some delegations including the United Kingdom recalling the pledge to close the prison by President Barack Obama back in January 2009 and regretting that it hasn’t happened yet. The UK called for an expedited effort to shut down the detention facility once and for all. More than 100 NGOs submitted reports on various aspects of U.S. human rights shortcomings, which are collected at the website UPR Info.
“Today was a demonstration of the no confidence vote that world opinion has made of the United States as a country that considers itself a human rights champion,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the Human Rights Program of the American Civil Liberties Union. “I think that there was a clear message from today’s review that the United States needs to do much more to protect human rights and to bring its laws and policies in line with human rights standards.”
The UPR takes place every four years to scrutinize the human and civil rights practices of each of the UN’s 193 member nations.
Despite having made nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament a centerpiece of his early foreign policy after coming to office six years ago, President Obama is now earning the wrath of anti-nuclear campaigners for simply paying lip service to his Prague 2009 pledge to “secure a world free of nuclear weapons” – what he once called “the world’s worst weapons” – while instead moving to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Rather than pushing for disarmament as once promised, the Obama administration is engaging in extensive atomic rebuilding and refurbishing of the U.S. nuclear force to the tune of an estimated trillion dollars in the coming decades, and Obama recently nominated as his new secretary of defense a man long committed to such a course of action.
As Boston Globe columnist James Carroll put it recently,
Mark these days. A long-dreaded transformation from hope to doom is taking place as the United States of America ushers the world onto the no-turning-back road of nuclear perdition. Once, we could believe there was another way to go. Indeed, we were invited to take that path by the man who is, even today, overseeing the blocking of it, probably forever.
Carroll went on to quote Obama’s historic 2009 address in Prague on nuclear abolition.
“As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon,” Obama said,
the United States has a moral responsibility to act… So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now, we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can…’
“I know,” he continued,
that there are some who will question whether we can act on such a broad agenda. There are those who doubt whether true international cooperation is possible… and there are those who hear talk of a world without nuclear weapons and doubt whether it’s worth setting a goal that seems impossible to achieve. But make no mistake. We know where that road leads.
Indeed, it is all too clear where that road leads.
At the third Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons Conference held in Vienna, Austria last month, journalist Eric Schlosser emphasized that it’s a miracle there hasn’t yet been a catastrophic accident involving nuclear weapons, pointing out however that “The problem with luck is that eventually it runs out.”
He offered one mishap out of hundreds that have occurred over the years: the 1961 North Carolina incident in which a hydrogen bomb fell out of a disintegrating B-52 bomber, which nearly fully detonated a four-megaton hydrogen bomb.
The chances of a similar mishap taking place today are compounded by the fact that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is aging and the staff tasked with securing these weapons are poorly trained and reportedly suffering from major morale problems.
Warheads in the nation’s stockpile are an average of 27 years old, and military strategists are raising serious concerns about their reliability. As John Hamre, Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration and now president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently said, “We have the worst of all worlds: older weapons and large inventories that we are retaining because we are worried about their reliability.”
Further, the military has not prioritized the maintenance of these weapons, leading to even greater nuclear insecurity.
“The Air Force has not kept its ICBMs manned or maintained properly,” says Bruce Blair, a former missileer and cofounder of the anti-nuclear group Global Zero. Nuclear bases that were once the military’s crown jewels are now “little orphanages that get scraps for dinner,” he says. And morale is “abysmal.”
As a recent article in Mother Jones explained,
Blair’s organization wants to eliminate nukes, but he argues that while we still have them, it’s imperative that we invest in maintenance, training, and personnel to avoid catastrophe: An accident resulting from human error, he says, may be actually more likely today because the weapons are so unlikely to be used. Without the urgent sense of purpose the Cold War provided, the young men (and a handful of women) who work with the world’s most dangerous weapons are left logging their 24-hour shifts under subpar conditions—with all the dangers that follow.
In August 2013, Air Force commanders investigated two officers in the ICBM program suspected of using ecstasy and amphetamines. A search of the officers’ phones revealed more trouble: They and other missileers were sharing answers for the required monthly exams that test their knowledge of things like security procedures and the proper handling of classified launch codes. Ultimately, 98 missileers were implicated for cheating or failure to report it. Nine officers were stripped of their commands, and Colonel Robert Stanley, the commander of Malmstrom’s missile wing, resigned.
While these realities of poor training, test cheating and drug abuse scandals, lackluster maintenance and aging weapons make clear the need to do something to better prevent a nuclear catastrophe from taking place, campaigners take issue with the Obama administration’s proposal to inject billions of dollars into modernizing these facilities and retraining staff.
