Tag Archive | obama

World moves to ban nuclear weapons as U.S. flouts obligations, moves to revamp arsenal

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Donald Trump as Dr. Strangelove

Governments from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe are pressing for a new legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, and will convene later this month in New York to launch historic negotiations toward this end. Noting that the negotiations are proceeding at an “unprecedented” pace, United Nations Conference President Elayne Whyte Gómez said in February that the rapid progress “reflects the urgency that Member States attach to the need to realize progress in the area of nuclear disarmament.”

While previous efforts to ban nuclear weapons have been considered non-starters due to the refusal of nuclear-armed states to adhere to verification procedures, the new treaty effort avoids such pitfalls by focusing instead on establishing unambiguous international norms that would make these weapons politically untenable.

As the Nuclear Threat Initiative explains it,

The Nuclear Weapons Ban is an initiative to prohibit the use, possession, development, testing, deployment and transfer of nuclear weapons under international law. Unlike prior efforts at comprehensive nuclear disarmament, notably the proposed Nuclear Weapons Convention, a treaty banning nuclear weapons would not include dismantlement and disarmament verification procedures. As such, its proponents argue, the negotiation of a ban treaty does not require the participation of the nuclear weapons possessors.

Advocates of a ban treaty believe that nuclear weapons are incompatible with international law. First, as a consequence of their destructive power and radioactive fallout, nuclear weapons inherently violate several articles of the Geneva Conventions meant to protect the victims of international conflicts. Second, many non-nuclear weapons states and disarmament advocates believe that states possessing nuclear weapons have been unwilling to pursue good-faith negotiations mandated by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

Proponents see the nuclear weapons ban treaty as a measure to close this perceived “legal gap” in international law, and to encourage an international norm against nuclear weapons.

Standing in the way of this goal, of course, is the United States and other nuclear-armed powers. While the nuclear powers either voted against launching these negotiations – or, as in the case of China, abstained – the U.S. opposition carries additional weight because so many countries around the world consider themselves shielded under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. (Australia voted against launching the negotiations on these grounds, for example.)

The United States also has a special responsibility since it is the nation responsible for inventing these heinous weapons and the only country in the world that has ever used them, dropping two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, which killed at least 129,000 people and as many as 250,000.

In voting against the launching of treaty negotiations in October 2016, the U.S. explained its position by asserting that it has been “steadily reduc[ing] the role and number of nuclear weapons in a way that maintains strategic stability and creates the conditions and opportunities for further progress.”

In its usual self-serving manner, the U.S. claimed that it is working diligently toward disarmament “without headlines or fanfare,” and the sort of legally binding instrument as being proposed will complicate those efforts:

[T]he United States does not accept the premise underlying the call to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons found in L.41 and L.24, and while we respect the views of the proponents we disagree with the practicality of their approach and are concerned with the negative effects of seeking to ban nuclear weapons without consideration of the overarching international security environment. We understand and share the disappointment of others with the pace of progress. We must continue to support an approach to reductions which builds upon decades of pragmatic steps to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons. In our view, diverting focus from this proven course in favour a nuclear weapons ban would be both polarizing and would forsake longstanding principles of credible nuclear disarmament, such as verifiability and is not the recipe for success when dealing with nuclear weapons.

What the U.S. fails to acknowledge is that those “decades of pragmatic steps” have woefully failed to achieve what is needed, which is a complete global ban on nuclear weapons, considering that these weapons, in all likelihood, will end up being used somewhere in the world sooner or later – either intentionally or by mistake.

iran-nuclearIt also fails to recognize the fact that the United States and other nuclear powers are already in violation of their international obligations on disarmament, which is a responsibility required by the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is partially out of frustration regarding the U.S. obstinacy and its decades-long shirking of international commitments that so many countries have decided to take steps to ban these weapons unambiguously and comprehensively once and for all.

Indeed, as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference reminded states parties to the treaty in 2010:

The Conference recalls that the overwhelming majority of States entered into legally binding commitments not to receive, manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices in the context, inter alia, of the corresponding legally binding commitments by the nuclear-weapon States to nuclear disarmament in accordance with the Treaty.

