Tag Archive | torture

Trump presidency shaping up to be a disaster for international norms

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A little more than two weeks into the presidency of Donald J. Trump, it is clear that his administration is shaping up to be one of the most hostile to international norms in recent memory. While George W. Bush once dismissed a reporter’s question about whether his Iraq policies conformed with international law by joking, “International law? I better call my lawyer,” Trump’s attitude toward rule of law principles was summed up by a tweet today disparaging a “so-called judge” who put a nationwide hold on the implementation of his travel ban on nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries.

“The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!” Trump tweeted.

The travel ban has sparked a national and international outcry, with demonstrations taking place at airports across the country and numerous world leaders weighing in on Trump’s controversial executive order to halt entries into the United States by citizens of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

“Discrimination on nationality alone is forbidden under human rights law,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad Al Hussein. “The U.S. ban is also mean-spirited, and wastes resources needed for proper counter-terrorism.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed regret over the U.S. government’s entry ban and explained the U.S.’s international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention in a phone call with Trump, Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

“The Refugee Convention requires the international community to take in war refugees on humanitarian grounds. All signatory states are obligated to do. The German government explained this policy in their call yesterday,” Seibert said.

The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s human rights and humanitarian committee chair Ignacio Sanchez Amor expressed concerns that the ban on refugees represents a major step backward in the international community’s efforts to develop a cohesive response to the refugee and migrant crisis, and noted that on humanitarian grounds the United States cannot send refugees back to countries where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.

“This is the core principle of non-refoulement that is at the heart of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and is now a widely accepted norm,” he said.

Sanchez Amor also pointed out that the travel ban is contrary to the spirit of the OSCE’s founding document, which the United States signed along with 34 other countries of North America, Europe and Eurasia in 1975.

“To the extent that this travel ban may affect those with dual nationalities or residents of OSCE countries, I note that it may contravene the 1975 Helsinki Final Act’s stipulation that signatories should ease regulations concerning movement of citizens within the OSCE area,” he said.

In this document, the United States agreed:

to facilitate wider travel by their citizens for personal or professional reasons and to this end they intend in particular:

– gradually to simplify and to administer flexibly the procedures for exit and entry;

– to ease regulations concerning movement of citizens from the other participating States in their territory, with due regard to security requirements.

In addition to whipping up a frenzy of international condemnation over the travel ban, the Trump administration is also drawing fire for his nominations to lead the nation’s intelligence services. Yet, despite serious concerns about Trump’s pick to lead the CIA, Mike Pompeo, for his pro-torture statements and lax attitude about the use of mass surveillance, the U.S. Senate confirmed him on Jan. 23 by a vote of 66-32.

“Pompeo’s responses to questions about torture and mass surveillance are dangerously ambiguous about whether he would endorse abusive practices and seek to subvert existing legal protections,” said Human Rights Watch’s Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno. “Pompeo’s failure to unequivocally disavow torture and mass surveillance, coupled with his record of advocacy for surveillance of Americans and past endorsement of the shuttered CIA torture program, make clear that he should not be running the CIA.”

Democratic Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said Pompeo was the “wrong man for the job.”

“He has endorsed extreme policies that would fundamentally erode liberties and freedoms of our people without making us safer,” Wyden said. He said Pompeo’s answers to questions from some senators have been “vague” and “contradictory,” making it impossible to know what Pompeo believes.

Nevertheless, his nomination sailed through the Senate, likely paving the way for a return to torture as U.S. policy, as President Trump has promised to do on numerous occasions. The president recently even defended torture on national television, stating unequivocally that it “works.”

Shortly following Pompeo’s confirmation, his deputy director at the CIA was named as Gina Haspel, who, according to the New York Times “played a direct role in the CIA’s ‘extraordinary rendition program,’ under which captured militants were handed to foreign governments and held at secret facilities, where they were tortured by agency personnel.”

She also ran the CIA’s first black site prison in Thailand and oversaw the brutal interrogations of two detainees, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

In addition, she played a vital role in the destruction of interrogation videotapes that showed the torture of detainees both at the black site she ran and other secret agency locations. As The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald explains:

The concealment of those interrogation tapes, which violated both multiple court orders as well the demands of the 9/11 Commission and the advice of White House lawyers, was condemned as “obstruction” by Commission Chairs Lee Hamilton and Thomas Keane. A special prosecutor and Grand Jury investigated those actions but ultimately chose not to prosecute.

As if these developments were not bad enough, it also looks as if Trump is going to continue the reckless drone assassination program that was developed by his predecessor, Barack Obama. In one of his first military actions as president, Trump ordered an attack on a village in Yemen on Jan. 29 that killed as many as 23 civilians, including a newborn baby and an eight-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki.

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Nawar al-Awlaki, eight-year-old girl killed by U.S. drone on Jan. 29, 2017

Nawar was the daughter of the al-Qaida propagandist and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a September 2011 US drone strike in Yemen. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman was killed in a second drone strike soon afterwards.

Following the tragic killing of this young girl, The Guardian pointed out that Trump has previously endorsed killing relatives of terrorist suspects, which is a war crime. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” he told Fox News in December 2015.

The human rights organization Reprieve pointed out:

Secret US strikes, in countries where the US is not at war, are widely considered to violate international law. Previous research by Reprieve has found that, in attempts to kill 41 named individuals in Yemen and Pakistan, US strikes killed some 1,147 unknown men, women and children.

