Tag Archive | ukraine

Despite its human rights problems at home, U.S. trains police forces abroad

police_brutality

The numbers are in, and it is now confirmed that 2015 was the deadliest year for civilians interacting with police since records have been kept. Of course, this is not saying all that much since last year was the first year in which records were kept in any comprehensive fashion.

Filling a notable gap in record-keeping by the United States government, which doesn’t bother to gather data on how many civilians are slain by police in a given year, news organizations including The Washington Post and The Guardian last year determined that between 965 and 1,134 civilians were killed by police, depending on what counting standards are used. (The Washington Post only tracked fatal police shootings, not killings by other forms of force, while the Guardian employed a more comprehensive methodology.)

While much of the focus of the police deaths has been on the racial component of the nationwide police brutality epidemic, fueled in large part by the agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement and the media’s tendency to devote more attention to cases following an easily digestible racial narrative, the numbers confirm in fact that the rampant police violence impacts communities of all colors and creeds across the United States.

Indeed, despite the disproportionate attention paid to cases involving a white cop and black victim, more whites were killed by police than any other race in 2015. According to the Guardian’s tally, the total numbers of police victims are as follows:

  • 577 White
  • 300 Black
  • 193 Hispanic/Latino
  • 27 Other/Unknown
  • 24 Asian/Pacific Islander
  • 13 Native American

Of course, while the raw numbers appear to demonstrate an equal-opportunity problem that cuts across racial lines, when analyzed a bit more closely, it is clear that in fact the tendency of police to kill civilians is a much greater threat to African Americans than it is to any other group. Nearly seven out of a million black people were killed by police in America last year, while white victims accounted for 2.86 per million. In other words, African Americans were nearly 2.5 times as likely to be killed by police as their white counterparts.

Age and gender also play a factor in being killed by police, with young black men being nine times more likely than other Americans to die at the hands of a cop in 2015, according to the Guardian study. As the UK-based paper further explained:

Despite making up only 2% of the total US population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of all deaths logged this year by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police. Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age.

Paired with official government mortality data, this new finding indicates that about one in every 65 deaths of a young African American man in the US is a killing by police.

But even setting aside the racial factor, it is clear that far too many people of all races and ages are killed by their police forces in America, a trend of police brutality not seen in other “advanced democracies.” Even looking at just the white victims of police violence, the U.S. is in a league of its own. According to the Guardian,

[L]ooking at our data for the US against admittedly less reliable information on police killings elsewhere paints a dramatic portrait, and one that resonates with protests that have gone global since a killing last year in Ferguson, Missouri: the US is not just some outlier in terms of police violence when compared with countries of similar economic and political standing.

America is the outlier – and this is what a crisis looks like.

The Independent, another British paper, illustrated the issue this way:

police-shootings

 

Taking a broad view of the situation, it seems clear that the problem is deeper than just a matter of racial discrimination, and in fact reflects a fundamental lack of respect for human life by U.S. police, regardless of race.

Take for example the recent case of a white drunk driver who was gunned down by a cop after having flipped his vehicle in Paradise, California. The driver attempted to crawl out of the car after surviving the accident, only to be inexplicably shot by a police officer on the scene for no apparent reason.

In that particular case, the police officer claimed that his firearm went off by “accident” but anyone watching the video can see that all indications point to an intentional shooting. This would fit in a pattern of senseless police violence that was described in a report issued last year by Amnesty International as a possible violation of international norms.

The report, “Deadly Force,” pointed out:

The use of lethal force by law enforcement officers raises serious human rights concerns, including in regard to the right to life, the right to security of the person, the right to freedom from discrimination and the right to equal protection of the law. The United States has a legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfill these human rights and has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which explicitly protects these rights.

One of a state’s most fundamental duties which police officers, as agents of the state, must comply with in carrying out their law enforcement duties, is to protect life. In pursuing ordinary law enforcement operations, using force that may cost the life of a person cannot be justified. International law only allows police officers to use lethal force as a last resort in order to protect themselves or others from death or serious injury. The United Nations (UN) Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or the defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, and that, in any event, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

Furthermore, international law enforcement standards require that force of any kind may be used only when there are no other means available that are likely to achieve the legitimate objective. If the force is unavoidable it must be no more than is necessary and proportionate to achieve the objective, and law enforcement must use it in a manner designed to minimise damage or injury, must respect and preserve human life and ensure medical aid are provided as soon as possible to those injured or affected.