The Conference admonished nuclear-armed countries such as the United States for failing to live up to their end of the NPT bargain:

The Conference, while welcoming achievements in bilateral and unilateral reductions by some nuclear-weapon States, notes with concern that the total estimated number of nuclear weapons deployed and stockpiled still amounts to several thousands. The Conference expresses its deep concern at the continued risk for humanity represented by the possibility that these weapons could be used and the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons.

In deciding to launch a new treaty negotiation process, the United Nations General Assembly also alluded to the failures of nuclear powers to live up to obligations under the NPT noting that “additional efforts” may be necessary. Specifically the General Assembly:

Recommend[ed] that additional efforts can and should be pursued to elaborate concrete effective legal measures, legal provisions and norms that will need to be concluded to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons, reaffirms the importance of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the commitments made therein, and considers that the pursuit of any such measures, provisions and norms should complement and strengthen the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime, including the three pillars of the Treaty

Rather than pursuing good-faith efforts toward disarmament as called for by the NPT, the United States has instead engaged in extensive atomic rebuilding and refurbishing of the U.S. nuclear force to the tune of an estimated trillion dollars in the coming decades. The administration of Barack Obama supported disarmament rhetorically, but simultaneously pursued polices to entrench the U.S. as a nuclear-armed power, leading to Boston Globe columnist James Carroll to remark in late 2014,

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.

With Donald Trump in the White House, the situation is even more ominous, as he signals that he will pull out of nuclear weapon reduction treaties such as the New START agreement with Russia, and indicates that the U.S. will pursue absolute nuclear dominance over the world. “If countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack,” said Trump last month, flying in the face of decades of tepid U.S. efforts to pursue modest reductions in nuclear arsenals around the world.

Underlining this point and demonstrating his complete disregard for nuclear stability and international norms, Trump told MSNBC’s Morning Joe “let it be an arms race,” essentially egging on the rest of the world to arm themselves to the teeth with weapons capable of ending all life on earth within minutes. He also tweeted that the U.S. should “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

With these sorts of flippant remarks in mind, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which since 1947 has been periodically raising alarm bells over looming nuclear catastrophe, set its “Doomsday Clock” ahead 30 seconds in January 2017 to “two and a half minutes to midnight”:

For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.  See the full statement from the Science and Security Board on the 2017 time of the Doomsday Clock.

Thankfully, although United States’ intransigence continues to remain an obstacle to progress, responsible global leaders are pushing forward with “actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster,” and it is in this spirit that negotiations will begin on the nuclear weapons ban at UN headquarters in New York from March 27 to 31 and again from June 15 July 7.

hiroshima-never-againAlthough the U.S. remains opposed to this treaty along with 37 other countries that voted against launching negotiations, the overwhelming majority of the world – 123 nations – have expressed support for banning nuclear weapons once and for all. Many countries that voted to launch negotiations explicitly took issue with the U.S. rationale against the treaty, with Iraq, for example, noting that “negotiations [on risk reduction measures] cannot be an alternative to a convention to expressly prohibit nuclear weapons.”

Peru concurred, stating, “It is only through a prohibition on the use and possession of nuclear weapons that we will achieve elimination.” The Philippines pointed out that “while we have treaties banning chemical and biological weapons, we do not have one for the deadliest [weapons] of them all. And so work on a treaty that will ban the possession, use or threat of use, acquisition, development and testing of nuclear weapons is the most ideal and correct action.”

South Africa argued that “A prohibition treaty could be a stand-alone treaty which establishes a norm against nuclear weapons through a non-discriminatory prohibition on possession, use, threat of use, acquisition, stockpiling, deployment, as well as assistance, encouragement or inducement of [these] acts.”

Afghanistan said, simply, “We join all peace-loving people in their call for a global treaty to outlaw and eliminate these instruments of human destruction.”

Civil society will be intimately involved in the negotiations process with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), for example, planning to have a large delegation of campaigners present for both negotiating sessions. “We will urge all governments to work in good faith to achieve the strongest, most effective treaty possible,” says ICAN.

Reaching Critical Will (RCW) will report daily from the ban treaty negotiations, and urges people to subscribe to their First Committee Monitor for regular updates.

More information about campaign activities and expectations for the negotiations can be found at www.nuclearban.org.