It looks as though this is one policy area that we should expect some continuity between Obama and Trump. It also looks as if Trump will be moving rapidly to reinstate the torture regime that was halted by Obama in 2009. It should be noted, however, that the use of torture – although illegal – was never prosecuted by the Obama administration, and this lack of law enforcement ensured that it would remain a “policy option” for a fascist president like Donald Trump to pull off the shelf.

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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‘Rogue country’: International community reacts to U.S. election, frets over Trump presidency

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The international community was prepared to criticize the United States last week – regardless of who prevailed in the election – for its arcane, highly decentralized and deeply flawed electoral system. Now, with Donald J. Trump poised to become the 45th president, there are myriad other reasons to criticize the U.S. as well.

Two international organizations deployed election observation missions to the United States to monitor the vote, and while their final reports varied considerably, both the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe highlighted numerous deficiencies in the way the United States chooses its leaders.

Although generally positive in its tone, the OAS final report identified the following issues as representing key areas for improvement in the U.S. electoral system:

  • Taking measures to avoid the excessive concentration of voters and long lines in the voting centers.
  • Broaden the cooperation between states to compare information and avoid possible duplications in voter registries.
  • Expand the practice of designing electoral districts through independent, non-partisan commissions.
  • Analyze the impact of the decision of the Supreme Court to eliminate parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • Establish better and stricter rules to govern PACs and super PACs.
  • Leave behind the polarizing and divisive campaign rhetoric and promote a civil dialogue between opposing visions.

The OAS also noted the unusual practice in the United States of simultaneously requiring voter identification while not providing this required identification.

“Practically all countries in the region provide at least one free form of national identification to their citizens, which is used for electoral purposes,” said the OAS, which represents 35 independent countries of the Western hemisphere. “In the U.S., 32 states currently have laws in force that require voters to show some form of prescribed identification to verify their identity before casting a vote.”

However, these states do not make this identification readily available to citizens, contrary to good practice.

This is also a weakness that the OSCE pointed out in its report, noting:

Voter identification rules are politically divisive and vary across the states, with 32 states requiring photo identification. A high volume of litigation regarding voter identification continued up to election day, generating confusion among voters and election officials regarding the application of rules. Efforts to ensure the integrity of the vote are important, but should not lead to the disenfranchisement of eligible voters.

As the OSCE also pointed out: “Recent legal changes and decisions on technical aspects of the electoral process were often motivated by partisan interests, adding undue obstacles for voters. Suffrage rights are not guaranteed for all citizens, leaving sections of the population without the right to vote.”

The 57-member state organization also noted the undue obstacles faced by minor parties and independents trying to compete in U.S. elections.

“The number of signatures required and the signature submission deadlines vary from state to state, which made it cumbersome for third party or independent candidates to register across all states for presidential elections,” the OSCE pointed out. “Both the Green Party and Libertarian Party challenged ballot access requirements in several states, with success in a few instances.”

Campaign financing’s lack of transparency and ineffective enforcement of campaign finance laws was also noted:

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) oversees a campaign finance regime that imposes few actual limits on donations and does not limit expenditure. All financial reports are published expeditiously, but transparency is diminished by the absence of disclosure for some types of non-profit organizations that play an important role in the campaign. Partisan decision making has limited the FEC’s ability to reach decisions on key campaign finance issues.

The election-rigging process known as gerrymandering was also highlighted as a problem, with the OSCE pointing to “longstanding concerns that redistricting is a largely partisan process, which has led to a number of uncompetitive contests.” The election watchdog noted that 28 candidates for the House ran unopposed in these elections.

The undemocratic nature of the U.S.’s indirect elections – enabled by the controversial Electoral College system – was also alluded to, with the OSCE noting that “the system allows for a candidate to win the popular vote nationwide while falling short of the majority of Electoral College votes.”

This is precisely what appears to have taken place in Election 2016, with Donald Trump assuming the presidency despite his opponent Hillary Clinton receiving some 800,000 more votes nationwide than Trump. It is the second time this century that the popular vote loser has prevailed in the Electoral College and will move into the White House despite a plurality of voters preferring someone else.

Beyond the electoral system itself, international leaders are now raising concerns about the specter of a Trump presidency and what it will mean for the global system of alliances, international agreements, trade regimes, and international law. In particular, with Trump having repeatedly threatened to pull the U.S. out of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, global figures such as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stressed the importance of continued U.S. engagement in multilateral diplomacy.

The day after the election, the UN chief noted that today’s global challenges demand concerted global action and joint solutions.

“As a founding member of the United Nations and permanent member of the Security Council, the United States is an essential actor across the international agenda,” Ban said. “The United Nations will count on the new Administration to strengthen the bonds of international cooperation as we strive together to uphold shared ideals, combat climate change, advance human rights, promote mutual understanding and implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve lives of peace, prosperity and dignity for all.”

Mary Robinson, a former Irish president and UN human rights chief, warned that the United States would become “a kind of rogue country” if it pulls out of the Paris Agreement, leaving the world more vulnerable to droughts, hurricanes, rising sea levels, high temperatures and other climate extremes.

“It would be a tragedy for the United States and the people of the United States if the U.S. becomes a kind of rogue country, the only country in the world that is somehow not going to go ahead with the Paris Agreement,” Robinson said.