The problem of police violence also caught the attention of the United Nations last year. At the U.S.’s Universal Periodic Review for compliance on human rights norms at the United Nations Human Rights Council in May, the United States heard criticism of its policies ranging from Guantanamo to the death penalty to 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. “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.”

The review “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.”

Yet, despite its wholesale violations of international norms on policing at home, the United States is currently engaging in international training programs of police in other countries, which can only be seen as a potential disaster for human rights.

A June 10, 2015 post on the US Department of State’s official blog revealed that the Department of Justice and Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) are running a police training program in Kiev, Ukraine. The program has trained at least 100 Ukrainian police instructors to oversee a new 2,000-member patrol unit as part of a broader effort to “fundamentally change the relationship between law enforcement and the citizens of Ukraine.”

The blog post noted that the police trainers – hailing from Nevada, California and Ohio – “traveled to Ukraine to teach tactical skills training and mentor the instructors as they train the first new cadets.”

The training program “has been key in advancing our goals in Ukraine and deepening our relationships with the new government,” stated the post.

This relationship, of course, stems from a violent U.S.-backed coup d’etat that ousted the democratically elected president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. Ukraine has been embroiled in civil war ever since.

Besides the self-serving geopolitical nature of the police training program, what is astounding about it is that the U.S. feels that it is in any position to train any country’s police. Indeed, considering the widespread epidemic of police brutality in the United States, it is clear that U.S. police need training before they go training other countries’ police forces.

The practice of U.S. international police trainings has long caught the attention of human rights groups, including Amnesty International.

Amnesty notes that the United States government trains at least 100,000 foreign soldiers and police from more than 150 countries each year at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, but “the vast majority of U.S.-administered training courses do not include specific instruction in the human rights or humanitarian law obligations that soldiers must obey.”

Unfortunately, according to Amnesty, “many of the government forces the U.S. has trained have poor human rights records.”

The human rights group points out that it is “vital that the U.S. military mainstream human rights and humanitarian law into all foreign military and police training. Such instruction should be mandatory for all U.S. and foreign trainees attending courses, and it should be reinforced through operational exercises.”

Advertisements

U.S. hypocritically touts territorial integrity, sovereignty and international norms

obama hypocrisy

President Barack Obama issued one of his most hypocritical statements in weeks when he scolded Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday for his alleged support of separatist rebels operating in eastern Ukraine.

“He’s got to make a decision,” Obama said of Putin. “Does he continue to wreck his country’s economy and continue Russia’s isolation in pursuit of a wrong-headed desire to re-create the glories of the Soviet empire? Or does he recognize that Russia’s greatness does not depend on violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries?”

Hearing the president of the United States lecture others about the importance of respecting countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity was a bit like listening to a serial rapist lecturing other men about the importance of respecting women’s rights.

Of course, as Obama was uttering these duplicitous platitudes – the hypocrisy of which went completely unchallenged by the journalists in attendance at the press conference – the United States was continuing to violate the sovereignty of multiple countries, including Syria and Pakistan.

On the same day that Obama insisted on Russia’s respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, the U.S. launched nine air strikes in Syria, attacks that are unauthorized by the UN Security Council and against the stated wishes of the Syrian government, rendering them a blatant violation of international law.

Six of the air strikes were concentrated around Kobani near the Turkish border and three near the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, according to the U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force. One of the air strikes apparently killed an entire family of seven, including five children, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In Pakistan, the U.S. has been carrying out drone strikes for years, in complete disregard of the repeated protests of the Pakistani government complaining about the violations of that country’s sovereignty. As recently as last month, Pakistan’s Foreign Office condemned a U.S. drone strike that killed at least five people in North Waziristan, reiterating its stance that such attacks are a violation of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“A drone strike on May 16, 2015 resulted in a number of casualties in the Mana area of North Waziristan agency,” said the Foreign Office in a statement.