As Theresa Shaffer, the Security Outreach Associate for Physicians for Social Responsibility, points out in a recent column,
The 2015 “CRomnibus” appropriations bill which passed in the House of Representatives and which President Obama has backed ahead of the Senate vote, does not accomplish these things. President Obama has repeatedly stated the need to secure radiological material worldwide in order to prevent a terrorist or criminal from fabricating a dirty bomb. Yet in this 2015 omnibus bill, funding to combat the proliferation of nuclear materials to terrorists and criminals was cut by 17% from 2014, while at the same time spending on nuclear weapons increased by 5% from last year.
“A better idea,” she continues,
to resolve the safety issues affecting our nuclear arsenal could be to use those funds to actually secure and eliminate radiological materials worldwide and simply work on getting rid of nuclear weapons rather than injecting more money into making new ones. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that $355 billion will be spent on modernizing the nation’s nuclear forces from 2014-2023. Pressure should be placed on the new Congress come January to reduce spending on nuclear weapons in the 2016 budget, since these weapons pose more of a risk than an asset.
Meanwhile, as Obama betrays his earlier pledges to work towards a nuclear arms-free world, many within the international community are doing just that, by building a global consensus and strengthening the international norm against these weapons.
The government of Austria hosted the third international conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons on December 8-9, 2014 in Vienna. The conference aimed to bolster the global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime by contributing to the growing momentum to prioritize the humanitarian imperative in all international efforts on nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament.
The conference explored the impacts of nuclear weapon explosions, including nuclear testing; the risks of nuclear weapons use; challenges and capabilities regarding the use of nuclear weapons; and existing international norms and laws.
Nadja Schmidt, representing the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), pointed out that within the existing legal framework on nuclear weapons, there is currently a lack of an instrument that explicitly characterizes nuclear weapons as unacceptable under international law.
“Our next step as supporters of the humanitarian initiative should be to explore the best way to address this legal deficit,” she said, noting that “the time has come to start a diplomatic process to negotiate a legally-binding instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons.”
The ICAN statement continued:
This is not a radical proposal. Indiscriminate weapons get banned. We have done it before with other weapon systems, including biological and chemical weapons.
This should not be a controversial proposal. An international prohibition is the logical outcome of an examination of the risks and consequences of nuclear weapons detonation. A new legal instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons would constitute a long overdue implementation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Also participating in the conference was the global network of lawmakers known as the Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (PNND), an international cross-party network of over 800 parliamentarians from more than 80 countries.
The parliamentary roundtable during the Vienna conference was chaired by PNND Co-President Christine Muttonen, who noted in her opening remarks that parliamentarians are in a unique position to “interact and co-operate with civil society,” as well as to “influence and strengthen government positions” on nuclear disarmament.
“Parliaments worldwide are doing this already,” she said. “Now it is time to better connect ourselves, to exchange experiences and best practices and to discuss the possibilities of joint action.”
The weekend before this conference, the ICAN hosted a Civil Society Forum, which was open to NGO and governmental representatives. Campaigners, activists, experts, public figures, and survivors gathered to learn and to teach and to build momentum to end the era of nuclear weapons.
An issue discussed at length at the ICAN forum was the Marshall Islands’ ongoing lawsuit against the United States and eight other nuclear powers. The lawsuit, filed at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in April 2014, denounces the 60-plus nuclear tests that were conducted on the small island state’s territory between 1946 and 1958, and seeks to hold the U.S. accountable for violating the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by failing to disarm as agreed to in the treaty.
The Marshall Islands case has received support from many different organizations around the world. One supporter is the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF), whose president, David Krieger, said: “The Marshall Islands is a small, gutsy country. It is not a country that will be bullied, nor is it one that will give up.”
“It knows what is at stake with nuclear weapons,” he continued, “and is fighting in the courtroom for humanity’s survival. The people of the Marshall Islands deserve our support and appreciation for taking this fight into the U.S. Federal Court and to the International Court of Justice, the highest court in the world.”
Russia, which along with the United States retains the bulk of the world’s nuclear arsenal, recently offered a reminder of which country invented these heinous weapons and which is the only country to have used them. Sergey Naryshkin, the Russian Lower House speaker, told the Russian History Society last month that he wants to initiate an international investigation into the U.S.’s 1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a possible crime against humanity.
“Next year we will have the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trial and also the same anniversary of the first and only nuclear bombings of two civilian cities – Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he said. “It is not incidental that I mention these events together. I think we should discuss this topic together with lawyers and specialists in international law – for crimes against humanity have no statute of limitation.”
Naryshkin recalled that the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not militarily justifiable, as the defeat of Japan was effectively decided after the Soviet Army’s victories in Manchuria.
“The nuclear bombing of two peaceful cities was a pure act of intimidation resulting in the deaths of several thousand Japanese civilians,” he said.
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.
The longstanding Obama administration policy of providing officially sanctioned impunity to the architects and practitioners of the U.S. torture regime implemented by the previous administration is coming under increasing pressure, with the United Nations last week reviewing the United States’ compliance with the Convention against Torture and a growing number of voices calling for the U.S. to finally reckon with its troubling background on the use of cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment of prisoners.