Trump has promised to pull the United States out of that global climate accord, which was agreed last year by 193 countries and which went into effect earlier this month. If he follows through on this campaign pledge, European leaders may  call for a carbon tax on American imports.

“Donald Trump has said – we’ll see if he keeps this promise – that he won’t respect the conclusions of the Paris climate agreement,” said French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy on November 13.

“Well, I will demand that Europe put in place a carbon tax at its border, a tax of 1-3%, for all products coming from the United States, if the United States doesn’t apply environmental rules that we are imposing on our companies,” he added.

Another area of concern to U.S. allies is what Trump’s victory means for the NATO military alliance. In an interview with the New York Times last July, Trump indicated that he would make U.S. military commitments to the NATO alliance – predicated on principles of collective defense – conditional upon other countries’ financial contributions to the alliance.

European Union leaders held an emergency meeting in Brussels Sunday night, dealing in part with this question and also exploring issues such as possible U.S. policy changes towards Russia and Iran.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said after Sunday’s dinner that “values, principles, interests” will continue to form the basis of the alliance with the United States, and said that Europe is “looking forward to a very strong partnership with the next administration.”

“We would like to know what intentions he has regarding the [NATO] alliance. We must know what climate policies he intends to pursue. This must be cleared up in the next few months,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Others are raising concerns that Trump will follow through on campaign promises to reinstate the Bush administration’s torture regime, an illegal policy that was halted – but not punished – by the Obama administration.

Despite Obama’s touted “reaffirmation” of the ban on torture, “Trump easily could rescind Obama’s orders and direct the CIA to capture and humanely interrogate terror suspects in secret overseas, something many Republicans have urged,” noted Ken Dilanian at NBC News. “Trump also has some wiggle room via executive order on what constitutes torture, despite the change in the law.”

As Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, pointed out in a blog post on Monday,

Trump has said that not only does he “like” waterboarding, he doesn’t think it goes far enough.

Apparently, it bears repeating: Waterboarding is torture. And it is therefore a gross violation of human rights law. Waterboarding was banned by the military in the 2006 Army Field Manual. President Obama extended the ban to the CIA with an executive order in 2009.

Torture of any kind does not make anyone safer as information gathered under such circumstances is highly suspect. It undermines the standing of any country that seeks to influence others when it comes to human rights.

The United States’ history of using torture against prisoners is deeply shameful. It must remain in the past.

Other possible Trump policies that she highlighted as problematic from a human rights perspective include: closing the door on refugees, banning Muslims from entering the US, building a wall between the United States and Mexico, restrictions on reproductive freedom, and allowing more guns on U.S. streets.

Others have raised concerns that the permissive body of “secret law” that has purportedly guided the U.S. drone assassination policy under President Obama will be carried over into the Trump administration. This is especially worrisome because Trump has already made clear his intentions to target not just suspected terrorists but also their families in what would be a clear-cut war crime against non-combatants.

As Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, writes today in the Guardian:

Now the lethal bureaucracy whose growth Obama personally oversaw will be turned over to a new administration. The powers Obama claimed will be wielded by another president. Perhaps as significant is the jarring fact that the practice of targeted killing – assassination, as it would once have been called, without a second thought – no longer seems remarkable, and the fact that the United States now boasts a legal and bureaucratic infrastructure to sustain this practice. Eight years ago the targeted-killing campaign required a legal and bureaucratic infrastructure, but now that infrastructure will demand a targeted-killing campaign. The question the next president will ask is not whether the powers Obama claimed should be exploited, but where, and against whom.

Those who oppose these policies – whether on the grassroots level, within the U.S. government, or in the international community – should act now to ensure that Trump feels the pressure from day one before he launches an international crisis with brash and ill-conceived initiatives such as pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, reinstating torture or expanding Obama’s illegal assassination program.

A good place to start would be protesting the planned inauguration ceremonies on January 20, 2017. A number of groups are already organizing to do just that. See these websites for more information:

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Would any of the U.S. presidential candidates not commit war crimes?

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If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged. – Noam Chomsky, 1990

In recent days, numerous commentators have criticized irresponsible discourse within the GOP presidential field over whether to reinstate torture and implement other war crimes – such as carpet bombing – as official U.S. policy. The 2008 Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain, even felt compelled to weigh in this week by calling out the “loose talk” in the Republican race.

McCain took the Senate floor Tuesday to condemn remarks by his Republican colleagues regarding the use of torture, stating that “these statements must not go unanswered because they mislead the American people about the realities of interrogation, how to gather intelligence, what it takes to defend our security and at the most fundamental level, what we are fighting for as a nation and what kind of nation we are.”

john mccain gop torture quoteIndeed, with presidential frontrunner Donald Trump calling his chief rival Ted Cruz a “pussy” for hinting that he might show some degree of restraint in the use of torture, it’s clear that on the Republican side, the discussion has gone off the rails. This has led respected human rights groups to remind the U.S. of its moral and legal obligations not to engage in sadistic and cruel practices such as waterboarding.

“Waterboarding meets the legal definition of torture, and is therefore illegal,” recalled Human Rights First’s Raha Walla. “Torture under U.S. and international law means acts that cause severe mental or physical pain or suffering. There’s no question that waterboarding meets that definition.”