“These (strikes) generate distrust among the local populace at a time when Operation Zarb-e-Azb is moving ahead decisively and the focus of the government is shifting towards rehabilitation of the civilian population. We reiterate our call for a cessation of such strikes,” the Foreign Office said.

But the U.S. can’t be bothered to acknowledge or apologize for its blatant violations of international law, or its routine, tragic killings of innocent people. It is now being sued in fact by the families of two Yemeni men killed in 2012, alleging they were innocent bystanders hit by missiles from a U.S. drone strike and calling for an acknowledgement of their unlawful deaths.

In a wrongful death lawsuit filed June 7, the families of Salem bin Ali Jaber and Waleed bin Ali Jaber said their deaths “violated the laws of war and norms of customary international law” and “provide a case study of the failures of the drone war.”

The strike on Aug. 29, 2012 “killed two innocent members of a prominent local family, Salem bin Ali Jaber and Waleed bin Ali Jaber,” according to the complaint. “By this complaint, the estates of Salem and Waleed seek to hold accountable those responsible for their wrongful deaths.”

The lawsuit does not seek any monetary relief, but rather a declaratory judgement and an apology. As the complaint points out,

Rarely but occasionally, the U.S. government addresses the reality that its drones kill innocents, and expresses official regret. Only weeks ago the President addressed the nation about two other innocents killed by a U.S. drone: an Italian citizen and an American, who were mistakenly hit in a drone strike in Pakistan while being held hostage by al Qaeda. In his televised statement, the President explained that “the [victims’] families deserve to know the truth,” and claimed that his apology showed the U.S. is willing “to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”

There is a simple question at the heart of this claim. The President has now admitted to killing innocent Americans and Italians with drones; why are the bereaved families of innocent Yemenis less entitled to the truth?

Even as the United States does occasionally concede that it sometimes kills innocent people, which is at least a tacit confirmation that its actions are not exactly in accordance with international law, it still can’t resist the temptation to point its bloody finger at others for doing the same thing.

Not only did President Obama just issue that hypocritical warning to Russia, but a number of “progressive” lawmakers have just published an op-ed in the journal Foreign Affairs expressing the urgent need to confront Russia and China over their alleged violations of international norms.

In “Principles for a Progressive Foreign Policy,” Democratic senators Chris Murphy, Brian Schatz, and Martin Heinrich warn that “traditional powers such as Russia and China are challenging international norms and pushing the boundaries of their influence.”

In response to these new challenges, as well as threats such as pandemic disease and global climate change, “the United States [must] think anew about the tools that it will use to lead the world, including reaching beyond the military budget to rediscover the power of non-kinetic statecraft.”

To their credit, these senators acknowledged that in order for the U.S. to have any credibility on the world stage, it “should practice what it preaches regarding civil and human rights, and defend its values internationally.”

“Actions abroad that are illegal under U.S. law and out of step with American values, such as torture, must be prohibited,” they continued. “Human rights and gender equality should not be viewed as secondary to security issues, but appropriately recognized as essential to long-term global stability.”

The senators are only partially right, and they left unsaid the most important thing – namely that violations must not only be “prohibited” but also prosecuted and punished. Torture of course is already “prohibited,” as is murder and violations of countries’ territorial integrity, so what the U.S. really needs to do is punish those who violate the law.

And please, stop hypocritically blaming others for doing the same thing.

Who’s to blame for Ukraine’s use of cluster bombs?

Remnants of a possible cluster bomb lying in front of a burning house in Donetsk, Ukraine, on October 5, 2014.

Remnants of a possible cluster bomb lying in front of a burning house in Donetsk, Ukraine, on October 5, 2014.

While debate continues in Washington over whether the United States should arm the Ukrainian government in its war against the people of the eastern regions of its territory, there remains a bit of a disconnect over the reality that Ukraine is already using cluster munitions that are banned by an international treaty that has been in effect since 2010. In important ways, the U.S. provides the diplomatic cover for Ukraine to use these munitions, if not the weapons themselves.