Ahead of the U.S.’s review at the UN Committee against Torture, a group of law professors associated with the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School co-authored a shadow report to the UN, entitled “Failure to Prosecute Senior U.S. Government Officials for Torture Violates International Law.” The report documented how the Obama administration is in flagrant violation of the law by shielding from criminal liability the senior government officials responsible for the post-9/11 U.S. torture program.
The report takes the United States to task for why it has not prosecuted President George Bush (who admitted in his memoir to authorizing the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed); former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo (author of an opinion that offered legal justifications for torture); and former CIA contractor Dr. James Mitchell (reported to have personally waterboarded the prisoner known as Abu Zubaydah).
The report also urges the UN Committee to renew its calls for criminal investigations and prosecution of officials at the highest levels of the chain of command.
Also ahead of the UN review, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to reverse the position articulated by the Bush administration that certain obligations under the Convention against Torture only applied within U.S. territory.
“Within days of taking office in 2009, you took important steps to reverse the previous administration’s harmful record and legacy on torture, including by issuing an executive order reinforcing the ban on torture,” reads the letter. “However, to ensure that such practices are not adopted by future administrations, it is critical that the United States also abandon the distorted interpretations of international law through which the George W. Bush administration sought to justify torture and ill-treatment and transfers to similar abuse.”
In the context of an ongoing dispute over the long-delayed release of a Senate report detailing the defunct U.S. torture regime, a group of Nobel Peace Prize laureates issued an open letter on Oct. 27 to the Obama administration, calling, inter alia, for the United States to fully disclose to the American people “the extent and use of torture and rendition by American soldiers, operatives, and contractors, as well as the authorization of torture and rendition by American officials.”
The laureates also called for the adoption of “firm policy and oversight restating and upholding international law relating to conflict, including the Geneva Convention and the UN Convention against Torture,” noting that Obama’s open admission that the U.S. engaged in torture is “a first step in the US coming to terms with a grim chapter in its history.”
The letter continued:
The subsequent release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence summary report will be an opportunity for the country and the world to see, in at least some detail, the extent to which their government and its representatives authorized, ordered and inflicted torture on their fellow human beings. …
When a nation’s leaders condone and even order torture, that nation has lost its way. One need only look to the regimes where torture became a systematic practice – from Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany to the French in Algeria, South Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge and others – to see the ultimate fate of a regime so divorced from their own humanity.
The practices of torture, rendition and imprisonment without due process by the United States have even greater ramifications. The United States, born of the concept of the inherent equality of all before the law, has been since its inception a hallmark that would be emulated by countries and entire regions of the world. For more than two centuries, it has been the enlightened ideals of America’s founders that changed civilization on Earth for the better, and made the US a giant among nations. …
In recent decades, by accepting the flagrant use of torture and other violations of international law in the name of combating terrorism, American leaders have eroded the very freedoms and rights that generations of their young gave their lives to defend. They have again set an example that will be followed by others; only now, it is one that will be used to justify the use of torture by regimes around the world, including against American soldiers in foreign lands. In losing their way, they have made us all vulnerable.
The letter noted that the world will be watching in the coming weeks as the release of the Senate findings on the U.S. torture program brings the country to a crossroads.
“It remains to be seen whether the United States will turn a blind eye to the effects of its actions on its own people and on the rest of the world, or if it will take the necessary steps to recover the standards on which the country was founded, and to once again adhere to the international conventions it helped to bring into being,” wrote the laureates, which included Archbishop Desmond Tutu and F.W. De Klerk of South Africa, Mohammad ElBaradei of Egypt, and Jody Williams of the United States.
A week after this letter was issued, the U.S. midterm elections, which failed to meet a number of important international standards, resulted in the defeat of one of the Senate’s few champions for human rights, Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO). Following his defeat, a chorus of voices has urged Udall to use his congressional immunity – provided by the Constitution’s Speech and Debate clause – to read the Senate’s still-classified 6,000-page CIA torture report into the Congressional record. Udall is reportedly giving serious consideration to taking up this challenge.
Then, of course, there was the UN’s review last week of U.S. compliance (or lack thereof) with the Convention against Torture (CAT), a legally binding treaty to which the United States has subscribed. Every several years signatories to the CAT are required to submit reports to the UN’s Committee against Torture, followed by a question period by the Committee to which the government is able to respond to the following day. It was the U.S.’s turn on Nov. 12 and 13.
As the hearing got underway in Geneva, Agence France-Presse reported:
The delegation faced a barrage of questions from committee members on how the country was dealing with rectifying and providing redress for acknowledged abuses during the “war on terror”.
The US delegation was asked to explain why the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba remains open, why many detainees remain there without charge and when Washington plans to shut it down.
The committee members also questioned the treatment of prisoners there, and lack of redress for victims of the widely publicised abuses by US troops at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in the early 2000s.