Obama’s dismal human rights legacy in focus as Trump takes the helm

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President Barack Obama’s human rights record is under criticism once again as he prepares to step down after eight years leading the United States government. His record has been a major disappointment to many in the human rights community, who now genuinely worry how much worse U.S. policies will become under President Donald J. Trump.

As this blog has documented since 2011, the U.S. government’s human rights record has been dismal under Obama, with troubling policies including his lack of prosecutions of torturers – effectively institutionalizing a system of legal impunity for war crimes – his utter failure to follow through on closing the travesty of justice known as Guantanamo Bay, waging a “war on whistleblowers” and suppressing freedom of information, codifying illegal policies of extrajudicial assassinations, expanding mass surveillance programs in violation of individual privacy, and failing to take effective action to ensure accountability for a nationwide epidemic of police brutality.

In terms of promoting fundamental freedoms abroad, his administration has “treated human rights as a secondary interest – nice to support when the cost was not too high, but nothing like a top priority,” according to Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth.

In a recent article for Foreign Policy, Roth writes:

Obama took office with great promise, announcing on his second day that he would stop CIA torture immediately and close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. By all accounts, the torture did stop. But Obama has steadfastly refused to prosecute those responsible or even to allow the release of much more than the summary of a comprehensive Senate Intelligence Committee report that documented it. As a result, rather than reaffirming the criminality of torture, Obama leaves office sending the lingering message that, should future policymakers resort to it, prosecution is unlikely. Given Trump’s campaign rhetoric about reinstating waterboarding (“or worse”), this is hardly an academic point, even considering the opposition of his nominee for defense secretary.

With respect to surveillance, Roth notes that “Obama seems to have continued and expanded programs begun by George W. Bush that lead to massive invasions of privacy.” When whistleblower Edward Snowden alerted the public to these programs, Obama supported legislation to limit the National Security Agency’s ability to collect phone records in bulk under one program, but “most of the mass privacy violations that Snowden disclosed remain unaddressed,” Roth notes.

When it comes to closing Guantanamo, Roth says the president’s efforts have been halfhearted:

Early in his tenure, he moved slowly, enabling Congress to adopt legislation — which he refused to veto — imposing various obstacles to transferring detainees overseas and barring their transfer to the United States even for trial. Facing political resistance, he reversed early plans to try the accused 9/11 plotters in a federal district court in New York, where their trials would long ago have been completed. Instead, the suspects were placed before Guantánamo’s military commissions — made-from-scratch tribunals replete with procedural problems. Seemingly designed to avoid public revelation of the details of the suspects’ torture, the commissions have made virtually no progress toward actual trials, which will not begin until long after Obama leaves office, if ever.

close-gitmoRoth notes that Obama has slowly reduced the number of prisoners held at Guantanamo by transferring many abroad, but “his insistence on holding some two dozen detainees indefinitely without charge makes it easier for Trump to repopulate Guantánamo, as he has threatened.”

When it comes to Guantanamo, Amnesty International is imploring Obama to do whatever he can in his last days in office to close the legal abomination before Trump – who has threatened to repopulate the prison and reinstate a torture regime – takes over as president on January 20. In an open letter to Obama, Amnesty International USA Executive Director Margaret Huang begs the president, “Don’t Leave Guantánamo to Trump.”

“Dear President Obama,” she writes:

On behalf of Amnesty International’s 1.2 million supporters in the United States, I write to make a final plea that you use all the powers of your office to close the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay. We are gravely concerned that if you fail to do so, President-elect Trump may attempt to bring dozens or even hundreds of people there, to be held in unlawful detention for decades and possibly subjected to torture and other forms of cruel treatment.

Despite your positive actions to date, your legacy will include failing to cure this corruption of our country’s ideals of justice and fairness. You will leave behind Guantánamo as a system of injustice that—having survived for 15 years, two political parties and four presidential terms of office—may remain open for the foreseeable future.

Our concern is heightened by the sharp rise in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric during the election. Proposals for large-scale detention without charge, which once seemed inconceivable, are now on the table as options your successor may pursue. Guantánamo, with its shameful tradition of secrecy and insularity from legal process, would be all too convenient a location for mass imprisonment without charge, returning the United States to one of its grimmest chapters.