Last week, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) reported that it has uncovered evidence that cluster bombs have been used in the shelling of civilian neighborhoods in Luhansk:

The SMM saw considerable damage caused by the impacts of rocket shelling, such as broken windows, fences, gates and walls. The SMM assessed that some of the damage to the buildings, e.g. a series of parallel rows of strike marks on a gate and wall, were consistent with damage typically caused by shrapnel elements from cluster munition. According to the SMM’s assessment, a hole in a roof of a house was caused by the impact of what appears to be a bomblet, with small calibre.

The SMM discovered parts of rockets, including engines, fins and cargo compartments, in the front and backyards of several houses; the cargo compartment in particular is typical of a rocket carrying cluster munitions. Some parts sighted by the SMM at the impact site (1.5 cm white metal fragments, 6 by 3 cm black metal fragments of bomblets cases) are typical for cluster munition. The SMM identified them as parts consistent with 9M55K model “Smerch” rockets (calibre 300mm). The SMM observed a crater (diameter approximately 4m, depth approximately 3m) at the backyard of the house located at Dekabristiv Street 106 which had been caused by the explosion of a “Smerch” rocket, according to the SMM’s assessment.

Following a report last year by Human Rights Watch alleging “widespread use of cluster munitions” by “Ukrainian government forces,” the OSCE had raised doubts about the veracity of these claims. As Deutsche Welle reported on October 23, 2014,

Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the OSCE mission in Ukraine, also denied that the Ukrainian military had used cluster bombs. “We have around 90 observers in eastern Ukraine,” he told DW. “If we had encountered anything like that, we would have reported it, but that hasn’t happened. Everything we can say about ammunition and shelling is in our daily reports.”

It now appears however that the OSCE is conceding that the Ukrainian government, which came to power following a violent U.S.-backed coup d’etat that toppled the democratically elected Viktor Yanukovych last February, is in fact using these heinous weapons against civilian populations.

Despite being banned under international law for their indiscriminate and disproportionate effects on civilians, they are a particular favorite of the United States, which has used them in Afghanistan, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Grenada, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lao PDR, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Vietnam, Yemen, former Yugoslavia (Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia). No other country on earth comes close to using these weapons so extensively.

As International Campaign to Ban Landmines – Cluster Munition Coalition (ICBL-CMC) describes them,

A cluster bomb is a weapon that can contain up to several hundred small explosive bomblets. Dropped from the air or fired from the ground, cluster bombs break open in mid-air and scatter these bomblets over a wide area. Anyone within the strike zone is likely to be injured or killed, no matter if they are military or civilian. Many bomblets fail to explode as intended, leaving behind huge quantities of de facto landmines which continue to kill for years or even decades after their use.

Used in more than 35 countries, cluster bombs have killed and injured tens of thousands of civilians and devastated the livelihoods of countless more.

Cluster_bombs

Senator John McCain, who serves as a Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, claimed last week that the United States is partly to blame for Ukraine’s use of cluster bombs since it hasn’t provided the country with other weapons.

“I think that if we had provided them with the weapons they need, they wouldn’t have felt they had to use cluster bombs. So, it’s partially our fault,” McCain said.

Perhaps more importantly than this, the United States provides Ukraine with unwavering diplomatic and political support, shielding the Kiev regime from criticism. Further, since last spring, the CIA has been directly working with the Ukrainian government on counter-insurgency tactics and on establishing a security apparatus. As AFP reported in May 2014,

Dozens of specialists from the US Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation are advising the Ukrainian government, a German newspaper reported Sunday.

Citing unnamed German security sources, Bild am Sonntag said the CIA and FBI agents were helping Kiev end the rebellion in the east of Ukraine and set up a functioning security structure.

The revelations of CIA involvement came following a visit to Kiev by CIA director John Brennan in April 2014, which the White House described as “routine,” but was condemned by Moscow as more U.S. meddling in the country.

Considering that the United States has long defended cluster bombs publicly and vehemently as useful tools in maintaining American hegemony in the world, is it any wonder that the Ukrainian government — being advised by the United States — would feel justified in using these bombs against civilians?