Beyond the “war on terror” legacy, the committee members raised issues of abuses in US prisons, rape in prisons, the broad use of drawn-out solitary confinement, and long years on death row.
And they asked how Washington could justify its widespread detention of non-violent, non-criminal illegal immigrants, including minors.
And they slammed police brutality that appears to disproportionately affect minorities, such as 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri last August.
To its credit, the U.S. delegation at the UN issued a high-profile reversal of the previous administration, indicating publicly that, unlike under President George W. Bush, the government has decided that the ban against torture applies not only within the borders of the United States, but also to areas outside of its territorial boundaries, for example at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – the site of years of wanton human rights abuses including arbitrary detention, torture and murder.
Mary E. McLeod, acting legal adviser for the State Department, stated, “We understand that where the text of the Convention provides that obligations apply to a State Party in ‘any territory under its jurisdiction,’ such obligations, including the obligations in Articles 2 and 16 to prevent torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, extend to certain areas beyond the sovereign territory of the State Party.”
“More specifically, to ‘all places that the State Party controls as a governmental authority,’ we have determined that the United States currently exercises such control at the US Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and with respect to U.S. registered ships and aircraft.”
“While the Obama administration is distancing itself from discredited Bush-era interpretations of the Convention against Torture, it is still unwilling to accept its full obligations under the treaty,” said Laura Pitter, national security counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The U.S. should explicitly accept that the treaty applies anywhere the US exercises ‘effective control,’ including any detention centers overseas.”
During the question period of the UN review, the U.S. delegation was asked about its lack of prosecutions for torture, as well as its generally lackluster attempts to investigate these crimes. UN official Giorgi Tugushi from the former Soviet state of Georgia noted in particular that the Committee had received information that torture victims were not interviewed in the course of the investigation by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham into torture.
Attorney General Eric Holder had appointed Durham in 2009 to conduct a preliminary review into “whether federal laws were violated in connection with the interrogation of specific detainees at overseas locations.” Durham decided, however, that only the death of two individuals in US custody at overseas locations warranted the opening of “full criminal investigations,” which ultimately resulted in no prosecutions.
The Department of Justice declined to prosecute “because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt,” according to Holder.
Tugushi expressed some concern over this result. “The investigation process looked into 101 cases and decided not to prosecute anyone,” Tugushi stated. “So, maybe, you can provide more information on this outcome.”
In response, the Justice Department’s David Bitkower explained:
Mr. Durham and his team reviewed the treatment of 101 such detainee cases. In so doing, he drew upon information provided by the CIA inspector general and report from the International Committee of the Red Cross regarding the treatment of high-value detainees formerly in CIA custody, the Department of Justice’s report on legal guidance related to enhanced interrogation techniques and other sources. After reviewing a substantial volume of information, Mr. Durham recommended the opening of two full criminal investigations and Attorney General Eric Holder accepted that recommendation.
After investigation the Department ultimately determined not to initiate prosecution of those cases. That decision was made based on the same principles that federal prosecutors apply in all determinations of whether to initiate a prosecution. Specifically, Mr. Durham’s review concluded that the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain convictions beyond a reasonable doubt…
Of course, no specific incidents that Durham may have examined were mentioned by Bitkower.
“Because the cases did not result in prosecutions, I cannot publicly describe with specificity the investigative methods employed by Mr. Durham or the identities of any witnesses his team may have interviewed,” he declared.
In other words, torture impunity remains official U.S. policy.
Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
- Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
- Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
In the performance of their duty, law enforcement officials shall respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons.
Law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.
- Articles 2 and 3 of the International Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials
In response to protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the police murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old shot by Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, police have employed highly threatening and repressive measures, including pointing military assault rifles at peaceful protesters, deploying armored vehicles in the streets, and targeting journalists and African Americans for arrest.
These measures, human rights observers on the ground point out, infringe on basic fundamental rights to peaceful assembly and expression. Amnesty International, which has a team of observers in Ferguson, “remains deeply concerned about government infringement on the community’s right to peacefully protest the killing by police of Michael Brown,” according to an Aug. 19 blog post, which contains details on how Ferguson police have engaged in arbitrary arrests and acts of violent repression in recent days.
Amnesty reiterated its calls for a prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigation into the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, as well as independent investigations into any human rights abuses in connection with the policing of protests. Further, the group has urged a thorough review of all trainings, policies and procedures with regards to the use of force and the policing of protests.
A statement issued by Human Rights Watch on Aug. 20 noted that although some scattered looting has been reported in the two weeks of demonstrations in Ferguson, most observers have described the protests as overwhelmingly peaceful. Nevertheless, the police have used “unnecessary or excessive force – including firing teargas and rubber bullets into crowds, and arbitrarily detained journalists covering the events,” according to HRW.