“It is past time to shut down the detention facility at Guantánamo,” you said recently at MacDill Air Base, and not for the first time. You emphasized that Congress would be “judged harshly by history” due to restrictions it placed on your ability to transfer detainees. However, despite your concerted efforts, it is your presidency that will be judged harshly — by history, the international community and human rights supporters across the United States and the rest of the world — if you fail to take all possible measures to transfer those remaining out of Guantánamo.

Your actions now will impact this country’s decisions on detention without charge, torture and human rights for decades to come by informing the way young people understand the injustice of Guantánamo. People under the age of 25 have spent all or much of their lives with Guantánamo open. Most are too young to remember the photos of torture at Abu Ghraib, or of men at Camp X-Ray kneeling next to their cages. They do not know the collective shock and moral outrage that millions of Americans felt then, which led political figures from Colin Powell to John McCain to call for the closure of Guantánamo. Through your actions now, you can ensure new generations learn this history—and do not repeat it.

We also urge your administration, in closing Guantánamo, to abandon the military commissions. These ill-conceived tribunals simultaneously fail to respect human rights principles or achieve justice. To be sure, anyone responsible for the crimes against humanity committed on September 11, 2001 should be brought to justice in fair trials. Guantánamo and the military commissions have not—and cannot—provide that justice. The 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks recently passed, and those who lost loved ones in the attacks have a right to see justice in their lifetime. However, not only do the military commission trials seem unlikely to begin—much less conclude—for years to come, when they do take place they will fail to meet international fair trial standards.

You began your presidency with an executive order to end the Guantánamo detentions and to close the detention camp there. We urge you to end it with bold action to realize your promise.

gitmo-solThe human rights group urges supporters to send messages to Obama urging him to close this travesty of justice once and for all, and to prioritize other human rights matters in the waning days of his presidency.

It is not clear, however, how much stock Obama places in the concerns of the human rights community. He spoke rather dismissively of “activist organizations” in a recent interview with The Atlantic, in which he defended his drone assassination program, which has killed hundreds of innocent people including U.S. citizens.

“I think right now we probably have the balance about right,” he told The Atlantic, referring to the ratio of killed terrorists and innocent civilians. “Now, you wouldn’t know that if you talked to Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or some of the international activist organizations.”

He further asserted that “the internal reforms we put in place had less to do with what the left or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or other organizations were saying and had more to do with me looking at sort of the way in which the number of drone strikes was going up and the routineness with which, early in my presidency, you were seeing both DOD and CIA and our intelligence teams think about this.”

obamadroneIt troubled him, he said, because the drone strikes could enable “a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate.” Of course, this is exactly what Obama has done, as has been repeatedly pointed out.

As Naureen Shah of Amnesty International told The Intercept last year, “What’s so interesting is that President Obama acknowledges this problem – that future presidents will be empowered to kill globally, and in secret. What he doesn’t acknowledge is how much of a role his administration had in making that a bizarre normal.”

Another legacy that Obama is leaving behind is torture impunity, which he has instituted by failing to launch prosecutions of gross human rights violations during the Bush administration. By shielding torturers from criminal justice, Obama has done more than any other president in history in establishing torture as little more than a “policy option” for presidents to utilize or not depending on the political whims of the day.

To prevent torture from being reinstituted by the incoming Trump administration, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture is calling on Obama to release in full the Senate’s torture report and force “appropriate officials” to read it in order to ensure that they “learn from the past.” Although White House Counsel Neil Eggleston recently announced that Obama will archive one copy of the torture report, it will remain classified for at least 12 years. “At this time, we are not pursuing declassification of the full Study,” he wrote recently in a letter to Sen. Feinstein.

In an action alert, the online advocacy group Roots Action is urging supporters to sign a petition to President Obama urging him to release the full report.

Obama is also being urged by a range of organizations to free the U.S. government’s political prisoners, including Chelsea Manning, Jeffrey Sterling and Leonard Peltier. For more on those cases, click here.

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U.S. struggles to provide answers on Kunduz attack

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

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

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

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

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

And, by the way, who ordered the attack?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

thanks but no thanks msf

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

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

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

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

cartoon msf bombing

Pressure mounts against U.S. torture impunity

aclu accountability for torture

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.”

Human Rights Watch welcomed the U.S. statement, which improved on previous U.S. positions, but noted that the U.S. is still falling short of meeting its international obligations.

“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.