Amnesty International’s Naureen Shah also issued a rebuttal to the debate over waterboarding, which she described as “slow-motion suffocation.” She pointed out the obvious that “the atrocities of the armed group calling itself Islamic State and other armed groups don’t make waterboarding okay.” This was in response to statements by Trump and others that since Islamic State terrorists chop off people’s heads, the U.S. is right to respond with its own forms of brutality.

(“Do we win by being more like [the Islamic State]?” George Stephanopoulos asked Trump last Sunday. “Yes,” Trump responded. “I’m sorry. You have to do it that way.”)

Writing in The Guardian Wednesday, human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith observed:

There was once a consensus that torture was immoral; even today, any sensible person knows torture is of little use if you want accurate information. Yet the current crop of Republican presidential candidates have been trying to outbid one another with promises of barbarism: Senator Ted Cruz confirmed that he favours simulated drowning, which he classifies as an “enhanced interrogation technique” (EIT) that falls short of torture. (The Spanish Inquisition was rather more honest, and called it tortura del agua.) “The Donald” immediately trumped his rival: he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”.

In a similar vein, The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain and Dan Froomkin noted on Tuesday that the GOP is apparently competing over which candidate would commit the worst war crimes, including but not limited to torture and encompassing other atrocities such as carpet bombing. As the journalists pointed out:

In recent months, one candidate or another has promised to waterboard, do a “helluva lot worse than waterboarding,” repopulate Guantánamo, engage in wars of aggressionkill families of suspected terrorists, and “carpet bomb” Middle Eastern countries until we find out if “sand can glow in the dark.”

The over-the-top bombast plays well in front of self-selected Republican audiences — the crowd responded to the description of Cruz Monday night with full-throated chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” But such promises of future criminality from potential presidential nominees have outraged many legal experts.

While it is clearly troubling that the leading contenders for the Republican nomination are so eagerly trying to outdo each other on who would be the worst war criminal, what is perhaps equally troubling is that candidates on the Democratic side also seem committed to policies that could in fact qualify as war crimes.

It should be recalled that while the Republicans are speaking about hypothetical war crimes that they would like to commit if elected, there is a leading Democratic candidate who is already guilty of war crimes committed under her watch.

As Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a major proponent of armed intervention and regime change in Libya, which – despite occasional claims to the contrary – was in no way authorized by the UN Security Council, making it a breach of the UN Charter.

When the Libyan civil war began in mid-February 2011, Clinton stated unequivocally that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi “must go now, without further violence or delay.”

Despite Arab countries’ reservations about regime change, Clinton helped convince Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan that a simple no-fly zone would be insufficient and argued that aerial bombing would also be necessary. Clinton then persuaded Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that his country should abstain on the UN resolution authorizing force against Gaddafi, and she was instrumental in getting the rest of the Security Council members to approve Resolution 1973, which established a “no-fly zone.”

With this resolution secured, the U.S. promptly decided to overstep its authority, “interpreting” the authorization as carte blanche to implement a policy of regime change.

The Arab League, which had tentatively lent support to Resolution 1973, promptly objected to the bombing campaign. “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians,” said Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa on March 20, 2011.

Despite the narrow limitations placed on the U.S. and NATO forces by the Security Council to enforce a no-fly zone in order to protect civilians, the Western powers soon made it clear that their objective was not simply to protect civilians, but to aid the rebels in the their efforts to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.

This initial breach of international law was then compounded by subsequent war crimes, as documented by Amnesty International in the war’s aftermath.

“Scores of Libyan civilians who were not involved in the fighting were killed and many more injured, most in their homes, as a result of NATO airstrikes” in the bombing campaign to depose Gaddafi, Amnesty noted. “Regrettably,” continued Amnesty, “NATO has yet to address these incidents appropriately, including by establishing contact and providing information to the victims and their relatives about any investigation which might have been initiated.”

The war also led to an exacerbation of the security crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, fueling the civil war in nearby Syria and facilitating the rise of the Islamic State, as well as directly contributing to the refugee and migrant crisis that began to destabilize Europe.

Besides that disastrous foreign policy blunder, Clinton was also a primary supporter of the 21st century’s first major war of aggression, the 2003 unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq.

For years, Clinton was a vocal supporter of this war despite its numerous documented atrocities, defending her 2002 vote as senator to authorize the invasion as necessary to counter Saddam Hussein’s alleged (but ultimately nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction program. It wasn’t until last year – 13 years after the U.S. invasion – that she finally acknowledged that her support for that war had been a “mistake.”

The other Democratic presidential contender, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, has been much more consistent in his opposition to both the Iraq war and the Libya intervention, but unfortunately has embraced other policies with questionable status under international law. He has said, for example, that as president, he would be willing to use drone strikes as liberally as President Obama has, despite serious questions about this policy’s legality.

In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press last October, host Chuck Todd asked Sanders if drones or special forces would play a role in his counter-terror plans.

“All of that and more,” Sanders said. “Look, a drone is a weapon. When it works badly, it is terrible and it is counterproductive. When you blow up a facility or a building which kills women and children, you know what? … It’s terrible.”

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A Yemeni boy (C) walks past a mural depicting a US drone and reading ‘ Why did you kill my family’ on December 13, 2013 in Yemen’s capital Sanaa.

Collateral damage by drones is not only terrible, but the very use of drones has been shown to lower the threshold for use of force, as demonstrated by a recent study by two U.S. academics.