In the statement, HRW urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to press state and local officials in Missouri to reform police practices to improve respect for basic rights. “Holder should also support federal reforms that could help address concerns about policing and racial discrimination raised during the Ferguson protests over the last 10 days,” HRW noted.
“A lot of the poor policing we’re seeing in Ferguson may be going on elsewhere in the United States,” said Alba Morales of Human Rights Watch, who has been monitoring the situation in Ferguson. “Holder should press state and local officials to review their regulations and policies on policing, but he should also look at ways the federal government may be contributing to the problems there.”
Indeed, the issue of the federal government’s responsibility for ensuring a minimum national standard in policing is also one that the United Nations has raised directly with the U.S. government, concerns that have so far apparently fallen on deaf ears.
Earlier this year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a scathing report addressing serious human rights abuses in the United States, including the nationwide problem of police brutality. In a section of the report on “Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials,” the UN found that across the country, there is an unacceptably “high number of fatal shootings by certain police forces … and reports of excessive use of force by certain law enforcement officers including the deadly use of tasers, which have a disparate impact on African Americans.”
In order to bring its practices in line with international norms on law enforcement, the UN recommended that the U.S. government should “step up its efforts to prevent the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers by ensuring compliance with the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers” and “improve reporting of excessive use of force violations and ensure that reported cases of excessive use of force are effectively investigated, alleged perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions, that investigations are re-opened when new evidence becomes available, and that victims or their families are provided with adequate compensation.”
The Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers that the Human Rights Committee referenced contains a number of guidelines that the U.S. must implement in order to meet its international obligations. For example,
Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.
5. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall:
(a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved;
(b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life;
When tragedies do occur and police unnecessarily kill innocent people, the UN Basic Principles call for governments to “ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law.”
Demonstrating the general ignorance (or indifference) of these principles within United States law enforcement agencies, Sunil Dutta of the Los Angeles Police Department recently provided some stunningly frank “practical” advice to civilians on how to avoid being brutalized or killed by cops.
In the context of the ongoing protests in Ferguson, Dutta wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Tuesday, “If you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge.”
Acknowledging that police “field stops” can sometimes amount to unlawful and unconstitutional harassment, Dutta nevertheless advised civilians to never question the police about why they are being hassled, and above all, never contest cops’ authority in any way. “I know it is scary for people to be stopped by cops,” he wrote. “I also understand the anger and frustration if people believe they have been stopped unjustly or without a reason,” adding that he is well aware that “corrupt and bully cops exist.”
However, “if you believe (or know) that the cop stopping you is violating your rights or is acting like a bully, I guarantee that the situation will not become easier if you show your anger and resentment,” he said. Instead of challenging the cop on the scene Dutta advises that order to avoid being killed you should “Save your anger for later, and channel it appropriately. Do what the officer tells you to and it will end safely for both of you.”
By placing the onus of avoiding being shot on the civilian rather than the police officer, Dutta is demonstrating the very problem with law enforcement in the United States. The mentality that he reveals among American police officers is this: when civilians get shot, it is their fault for mouthing off or being insufficiently deferential to the police’s authority. However, as made clear by the UN’s Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers, it is up to cops to always “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms.”
Police officers “may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result,” not because they get annoyed with civilians who question their authority.
This basic ignorance on the part of police officers is why it may be necessary for the federal government to step in to make sure that there is some sort of national standard for policing across the country. But instead, of course, the federal government is arming police departments to the teeth with military combat gear.
In other words, federal government so far has demonstrated itself to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, so it may be naïve to think that it has any interest in dealing with this issue.
Following last week’s release of the UN Human Rights Committee’s “concluding observations” on the compliance of the United States with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), U.S. civil society groups have urged greater commitment by the U.S. government in meeting its international obligations.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that the “scathing report” called into question the legitimacy of a wide range of current U.S. policies, including counterterrorism operations, immigrants’ rights, voting rights, and the criminal justice system.
“The committee’s recommendations highlight the gaps between U.S. human rights obligations and current laws and practices,” said ACLU Human Rights Program Director Jamil Dakwar.
“The Human Rights Committee rightly called out the United States for setting dangerous examples from counterterrorism operations to an unfair criminal justice system to inhumane treatment of migrants. President Obama now has an opportunity to reverse course and reshape his human rights legacy by taking concrete actions like declassifying the Senate report on CIA torture and ending dragnet surveillance and unlawful targeted killings,” Dakwar said.
Writing at the ACLU’s Blog of Rights, Astrid Reyes noted the extremely serious nature of the U.S.’s ICCPR violations:
The committee condemned the United States’ lack of accountability for disappearance, torture, and unlawful killings of terrorism suspects, and its failure to apply the ICCPR to international operations. In addition, the committee denounced racial disparities in law enforcement that have led to the incarceration of a disproportionate number of minorities (particularly Blacks and Latinos), effectively denying them basic human rights throughout the criminal justice process. This includes severe sentencing such as the death penalty and life without parole for juveniles; improper use of solitary confinement; and denial of civil rights following incarceration (most notably, the right to vote).