Indeed, according to the Pentagon’s 2008 policy, cluster munitions can actually be considered humane weapons. “Because future adversaries will likely use civilian shields for military targets – for example by locating a military target on the roof of an occupied building – use of unitary weapons could result in more civilian casualties and damage than cluster munitions,” the policy claims. “Blanket elimination of cluster munitions is therefore unacceptable due not only to negative military consequences but also due to potential negative consequences for civilians.”

The U.S government has effectively rejected the international ban on cluster munitions as inapplicable to the United States. In justifying the U.S.’s use of cluster bombs and its refusal to accede to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in 2008,

The U.S. did not participate in the Cluster Munitions Convention negotiations because we believe that cluster munitions are an integral part of our and many of our coalition partners’ military operations. The elimination of cluster munitions from our stockpiles would put the lives of our soldiers and those of our coalition partners at risk. There are no substitute munitions, and some of the possible alternatives could actually increase the damage that results from an attack.

In November 2009, an Obama administration State Department official said that “many States, including the United States, have determined that their national security interests cannot be fully ensured consistent with the terms of the [Convention].”

U.S. firms have also invested heavily in these banned weapons, spending at least half of the estimated $27 billion on producing cluster bombs from 2011 to 2014. While it is unclear what exactly is driving that increase, rights groups have reported on the recent use of cluster munitions in both Syria and eastern Ukraine.

“We’re seeing an increase in the total value of investment from just a year ago, so that’s a big disappointment,” Amy Little, a campaign manager at the Cluster Munition Coalition, a global advocacy network that includes PAX, told MintPress News in late 2014.

With the U.S. government the most vocal defender of these weapons and U.S. firms the most heavily invested in their production, it seems that it may be also the most instrumental in undermining the international norm against their use, thereby enabling the Ukrainian regime to drop them on its own people with impunity.

U.S. whitewashes Odessa massacre, shifting blame to Russia

In a classic case of blaming the victim, the United States has been making a concerted effort this week to gloss over – if not rewrite – the facts surrounding last week’s tragic events in Odessa, Ukraine, trying to portray the “pro-Russian separatists” as responsible for their own deaths.

Despite the emergence of numerous YouTube videos, as well as photographic evidence that has been posted on blogs and circulated in chain emails, clearly showing that the fire in the Trade Union Building which killed dozens of anti-Kiev demonstrators was intentionally started by Western-backed pro-Kiev militants, the U.S. has been asserting — baselessly — that Russia was somehow responsible.

In rather ghoulish testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland stated that

Friday [May2] also saw the deadliest tragedy of this conflict: the death of more than 40 in Odesa following an afternoon of violent clashes reportedly instigated by pro-Russian separatists attacking an initially peaceful rally in favor of national unity – similar to many that have happened in Odessa since the start of the Maidan movement.

With no mention of the actual culprits who set the building on fire, she went on to reprimand the Russian Federation for failing to use its influence to promote stability in Ukraine. In other words, Russia, Russia, Russia.

“Today, Russia claims it has ‘no influence’ over the separatists and provocateurs rampaging in eastern and southern Ukraine,” she said. However,

as Secretary Kerry told this committee in April, we continue to have high confidence that Russia’s hand is behind this instability. They are providing material support. They are providing funding. They are providing weapons. They are providing coordination, and there are Russian agents on the ground in Ukraine involved in this.

This, amazingly, is all that Nuland had to say about the tragedy last week that claimed the lives of at least 42 people. (Unofficial estimates from eyewitnesses place the casualties far higher, with some claiming that as many as 300 people may have been killed.)

Although Nuland went out of her way to point out that last week’s violent clashes were “instigated by pro-Russian separatists,” she neglected to assign any blame for the actual atrocity that took place later in the day, in which pro-Kiev militants were clearly responsible for throwing Molotov cocktails into the Trade Union Building in Odessa where anti-Kiev individuals were seeking refuge from the violence on the streets.

While initial reports indicated that it was “unclear” how the fire started, the evidence that was captured on camera phones and disseminated via social media was enough to force even the Western media to grudgingly acknowledge that the atrocity at the Trade Union Building was in fact committed by the pro-Kiev side, the side Western governments have aligned with.