In ‘The Ethics of Drone Strikes: Does Reducing the Cost of Conflict Encourage War?’ James Walsh and Marcus Schulzke report on how public attitudes towards the use of armed force change when unmanned drones are used in comparison to the deployment of other types of force. Analysis of the results show, write Walsh and Schulzke, “that participants are more willing to support the use of force when it involves drone strikes.”

This in turn makes U.S. military intervention more likely, as it does the inevitable collateral damage and war crimes that go along with it.

Besides drone strikes, it also appears that Sanders is committed to a Middle East policy that would empower one of the world’s worst human rights abusers to take a leading role in the region.

Saudi Arabia, despite its record as an egregious violator of human rights both at home and in neighboring countries such as Bahrain and Yemen, has long relied on the United States as its leading arms supplier.

As explained in a Congressional Research Service background paper published earlier this month:

Obama Administration officials have referred to the Saudi government as an important regional partner, and U.S. arms sales and related security cooperation programs have continued with congressional oversight. Since October 2010, Congress has been notified of proposed sales to Saudi Arabia of fighter aircraft, helicopters, naval vessels, missile defense systems, missiles, bombs, armored vehicles, and related equipment and services, with a potential value of more than $100 billion.

Since March 2015, the U.S.-trained Saudi military has used U.S.-origin weaponry, U.S. logistical assistance, and shared intelligence to carry out strikes in Yemen. Some Members of Congress have expressed skepticism about Saudi leaders’ commitment to combating extremism and the extent to which they share U.S. policy priorities. Nevertheless, U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism ties reportedly remain close, and Saudi forces have participated in some coalition strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria since 2014.

Thousands of civilians have been killed by coalition airstrikes since March of last year, according to the UN, and Human Rights Watch field investigations have uncovered evidence that many airstrikes were unlawfully indiscriminate, hitting residential homes, markets, healthcare facilities, and schools where there was no military target.

To make matters worse, Saudi Arabia has been dropping cluster bombs on residential neighborhoods, which HRW describes as “serious violations of the laws of war” due to “the inherently indiscriminate nature of cluster munitions.”

“The deliberate or reckless use of cluster munitions in populated areas amounts to a war crime,” HRW said in a statement last month.

Despite these violations, Sanders has urged Saudi Arabia to become more involved in the fight against ISIS, specifically stating that the brutal dictators of Riyadh should “get their hands dirty” – prompting peace activist David Swanson to ask, “Who has dirtier hands than Saudi Arabia?”

While Sanders is still probably the least likely of the U.S. presidential contenders to embrace war crimes should he win the election this November – and certainly deserves points for calling out Hillary Clinton’s friendly relationship with Henry Kissinger, one of the most notorious American war criminals of the 20th century – he should keep in mind that even enabling atrocities of a third party such as Saudi Arabia can make a president culpable for these crimes.

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

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

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

If Sanders wants to truly distinguish himself from Clinton – not to mention the blood-thirsty would-be war criminals on the Republican side – he should make clear that he would not only refrain from torture and wars of aggression, but also the enabling of war crimes by dubious allies such as Saudi Arabia, or for that matter Israel.

To add your name to a petition calling on the United States and other governments of the world to stop providing Saudi Arabia with weaponry until the Saudi government ends its military aggression and abuse of human rights, click here.

Obama’s failure to prosecute torture rears its ugly head in Republican race

gop debate torture

In the clown show known as the Republican presidential primary race, candidates are providing a clear – if, albeit, unintentional – case as to why prosecutions of the Bush-era CIA torture program are absolutely essential, and why it is so damaging that the Obama administration has shirked its responsibilities in this regard for more than seven years.

As human rights groups have long maintained, prosecuting Bush administration and CIA officials involved with the torture of terrorism suspects in the post-9/11 period is necessary so that torture is not repeated in the future by subsequent administrations who – because of previous decisions not to prosecute – may consider themselves above the law.

Indeed, this is precisely why there is a requirement under international law for allegations of torture to be investigated and prosecuted – so that torture does not become a “policy option” to be utilized or shelved depending on the political whims of the day.

This is a point that Amnesty International, for one, drove home following the release in late 2014 of a portion of the U.S. Senate’s report on the use of torture by the CIA during the Bush administration. In a statement entitled “Senate summary report on CIA detention programme must not be end of story,” Amnesty lamented that limited Justice Department investigations into CIA interrogations were ended in 2012 with no charges.

Human Rights Watch concurred, noting that unless the release of the Senate report leads to prosecutions, torture will remain a “policy option” for future presidents.

Needless to say, these exhortations have largely fallen on deaf ears, with no prosecutions launched whatsoever. Instead, the U.S. Congress responded with a largely meaningless and toothless “reaffirmation” of the ban on the torture – a totally redundant and unnecessary piece of legislation since torture has long been unambiguously banned under international law, the United States Constitution and U.S. statutory law.

Now, just as HRW, Amnesty and others have warned, this lack of law enforcement is having the predictable effects: contenders for the Republican nomination – including very possibly the next president of the United States – are making clear their plans to bring back waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques, and to once again make torture the official policy of the United States government.