While the committee noted several areas where the U.S. record has improved since its last review in 2006, the Concluding Observations include important structural recommendations, such as creating an independent human rights monitoring body and expanding existing mechanisms to monitor the implementation of human rights at federal, state, local and tribal levels – providing them with adequate human and financial resources.
The U.S. Human Rights Network (USHRN), which has long been advocating for full implementation of the ICCPR at the federal, state and local levels, called the UN’s concluding observations “a strong reflection of the important work being done by human rights defenders across the country.”
“We welcome the UN Human Rights Committee’s recommendation that the U.S. ensure effective remedies for violations under the ICCPR and to take steps to bring U.S. domestic law in line with its human rights obligations,” said Ejim Dike, Executive Director of USHRN.
“We urge the Administration to follow up on the recommendations by the Committee which make clear that the US has significant work to do to fully comply with its human rights obligations in a broad range of issues including racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, gun violence, excessive use of force by law enforcement in communities of color and on the border, access to healthcare for immigrants, criminalization of the homeless, and forced psychiatric treatment,” she said.
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) “applaud[ed] the UN and the international community for holding the US accountable to its international obligations and shedding a necessary light on areas where it is falling short,” describing the UN report as “highly critical.”
The UN’s main areas of concern, CCR noted, included:
- the U.S. “targeted killing” program;
- the lack of progress in the closure of Guantánamo, urging the U.S. to expedite the process of transferring detainees out of the prison, including to Yemen, and reiterating its position that the U.S. must end its practice of indefinite detention without charge or trial;
- the secrecy and lack of accountability around Bush-era abuses, including the limited number of investigations, prosecutions and convictions of contractors and high ranking U.S. officials for killings and torture of detainees;
- the imposition of the death penalty in a racially discriminatory manner and the conditions on death row;
- reports of criminalization of people living on the street for everyday activities such as eating, sleeping, and sitting in particular areas, raising concerns of discrimination and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment;
- the use of prolonged solitary confinement, particularly for at-risk people and those in pretrial detention, urging the abolition of solitary for people under 18 and for people with serious mental illness, and strict limitations on its use, overall; and
- the targeting of Muslims by the NYPD, and racial profiling overall (while underlining its support for recent plans to reform the use of stop and frisk).
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said “the United States should heed calls issued on March 27, 2014, by an important UN human rights body to ensure that its surveillance activities are consistent with the right to privacy, both within and outside its borders.”
HRW noted that the UN Human Rights Committee’s “conclusions address a wide range of serious human rights problems in the US, but the findings on surveillance are notable, as they are the committee’s first statement on the extent to which privacy rights are affected by widespread communications surveillance.”
The committee called on the United States to comply with privacy requirements set forth in article 17 of the ICCPR, particularly to respect the right to privacy, regardless of the nationality or location of individuals being monitored. It also criticized the lack of transparency in U.S. laws, urging the United States to reform its system of oversight of surveillance to protect the rights of those affected.
“The US insists it has no international legal obligations to respect the privacy rights of foreigners outside its borders, but one of the UN’s most important human rights bodies has now made clear it disagrees,” said Andrea Prasow, HRW’s senior U.S. national security counsel. “It’s time for the U.S. to recognize that people outside the country have just as much right to have their privacy respected as those inside the US, and that any surveillance must be strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) concurred, with EFF’s International Rights Director, Katitza Rodriguez, welcoming the Committee’s observations on U.S. violations of privacy rights. “It’s imperative the United States comply with its human rights treaty obligations, specifically Article 17 of the ICCPR, which protect the right of privacy for everyone in the same manner, within or outside US borders, regardless of nationality or place of residence,” Rodriguez said.
According to an EFF statement:
It’s very disappointing that the United States maintain its views that its human rights obligations under the ICCPR do not extend to its actions abroad, a view that defeats the object and purpose of the treaty. The Committee agreed and reiterates that the United States has an extraterritorial duty to protect human rights—including the right to privacy— to its action abroad regardless of the nationality or location of the individuals.
The Committee rightly criticized the current system of oversight for NSA surveillance activities, highlighting concern with the judicial interpretations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and secret rulings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). These secret rulings prevent individuals from knowing the law with sufficient precision. Knowledge of and clarity in the law is a crucial principle that is clearly defined in our 13 Necessary and Proportionate Principles.
The NAACP, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, applauded the concluding observations, noting that the UN report identifies issues of felony disenfranchisement, stand your ground laws, the death penalty and more.
“This report reiterated what those in the civil rights community have known for too long – the United States has more work to do to meet its human rights obligations,” stated Lorraine C. Miller, NAACP Interim President and CEO.
“From felony disenfranchisement and stand your ground laws to voter suppression and the school to prison pipeline, we are pleased the Human Rights Committee has elevated these issues on the international stage. This gives us leverage in the United States to more aggressively address these issues at home,” she said.