Typical was this report from the BBC, “How did Odessa’s fire happen?,” which took pains to explain that the anti-Kiev side may have instigated the street clashes earlier in the day, but that when it came to the fire at the Trade Union Building, it was pretty apparent who was responsible.

“Pictures clearly showed pro-Ukrainians throwing Molotov cocktails,” the BBC reported, although noting that some on the “pro-Russian” side may have also thrown firebombs from the building to the ground below – exactly how those might have started fires inside the building is not explained.

Nevertheless, it was clear that many people died at the hands of the pro-Kiev militants that day. As BBC noted,

One survivor told Russia Today: “We couldn’t go down, we were seeing people from other floors being brought down and then those rioters down there attacked them like a pack of wolves.”

But other eyewitness reports, for example in the Kyiv Post, said pro-Ukrainian activists rescued dozens of people from the burning building.

Some people got to ledges and were helped by ambulance ladders. Some fell.

Some people were reported to have shouted “die” as people fell.

Independent investigators and bloggers have spelled out the evidence more straightforwardly, placing the blame for the tragedy squarely with the pro-Kiev thugs of Right Sector. One viral blog post lays out gruesome photographic evidence that not only implicates the Western-backed neo-Nazis with starting the fire, but also purports to demonstrate that some of the pro-Ukrainian militants must have gotten inside the building to individually kill those who had sought refuge there.

This photograph, for example, seems to indicate a gunshot wound to the head. “Judging from clearly visible blood puddle, the murderer fired at point-blank so the bullet passed through the skull,” the blog alleges.

odessa 1

This photo graphically depicts an apparent victim of rape:

odessa 2

“Dead woman near the elevator with clothes absent below her waist,” the blog explains. “Most likely, she was raped, then doused with a flammable mixture and set aflame.”

This horrifying picture shows a pregnant woman who was strangled by an electric wire:

odessa 3

The following video supposedly captures the cries of this woman, starting at 0:20, who called for help while being murdered.

Despite the grave nature of the atrocity that was committed by the pro-Kiev militants in Odessa last week, the U.S. response has been muted, to say the least.

Besides Nuland’s victim-blaming testimony at the Senate this week, the White House has also gone on record tacitly absolving the actual culprits of their responsibility and shifting the culpability to Moscow.

“We remain extremely concerned by the deteriorating situation in both eastern and southern Ukraine, where pro-Russian militants who are armed have escalated their already violent behavior and taken over additional government buildings in yet more towns,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Monday.

Carney added that the “violence and mayhem” in Odessa was “unacceptable.”

“We’re going to continue to call on Russia to live up to its commitments in Geneva and to use its influence over these groups, these pro-Russian militant groups, to urge them to disarm and to instead engage in Ukraine’s political process,” Carney said.

For its part, Russia is emphatically making clear where the blame truly lies for this tragedy, refusing to allow the West to whitewash the facts.

“What happened in the city of Odessa on May 2 is a sheer act of fascism and we will not permit to sweep the facts under carpet as the ruling coalition tries to do so, concealing the investigation from the public,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday.

“We will seek for the truth, will seek for all evidence which was produced by eyewitnesses and which show that current Kiev authorities are hushing up consciously the scale of tragedy and will seek for all the truth to be investigated and made public,” Lavrov pledged.

The Russians were joined in this call for an investigation by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which issued a joint statement Thursday calling for the Ukrainian government to conduct an investigation into the violence in Odessa that “should be thorough, impartial, and capable of ensuring that those responsible are held accountable.”

The HRW-AI statement also criticized the police in Odessa for failing to take action to prevent the violence, with video footage showing police officers standing by while preparations are made by members of both groups for acts of violence.

This inaction may indicate that the authorities are failing to comply with Ukraine’s international human rights obligations to protect the right to life, the joint statement noted.

“International human rights and law enforcement standards underline that police have a responsibility to maintain public safety and protect all persons against illegal acts, and must maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons,” said HRW and AI. “In particular, police play a vital role in the protection of the right to life, liberty, and security of the person.”

“In the context of the events which took place in Odessa on May 2, it is not clear why the police failed to take adequate action, in compliance with these obligations, to prevent the serious injuries and loss of life,” the statement went on.