In the presidential debate on Jan. 28, for example, Sen. Marco Rubio insinuated that under his administration, indefinite detention and torture would be most welcome. “If we capture terrorists,” he said, “they’re going to Guantánamo, and we will find out everything they know.” Despite this rather oblique allusion to bringing back the policy of torture which officially ended in 2006, none of the other candidates, or the debate moderators, even raised an eyebrow.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the debate on Feb. 6 included a virtual competition among candidates Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump to see who would be the most brutal and lawless in the treatment of suspected terrorists. All three candidates voiced support for waterboarding, with Trump pledging to reintroduce the technique – and introduce even more draconian and lawless techniques – if elected: “I would bring back waterboarding, and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” he said.

As the Huffington Post explained, “Trump was out-brutalizing Cruz, who said he would only use waterboarding sparingly, in emergency scenarios.”

Rubio also reiterated his support for waterboarding, saying that terrorism cases should not be held to the same humane legal standards of traditional law enforcement. In fact, he explicitly stated that interrogating suspected terrorists is not a law enforcement function:

Well, when people talk about interrogating terrorists, they’re acting like this is some sort of law enforcement function. Law enforcement is about gathering evidence to take someone to trial, and convict them. Anti-terrorism is about finding out information to prevent a future attack so the same tactics do not apply.

And, it is true, we should not be discussing in a widespread way the exact tactics that we’re going to use because that allows terrorist to know to practice how to evade us.

He also made it clear that the travesty of justice of Guantanamo should be kept open indefinitely:

But, here’s the bigger problem with all this, we’re not interrogating anybody right now. Guantanamo’s being emptied by this president. We should be putting people into Guantanamo, not emptying it out, and we shouldn’t be releasing these killers who are rejoining the battlefield against the United States.

As for Trump, when pressed this weekend on his statements about bringing back waterboarding and devising even more brutal torture methods, he decided to double down rather than backtrack.

On Sunday, the real-estate-mogul-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-presidential-contender appeared on “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos. The appearance included this remarkable exchange on torture:

STEPHANOPOULOS:  As president, you would authorize torture?

TRUMP:  I would absolutely authorize something beyond waterboarding.  And believe me, it will be effective.  If we need information, George, you have our enemy cutting heads off of Christians and plenty of others, by the hundreds, by the thousands.

STEPHANOPOULOS:  Do we win by being more like them?

TRUMP:  Yes.  I’m sorry.  You have to do it that way.  And I’m not sure everybody agrees with me.  I guess a lot of people don’t.  We are living in a time that’s as evil as any time that there has ever been.  You know, when I was a young man, I studied Medieval times.  That’s what they did, they chopped off heads.  That’s what we have …

STEPHANOPOULOS:  So we’re going to chop off heads …

TRUMP:  We’re going to do things beyond waterboarding perhaps, if that happens to come.

Interestingly, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – the only two remaining candidates for the Democratic Party – appeared on the same programs as Trump on Sunday, and while they commented freely on other aspects of the Republican debate, neither said anything about Trump’s call for torture.

Although it is only a matter of speculation, perhaps they were a bit reticent to comment on the torture question because they know that the only reason that this is even up for debate in the year 2016 is because for nearly eight years under Obama, the torture question has been systematically swept under the rug.

While Democrats may like to claim the moral high ground in “opposing torture,” they have in fact actively enabled torture by preventing prosecutions of torturers to take place. This is why the international community has been so adamant on the matter of prosecutions and has issued such rare public denunciations of the United States on this issue.

Following the release of the Senate torture report’s executive summary over a year ago, there was a veritable cacophony of demands for prosecutions, with some of the strongest words coming from the United Nations.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism Ben Emmerson stated unequivocally that senior officials from the Bush administration who sanctioned crimes, as well as the CIA and U.S. government officials who carried them out, must be investigated and prosecuted:

It is now time to take action. The individuals responsible for the criminal conspiracy revealed in today’s report must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes. The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorised at a high level within the US Government provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability.

International law prohibits the granting of immunities to public officials who have engaged in acts of torture. This applies not only to the actual perpetrators but also to those senior officials within the US Government who devised, planned and authorised these crimes.

He further emphasized the United States’ international obligation to criminally prosecute the architects and perpetrators of the draconian torture methods described in the report:

As a matter of international law, the US is legally obliged to bring those responsible to justice. The UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances require States to prosecute acts of torture and enforced disappearance where there is sufficient evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction. States are not free to maintain or permit impunity for these grave crimes.

It is no defence for a public official to claim that they were acting on superior orders. CIA officers who physically committed acts of torture therefore bear individual criminal responsibility for their conduct, and cannot hide behind the authorisation they were given by their superiors.

In particular, he added, “The U.S. attorney general is under a legal duty to bring criminal charges against those responsible.”

Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that it’s “crystal clear” under international law that the United States has an obligation under the UN Convention against Torture to ensure accountability.

“In all countries, if someone commits murder, they are prosecuted and jailed. If they commit rape or armed robbery, they are prosecuted and jailed. If they order, enable or commit torture — recognized as a serious international crime — they cannot simply be granted impunity because of political expediency,” he said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed hope that the partial release of the torture report is the “start of a process” toward prosecutions, because the “prohibition against torture is absolute,” Ban’s spokesman said.

Well, a year has passed and it is all too clear that there was no process being started with the release of the Senate torture report — and in fact, it was probably hoped by official Washington that this would be the end of the story.