While the reaction to the UN report was overwhelmingly positive, the U.S. human rights community was not entirely satisfied with the concluding observations. The Center for Constitutional Rights, for example, regretted that the Human Rights Committee failed to question the U.S. government on the devastation the invasion and occupation of Iraq has brought to both Iraqi civilians and U.S. veterans.
A “shadow report” submitted by CCR to the Human Rights Committee, entitled “US Veterans and Iraqi Organizations Seek Accountability for Human Rights Crisis Resulting from a Decade of US-Led War,” noted “the lack of any recognition whatsoever by the US government of the disastrous and tragic consequences” caused by the war against Iraq.
“Despite having waged an illegal war based on false justifications, no civilian or military official has been investigated or held accountable for their role in fabricating the justification to go to war in Iraq. In fact, the current administration recently argued in a legal case brought by victims of the Iraq war that officials responsible for planning and waging the war in violation of international law should be afforded immunity and shielded from suit,” CCR noted in its shadow report.
The full concluding observations of the UN Human Rights Committee are available here. For more information about U.S. obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, see the ACLU’s FAQ page.
As Washington responds with shock and outrage over the deployment of Russian troops to the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has stressed that if violence spreads in the eastern regions of Ukraine and Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population.
In a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday, Putin reportedly said that Russian citizens and Russian-speakers in Ukraine faced an “unflagging” threat from ultranationalists, and that the measures Moscow has taken – mainly sending troops to serve as a buffer between Ukrainian military forces and the local population – were appropriate given the “extraordinary situation.”
This situation includes outbreaks of violence between Ukrainian nationalists and Russian loyalists, as well as official acts of the newly formed Ukrainian government that have been widely seen as discriminatory against the Russian-speaking population. Last week, pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators clashed in front of the parliament building in Simferopol, the capital of Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea Region, leading to several hospitalizations and at least two deaths.
“Demonstrators slammed each other with flags and threw stones as leaders on both sides urged their followers to avoid provocations,” reported RT.
Further, Russia’s Federal Migration Service said it has seen a sharp spike in applications from Ukrainian citizens seeking refuge from outbreaks of violence following a U.S.-backed coup that toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22. As RIA Novosti reports,
The head of the migration service’s citizenship department, Valentina Kazakova, said 143,000 people had applied for asylum in the last two weeks of February alone.
“People are afraid for the fate of those close to them and are asking not just for protection, but also to help them receive fast-tracked Russian citizenship,” Kazakova said. “A large number of applications are from members of Ukrainian law enforcement bodies and government officials fearing reprisals from radically disposed groups.”
Many people living in Crimea, a 10,000-square mile peninsula on the Black Sea with historical and linguistic ties to Russia, agree with Moscow’s assertion that Ukraine’s revolutionaries are violent, western-backed far-right ultranationalists who intend to roll back the rights of Russian-speakers and restrict Crimea’s links with Russia itself.
Unfortunately, the actions of the Ukrainian government following the ouster of President Yanukovych have largely confirmed these fears. Last week, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, began immediately moving to prohibit the official use of the Russian language in Ukraine and block broadcasts of Russian television and radio programs in the country.
The Verkhovna Rada’s repeal of the law on the “Principles of the State Language Policy,” which provided for the use of the Russian language in Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, could lead to further division and unrest, warned the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Astrid Thors.
“The authorities have to consult widely to ensure that future language legislation accommodates the needs and positions of everyone in Ukrainian society, whether they are speakers of Ukrainian, Russian or other languages,” said Thors.
In response to the blocking of Russian broadcasts, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, noted in a letter to Oleksandr Turchinov, Acting President of Ukraine and Chair of the Verkhovna Rada, that “Banning broadcasts is one of the most extreme forms of interference in media freedom and should only be applied in exceptional circumstances.”
It is in this context of official suppression of Russian rights, as well as the sporadic violence leading to a dramatic spike in asylum seekers, that Putin sought authorization from the Russian Parliament to deploy military forces to Crimea. Putin said he proposed military action because of “the threat to the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation,” and the Parliament passed his proposal unanimously.
Although no shots have been fired by the Russian troops and a Ukrainian colonel was quoted as saying that the Ukrainian and Russian sides had “agreed not to point our weapons at one another,” the presence of Russian forces in Ukraine is being denounced in the strongest terms by U.S. officials, including President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Appearing on ABC News’ This Week on Sunday, Kerry said,
What has already happened is a brazen act of aggression, in violation of international law and violation of the UN Charter and violation of the Helsinki Final Act. In violation of the 1997 Ukraine-Russia basing agreement. Russia is engaged in a military act of aggression against another country, and it has huge risks, George. It’s a 19th century act in the 21st century. It really puts at question Russia’s capacity to be within the G-8.