U.S. hand in Ukraine turmoil leaves policymakers in an awkward position

 Interior Ministry members are on fire, caused by molotov cocktails hurled by anti-government protesters, as they stand guard during clashes in Kiev February 18, 2014.REUTERS/Andrew Kravchenko/Pool

Interior Ministry members are on fire, caused by molotov cocktails hurled by anti-government protesters, as they stand guard during clashes in Kiev February 18, 2014.REUTERS/Andrew Kravchenko/Pool

Events are unfolding rapidly in the deeply divided nation of Ukraine, leaving the U.S. in the awkward position of having to deal with a worsening crisis that has largely been precipitated by its own actions and policy pronouncements over the past several months. According to some accounts, the U.S. government is now a bit unsure how to respond to the situation.

This weekend, the Ukrainian parliament voted President Viktor Yanukovych out of office hours after he fled the capital, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison, and the parliament handed presidential powers to speaker Oleksandr Turchinov, a top Tymoshenko ally.

President Yanukovych denounced the toppling of his government as a coup d’etat, while others hailed it as a revolution. Either way, the potential ramifications are severe, including a possible civil or even regional war.

Sporadic violence has already reportedly broken out in Russian-speaking Crimea and some eastern cities between supporters of the new, pro-EU order in Kyiv and those who prefer maintaining close relations with Moscow. The scuffles have revived fears of separatist movements that could tear the country apart, presenting U.S. policymakers with difficult prospects going forward.

“Western leaders, while welcoming the unexpected turn of events in Kiev, are worried about the country fracturing into a pro-Russian and pro-western conflict,” The Guardian reported Sunday.

As the LA Times put it, “The challenges that could soon face the White House include a Yugoslavia-style civil war, an expensive economic bailout and further damage to its strained but crucial relationship with Moscow.”

Incidentally, these problematic outcomes are precisely what Moscow has been warning of for the past three months, as violent demonstrations have rocked Ukraine following Yanukovych’s decision in November to forgo an association agreement with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia.

A statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry last week reminded Secretary of State John Kerry that President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly urged President Barack Obama to “use every opportunity to stop the illegal actions of radicals and return the situation to constitutional channels.”

Instead, the Obama administration has placed the entire onus for the ongoing violence on the Ukrainian authorities, tacitly absolving opposition fighters for any role they may have had in escalating tensions with police. At a Feb. 19 press conference in Mexico, Obama said,

We continue to stress to President Yanukovych and the Ukrainian government that they have the primary responsibility to prevent the kind of terrible violence that we’ve seen, to withdraw riot police, to work with the opposition to restore security and human dignity, and move the country forward. And this includes progress towards a multi-party, technical government that can work with the international community on a support package and adopt reforms necessary for free and fair elections next year. Ukrainians are a proud and resilient people who have overcome extraordinary challenges in their history, and that’s a pride and strength that I hope they draw on now.

Obama’s remarks echoed sentiments that U.S. officials have consistently expressed since the earliest days of the anti-Yanukovych uprising in Kyiv, clearly indicating bipartisan American support for the demonstrators – from the White House, State Department and Congress. In mid-December, U.S. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) – both members of the Foreign Relations Committee – even traveled to Ukraine to meet with opposition leaders, and addressed a crowd of demonstrators in Kyiv.

“We are here,” said McCain at a massive rally, “to support your just cause: the sovereign right to determine [Ukraine’s] own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe.”

Murphy added, “Ukraine’s future stands with Europe, and the U.S. stands with Ukraine.”

On Jan. 7, the Senate adopted a resolution that expressed support for “the sovereign right of the people of Ukraine to chart an independent and democratic future for their country” and “condemn[ed] the decision by Ukrainian authorities to use violence against peaceful demonstrators and call[ed] for those responsible to be brought to justice.”

U.S. policy remained unchanged even as information emerged about the deep influence of far-right ultranationalist extremists leading the anti-Yanukovych protests. Spearheading clashes with police has been Right Sector, a group with ties to far-right parties including the Patriots of Ukraine and Trident, which BBC Ukraine reported is largely comprised of nationalist football fans. The far-right parliamentary party Svoboda is also in the coalition of three opposition parties leading the protests, the Nation reported.