But following the one-year anniversary of the Senate torture report being released, Human Rights Watch reiterated its calls for prosecutions in a 153-page report, “No More Excuses: A Roadmap to Justice for CIA Torture.” The HRW report, released Dec. 1, 2015, challenges claims that prosecutions are not legally possible and outlines U.S. legal obligations to provide redress to victims of torture. It also details actions that other countries should take to pursue criminal investigations into CIA torture.

Of course, this report, like virtually all other calls for justice on the torture question over the past seven years, has been studiously ignored by the Obama administration and official Washington. And with the Republicans now falling over each other to pledge their allegiance to illegal policies of torture and brutality, we are seeing the fruits of Obama’s refusal to uphold the laws of the land.

International community reiterates calls for Guantanamo’s closure as Congress moves to keep it open

Amnesty International USA activists protest the 10th anniversary of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, Washington DC, USA, 11 January 2012. - AIUSA

Amnesty International USA activists protest the 10th anniversary of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, Washington DC, USA, 11 January 2012. – AIUSA

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.

gitmo infographic

Death row prisoner Richard Glossip’s multiple stays of execution may amount to torture

too much doubt

For the fourth time in the past year, the U.S. state of Oklahoma has issued a stay of execution for Richard Glossip, an almost certainly innocent man wrongfully convicted for contracting the murder of his boss in 1997. Beyond serious questions of the man’s guilt, his multiple brushes with death in such a limited period of time are the equivalent of state-sanctioned mock execution, prohibited under international torture conventions and under U.S. law.

Glossip was convicted of murder-for-hire 18 years ago after Justin Sneed, the man who confessed to the killing, claimed Glossip had hired him to do it, despite a total lack of evidence connecting Glossip to the crime. Sneed received a life sentence without parole in a medium-security prison, while Glossip was sent to death row based entirely on Sneed’s testimony.

Despite how crucial Sneed’s testimony was in convicting Glossip, the courts have largely overlooked the fact that he gave not one but eight different accounts of what happened the night Barry van Treese was murdered.

In recent years a number of people have come forward to say that Sneed’s fingering of Glossip lacks any credibility, including former cellmates who claimed that Sneed had boasted of getting out of a death sentence by selling out an innocent man. Even Sneed’s daughter claims that her father had lied about Glossip’s involvement in the crime, stating in a clemency letter last year that he would recant if it wasn’t for his own fear of being executed:

For a couple of years now, my father has been talking to me about recanting his original testimony. But has been afraid to act upon it, in fear of being charged with the Death Penalty, and not be here for his children. My father has no reason to do so as a favor to Richard, as him and Mr. Glossip have no relationship and have had no communication in the last 17 years. I feel his conscious is getting to him. His fear of recanting, but guilt about not doing so, makes it obvious that information he is sitting on would exonerate Mr. Glossip. I’m sure if he felt safe that he would not lose his Plea Agreement, he would give new and truthful testimony, much different that his Testimony 17 years ago.  He has asked me several times to look into what the legal ramifications would be to his own case if he recanted.

Due to the massive amount of doubt surrounding Glossip’s conviction, his case has garnered worldwide attention, including from Pope Francis who on Wednesday urged Governor Mary Fallin to commute his death sentence and nearly 250,000 signers of a petition calling for his release. His supporters claim that his innocence makes his incarceration a gross violation of human rights, compounded by the multiple close calls he has had with the Oklahoma death chamber.

These brushes with death are described in a timeline of his case compiled by local Tulsa TV channel KJRH:

May 28, 2014 – Glossip’s execution date is set for Nov. 20, 2014.

Oct. 13, 2014 – Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt says the state does not have the drugs on hand or the medical staff prepared that is needed to carry out the state’s upcoming executions.

Oct. 24, 2014 – Stay of execution granted for Glossip and two other Oklahoma death row inmates

Oct. 24, 2014 – A state board voted unanimously not to recommend clemency for Glossip

Nov. 20, 2014 – Date Glossip was to be executed

Jan. 26, 2015 – State Attorney General Scott Pruitt asks for stays of execution for three death row inmates, including Glossip.

Jan. 26, 2015 – Application for stay of execution filed with United States Supreme Court. Glossip and two other inmates filed the application.

Jan. 28, 2015 – Supreme Court takes up inmates’ application for stays, pending final disposition of the case.

Jan. 28, 2015 – Glossip meets face-to-face with Sister Helen Prejean at the law library inside Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

Jan. 29, 2015 – Date Glossip was to be executed.

Aug. 10, 2015 – Actress Susan Sarandon takes to Twitter to fight against Glossip’s execution. She and Prejean rebutted tweets sent out by a spokesperson for Gov. Mary Fallin’s office.

Aug. 28, 2015 – The U.S. Supreme Court rejects a request for a new hearing. Scheduled execution will proceed.

Sept. 14, 2015 – Glossip’s attorneys claim to have new evidence days before client is scheduled to die.

Sept. 16, 2015 – Hours before his execution was to be carried out, anappeals court issued an emergency request for a stay for two weeks until Sept. 30.

As journalists Ziva Branstetter and Cary Aspinwall described the scene yesterday at the prison where Glossip was scheduled to die at 3:00 PM,

Outside the white walls of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Glossip’s family and friends thought he was already dead. Reporters heard them crying out in anguish when they learned the Supreme Court had denied Glossip’s request for a stay.