If the United States had a truly free press, the outrage expressed by the U.S. Secretary of State over the Russian deployment of troops and its alleged violation of international law would lead any honest journalist to follow up with a question like, “Excuse me, Mr. Secretary, but how can you possibly feign such outrage with a straight face when we all know that the U.S. has repeatedly invaded foreign countries and habitually violated the UN Charter with impunity for years? What gives the United States the moral authority or credibility to be the arbiter of international law and the legitimate use of force?”
Instead, George Stephanopoulos followed up with, “I understand it’s a violation, sir. So what’s the penalty for what Russia has already done?”
To which Kerry responded:
Well, we are busy right now coordinating with our counterparts in many parts of the world. Yesterday, the president of the United States had an hour and a half conversation with President Putin. He pointed out importantly that we don’t want this to be a larger confrontation. We are not looking for a U.S.-Russia, East-West redux here. What we want is for Russia to work with us, with Ukraine. If they have legitimate concerns, George, about Russian speaking people in Ukraine, there are plenty of ways to deal with that without invading the country. They have the ability to work with the government, they could work with us, they could work with the UN. They could call for observers to be put in the country. There are all kinds of alternatives. But Russia has chosen this aggressive act, which really puts in question Russia’s role in the world and Russia’s willingness to be a modern nation and part of the G8.
Incidentally, the 90-minute phone call between Putin and Obama that Kerry referred to was initiated by the Russian president, who called Obama to explain why Russia was sending troops to the Crimean Peninsula. The Russian government released a statement on the phone call, which reads:
In response to the concern shown by Barack Obama regarding possible plans of the use of Russian armed forces on the territory of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin drew attention to the provocative criminal acts by ultra-nationalist elements, which are in fact encouraged by the current authorities in Kiev.
The Russian President stressed the existence of real threats to the lives and health of Russian citizens and compatriots on Ukrainian territory. Vladimir Putin stressed that in the case of further spread of violence in the eastern regions of Ukraine and Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population.
The White House’s readout of the phone call was quite different. According to an account posted on the White House website,
President Obama expressed his deep concern over Russia’s clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is a breach of international law, including Russia’s obligations under the UN Charter, and of its 1997 military basing agreement with Ukraine, and which is inconsistent with the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the Helsinki Final Act. The United States condemns Russia’s military intervention into Ukrainian territory. …
President Obama made clear that Russia’s continued violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would negatively impact Russia’s standing in the international community. In the coming hours and days, the United States will urgently consult with allies and partners in the UN Security Council, the North Atlantic Council, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and with the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum. The United States will suspend upcoming participation in preparatory meetings for the G-8. Going forward, Russia’s continued violation of international law will lead to greater political and economic isolation.
It is clear from this statement that the United States is committing itself to a confrontational course that intends to rally the world in isolating the Russian government, including perhaps by expelling Russia from the G-8. But as the AP reported on Saturday,
Despite blunt warnings about costs and consequences, President Barack Obama and European leaders have limited options for retaliating against Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, the former Soviet republic now at the center of an emerging conflict between East and West.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far dismissed the few specific threats from the United States, which include scrapping plans for Obama to attend an international summit in Russia this summer and cutting off trade talks sought by Moscow.
“There have been strong words from the U.S. and other counties and NATO,” said Keir Giles, a Russian military analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London. “But these are empty threats. There is really not a great deal that can be done to influence the situation.”
Perhaps what the U.S. hopes is that simply reminding Russia of its “obligations under international law” will somehow lead to changes in Russian policy; that Moscow will just bend to the will of Washington on this issue. The problem is, U.S. pronouncements about international law are largely empty rhetoric, and no one is more aware of this than the Russians.
It was just last summer that the Russian government was admonishing the Obama administration for its drive to war with Syria, largely basing its opposition to a possible U.S. bombing campaign on the grounds of international law.
“The potential strike by the United States against Syria,” Putin wrote in an op-ed published by The New York Times, “despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. … It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”
Putin also chided the U.S.’s over-reliance on military force to settle its disputes, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and the narrowly averted intervention in Syria:
It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”
But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.
With all those military interventions in its recent past – all carried out in violation of the UN Charter – the U.S. is certainly in no position now to lecture Russia on international law, and Moscow knows this.
Then of course, there is also the matter of the U.S.’s drone wars – the ongoing remote-controlled bombing campaigns of countries including Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Just last week, the UN Special Rapporteur on terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, published the second report of his year-long investigation into drone strikes, highlighting dozens of strikes where civilians have been killed.
The report identifies 30 attacks between 2006 and 2013 that show sufficient indications of civilian deaths to demand a “public explanation of the circumstances and the justification for the use of deadly force” under international law.
But somehow the U.S. manages to get a pass when it comes to these unpleasant realities, and is able to maintain a veneer of credibility when it rebukes others for violating international law. At least as far as Russia’s concerned though, these rebukes are not likely to work.