Despite one of the early outbreaks of violence in the Kyiv demonstrations being clearly instigated by protesters who tried to break through police lines with an earth excavating vehicle on Dec. 1, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 15 that the demonstrators in Ukraine have been overwhelmingly nonviolent and have provided inspiration to the whole world.

“The whole world has watched the peaceful protest of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians on the Maidan in Kyiv and tens of thousands in other cities across Ukraine.” While she expressed some condemnation for “the actions of rioters outside a Kyiv court building on January 10,” the bulk of her outrage was reserved for the Ukrainian government.

“The use of violence and acts of repression carried out by government security forces and their surrogates have compelled us to make clear publicly and privately to the government of Ukraine that we will consider a broad range of tools at our disposal if those in positions of authority in Ukraine employ or encourage violence against their own citizens,” she said.

Privately, Nuland was working to manipulate events in Ukraine to the United States’ liking. In a conversation with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt that was surreptitiously recorded and leaked on YouTube, Nuland clearly had preferences for who she would like to take over the government once the U.S. policy goal of deposing Yanukovych had been realized.

“I don’t think Klitsch [opposition leader Vitali Klitschko] should go into the government,” she told Pyatt. “I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

She expressed her preference instead for Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a Ukrainian economist and lawyer. “I think—I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience,” she said. “He’s the guy—you know, what he needs is Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside.”

Nuland also argued for sidelining the European Union in resolving the crisis, saying rather undiplomatically, “Fuck the EU.”

Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University, explained the significance of what Nuland was saying in an appearance on Democracy Now last week.

“The highest-ranking State Department official, who presumably represents the Obama administration, and the American ambassador in Kiev are, to put it in blunt terms, plotting a coup d’état against the elected president of Ukraine,” Cohen said. “They’re not talking about democracy now; they’re talking about a coup now.”

After a new escalation of violence on a Jan. 19, the White House said in a statement that the blame for the bloodshed laid squarely with the Ukrainian authorities – despite the fact that the Ukrainian interior ministry reported 60 policemen injured in the day’s melee, while newswires reported 40 or so protesters hurt.

“The increasing tension in Ukraine is a direct consequence of the government failing to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of its people,” the White House said. “Instead, it has moved to weaken the foundations of Ukraine’s democracy by criminalizing peaceful protest and stripping civil society and political opponents of key democratic protections under the law.”

The White House statement issued this weekend was more nuanced than some of its earlier pronouncements, but nevertheless contained unmistakable veiled messages about flawed U.S. assumptions regarding the elected Yanukovych government and the U.S. desire for regime change in Ukraine:

We have consistently advocated a de-escalation of violence, constitutional change, a coalition government, and early elections, and today’s developments could move us closer to that goal.  The unshakeable principle guiding events must be that the people of Ukraine determine their own future.  We welcome constructive work in the Rada and continue to urge the prompt formation of a broad, technocratic government of national unity.  We welcome former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s release from a prison hospital today, and we wish her a speedy recovery as she seeks the appropriate medical treatment that she has long needed and sought.

We continue to urge an end to violence by all sides and a focus on peaceful, democratic dialogue, working pursuant to Ukraine’s constitution and through its institutions of government.  Going forward, we will work with our allies, with Russia, and with appropriate European and international organizations to support a strong, prosperous, unified, and democratic Ukraine. Going forward, the Ukrainian people should know that the United States deeply values our long-standing ties with Ukraine and will support them as they pursue a path of democracy and economic development.

The statement is “deliberately cautious and even-handed,” said Andrew S. Weiss, vice president for studies at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There’s too much uncertainty, about Yanukovych’s situation, about the Russian reaction, to take anything for granted.… We don’t know where the power lies.”

U.S. government proxies, however, such as the State Department-funded advocacy group Freedom House, have been much more outspoken in their reactions to recent events, with clearly drawn lines separating the “good guys” in Ukraine from the “bad guys.”

“The citizens of Ukraine are fighting a gruesome battle for their rights, standing up to armed riot police and a corrupt regime,” said Freedom House last Thursday. “The peaceful protest that followed President Viktor Yanukovich going back on his promise to sign an association agreement with the European Union has since deteriorated into deadly clashes between thousands of Ukrainian citizens and law enforcement officials.”