It turned out Oklahoma didn’t have the right lethal drug to carry out the last step of his execution. Instead of potassium chloride, which stops the heart, the prison had potassium acetate.

“That’s just crazy,” Glossip said, via speakerphone held up as reporters crowded around. “Nobody has really said much of anything.”

Glossip has had four stays of execution, including on Sept. 16, the day he was to be put to death. The stay on Wednesday “is the most stressful it has been.” He had been moved to a holding cell and was not taken into the death chamber.

“I’m sitting there watching TV trying to keep up with the news and find out what’s going on,” he said.

So, basically, because the state of Oklahoma purchased the wrong drug to use on Glossip he got one more stay of execution with a new date to die in 37 days’ time. But as Sister Helen Prejean noted in a tweet yesterday following the Governor’s stay of execution, “If Oklahoma can’t be trusted to buy the right lethal injection drugs, how can anyone trust them to convict the right person?”

Beyond serious questions regarding the basic competence of Oklahoma state officials, yesterday’s stay of execution raises grave issues over the state’s – and by extension, the U.S.’s – compliance with the UN’s Convention Against Torture (CAT), which defines the crime of torture in Article 1:

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

As a state party to the CAT, the United States has adopted domestic legislation to ensure compliance with the treaty’s provisions. The Torture Statute, formally known as Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113C of the U.S. Code, defines the crime of torture as “an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control.”

“Severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from:

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

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

(C) the threat of imminent death.

Considering the fact that Richard Glossip has now faced the threat of imminent death not once, not twice, but four times, it is clear that his treatment violates the letter and spirit of both international conventions and domestic statutes. It is effectively a mock execution, which is even prohibited under U.S. military interrogation and detention guidelines.

The likelihood that he is in fact innocent only compounds the tragedy and seriously calls into question the United States’ commitment to basic human rights.

For more on the Glossip case, click here.

To add your name to the petition demanding that his execution be stopped once and for all, click here.

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

cia torture report

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

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

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

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

But will it?

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

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

As stated in Article 1 of the CAT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(C) the threat of imminent death; or

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict in: U.S. falling short on human rights

157322_600 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.

UN slams U.S. on torture, indefinite detention, youth imprisonment and solitary

Human rights in the US3

The United States came under sharp criticism this week from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Mendez, who raised a number of objections regarding U.S. prison policies including solitary confinement, the treatment of juveniles in the justice system and the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo.

Mendez said on Wednesday that the terms under which the United States has invited him to visit the Guantanamo Bay detention center are unacceptable, urging the U.S. to reconsider restrictions on his visit including by allowing him unmonitored conversations with detainees.

“The invitation is to get a briefing from the authorities and to visit some parts of the prison, but not all, and specifically I am not allowed to have unmonitored or even monitored conversations with any inmate in Guantanamo Bay,” said Mendez.

He also noted that he has been kept waiting for two years to visit prisons in the United States to probe the use of solitary confinement but that he has been refused access. He has requested visits to federal prisons — ADX in Florence, Colorado, and the Manhattan Correctional Center — and state facilities in California, New York, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, but so far the government has blocked his visits to the federal facilities, and he is not willing to only accept visits to state penitentiaries. More than 80,000 people languish in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

On Tuesday, Mendez also condemned the U.S. for being the “only State in the world that still sentences children to life imprisonment without the opportunity for parole,” noting that by imposing cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment against the most vulnerable members of society, the U.S. is in serious violation of international norms. There are 2,500 American citizens serving life in prison for crimes they committed as children, according to the Sentencing Project.

“The detention of children is inextricably linked – in fact if not in law – with the ill-treatment of children, owing to the particularly vulnerable situation in which they have been placed that exposes them to numerous types of risk,” Mendez said in a report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Mendez noted that the U.S. practice of imposing life sentences on children in cases of homicide violates international law on numerous fronts, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The UN expert noted that the deprivation of liberty of children is intended to be a measure of last resort, to be used only for the shortest possible period of time, only if is in the best interests of the child, and limited to exceptional cases.

“Failure to recognize or apply these safeguards increases the risk of children being subjected to torture or other ill-treatment, and implicates State responsibility,” Mendez warned. He called for the adoption of “higher standards to classify treatment and punishment as cruel, inhuman or degrading in the case of children.”

In addition, the Special Rapporteur pointed out that inappropriate conditions of detention – including pretrial and post-trial incarceration as well as institutionalization and administrative immigration detention – exacerbate the harmful effects on children deprived of their liberty.

“Within the context of administrative immigration enforcement, it is now clear that the deprivation of liberty of children based on their or their parents’ migration status is never in the best interests of the child,” he added. “It exceeds the requirement of necessity, becomes grossly disproportionate and may constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of migrant children.”

Human rights groups including Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, have issued harsh criticism of the U.S.’s practices of detaining immigrant children.

“The U.S. government’s policy of detaining large numbers of children harms kids and flouts international standards,” said Clara Long, U.S. researcher at Human Rights Watch last summer. “Congress should be exploring alternatives to detention that other countries facing spikes in border crossings have used successfully.”

U.S. law allows Customs and Border Protection to detain children for a maximum of 72 hours but recent reports indicate that CBP is holding children for periods closer to ten days or two weeks. The children are then transferred to the Office for Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services, where they may be further detained.

“States should, expeditiously and completely, cease the detention of children, with or without their parents, on the basis of their immigration status,” Mendez said this week.

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