What Freedom House – and its principle sponsor, the U.S. government – fail to acknowledge is that despite this rosey picture of righteous freedom fighters standing up against tyrannical and corrupt forces, the reality is of course far more complicated. Despite his flaws, Yanukovych was legitimately elected in 2010, in an election that the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said “met most OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections and consolidated progress achieved since 2004.”

“The process was transparent and offered voters a genuine choice between candidates representing diverse political views,” said the OSCE.

Now that the Yanukovych government has been toppled, it is far from clear what precisely will come to replace it, but some analysts think that extreme far-right parties such as Svoboda may come out on top. Then of course, there is the question of whether the country will continue to be torn apart along regional and ideological lines.

Regardless of the outcome, the question should be asked, what exactly gives the U.S. the right to interfere in the internal affairs of a country like Ukraine? Even if Ukrainian security forces overreacted to the Euromaidan protests early on, does the U.S. somehow have legitimacy or moral authority on these matters?

It should be remembered that when American citizens angered by income inequality and corruption took to the streets and occupied downtown parks in U.S. cities in 2011 as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, they were treated in a similar fashion by U.S. police. Interestingly, though, President Obama didn’t use his bully pulpit at the time to tell American cops to stand down, instead remaining silent as police used brute force to quell the demonstrations across the country.

Monsanto, the FDA and the Convention against Corruption

The nexus between Monsanto and the federal government

An online campaign to remove Michael Taylor, a former executive and lobbyist for agribusiness giant Monsanto, as senior advisor at the Food and Drug Administration, is exceeding all expectations. With an original goal of 75,000, the petition as of today has over 220,000 signatures.

“President Obama,” the petition reads,

I oppose your appointment of Michael Taylor, a former VP and lobbyist for Monsanto, the widely criticized genetically modified (GM) food multinational, as senior advisor to the commissioner at the FDA. Taylor is the same person who as a high-ranking official at the FDA in the 1990s promoted allowing genetically modified organisms into the U.S. food supply without undergoing a single test to determine their safety or risks. This is a travesty.

Michael Taylor exemplifies the revolving door between the food industry and the government agencies that regulate it, and more generally between private industry and public policy-makers. An attorney for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1970s, and then in the 80s, a private lawyer at the D.C. law firm King & Spalding, where he represented Monsanto, Taylor returned to government as Deputy Commissioner for Policy for the FDA from 1991 to 1994. He then went back to private industry as Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto from 1998 until 2001.

Before President Obama appointed him to the FDA in 2010, Taylor was a Senior Fellow at the think tank Resources for the Future, where he published two documents on U.S. aid for African agriculture, both of which were funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

As the documentary “The World According to Monsanto” makes clear, the conflicts of interest inherent in the revolving door between agribusiness and regulatory agencies produces notoriously bad policy, such as the approval of bovine growth hormone in the food supply without proper testing.

“Taylor was in charge of policy for Monsanto’s now-discredited GM bovine growth hormone (rBGH),” the online petition points out, “which is opposed by many medical and hospital organizations. It was Michael Taylor who pursued a policy that milk from rBGH-treated cows should not be labeled with disclosures. Michael Taylor and Monsanto do not belong in our government.”

Because of the potentially disastrous effects of the revolving door on public policy, the practice is banned under international law.

As a state party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the United States has agreed to taking measures to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption in both the public and private sphere.

In particular,

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.

Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials. …

Preventing conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.

Not surprisingly, rather than using his position of power in the FDA to provide stringent oversight over Monsanto’s business practices, Taylor is instead going after the agribusiness giant’s competitors, namely small dairy farms that produce fresh milk.

As CREDO points out,

While factory farm operators are getting away with serious food safety violations, raw milk dairy farmers and distributors across the country have been subjected to armed raids and hauled away in handcuffs.

The Food and Drug Administration is running sting operations followed by “guns-drawn raids usually reserved for terrorists and drug lords” as part of a crackdown on unpasteurized milk. Meanwhile, the FDA is letting the highly consolidated industrial meat and factory farm industry off the hook despite growing problems. …

Whether or not you think unpasteurized milk is a good idea, it’s clear that the FDA under Michael Taylor has its priorities wrong. When industrial agribusiness sickens thousands of people, it’s absurd for the FDA to target Amish farmers producing fresh milk, much less to engage in “guns drawn” enforcement raids.

To add your name to the petition to fire Michael Taylor, click here.

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