For these reasons, “it is essential that whatever precise form the investigations take, they are truly effective and independent and carried out by individuals of recognized competence, integrity, and independence,” said the human rights groups.

The U.S., on the other hand, appears intent on shielding the authorities from criticism. At a press briefing Monday, U.S. State Department press spokeswoman Marie Harf defended the role of government in Kiev and its fascist allies.

Harf praised the Kiev government in particular for its “great restraint” in dealing with the anti-fascist groups in the south and east of the country and attempted to blame the Odessa massacre on the victims and Russia. She implicitly justified the mass killing of civilians by declaring that the Kiev government has “a responsibility to maintain law and order for their own people.”

“Any loss of life is horrible,” she said, “and we understand that there will be an investigation. The prime minister has actually taken punitive action against some of the police folks who led the police forces in Odessa after this horrific incident. So – but again, that started because pro-Russian forces and separatists started basically mob action attacking protesters. So going forward we think that restraint is important, but so is keeping law and order.”

When a reporter followed up by asking, “it doesn’t matter how many people die; those people brought it upon themselves, it’s their fault. Is it what you are saying?” Harf backtracked a bit and said, “No, I’m not saying that at all. In no way am I saying that. I’m saying that the fact pattern of what happens here matters.”

But looking at the pattern of U.S. statements – admonishing the Russian Federation for any and all actions in Ukraine that could in any conceivable way be traced back to some alleged conspiracy directed by the Kremlin while simultaneously absolving neo-Nazi thugs and their allies in the Kiev regime – it appears that the United States is systematically engaging in a whitewash of atrocities.

It should be noted that even as details emerge about these  crimes, the authorities in Kiev are apparently raising “volunteer armies,” or what may be more accurately referred to as paramilitaries, consisting of the Euromaidan militants who helped topple the democratically elected president Viktor Yanukovych in February.

As the Washington Post reported on Tuesday, Kiev’s interim government began shoring up security forces as some leaders made urgent calls for volunteers to take up arms against “pro-Russian separatists.”

“Andriy Tiron, battalion commander of the National Guard, told reporters in Kiev that demonstrators who helped oust the previous pro-Russian government were being urged to volunteer for military duty. But there was confusion about who would command them and what their duties would be,” the Post reported.

The Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, however, reported that some 4,000 combatants supporting the Kiev authorities have already arrived in Odessa.

“Very alarming reports are coming in from our friends in Odessa,” Georgy Fyodorov, deputy head of the Russian Civic Chamber’s Committee for Coordination of Aid to Residents of Ukraine said Wednesday. “We have reports that armed militants of the Right Sector, fighters of the Dnipr and Kyiv-1 special task force battalions, and ultras of the FC Dnipro have been brought into the city and the overall number of the combatants propping up the Kiev regime exceeds 4,000 there now.”

If true, it’s worth noting that considering reports of the CIA advising the authorities in Kiev, there is a good chance that these policies are coming directly from Washington. This is worth keeping in mind in the event of any further atrocities committed in Ukraine.

Thankfully there are at least a few voices in Congress being raised questioning the wisdom of aligning the United States government with violent neo-Nazi extremists, as this clip of Victoria Nuland’s testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday makes clear:

Hopefully those sorts of hardball questions become the norm rather than the exception, as U.S. policy in Ukraine comes under greater scrutiny.

Crimea, Iraq and international law: A little perspective

iraq ukraine

The war of words between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin has continued this week, with Obama forcefully rejecting an argument from Putin that the referendum for Crimean secession from Ukraine to become part of Russia, was “fully consistent with the norms of international law and the UN Charter.”

In a statement, the White House said that the Crimean referendum “violates the Ukrainian constitution and occurred under duress of Russian military intervention.” Obama further emphasized that “that Russia’s actions were in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Vice President Joe Biden weighed in on Tuesday, saying that Russia’s treaty to annex Crimea was a “blatant violation of international law” and that Russian forces had carried out a “brazen military incursion” that “ratcheted up ethnic tensions.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea was “nothing more than a land grab,” Biden said.

For those looking for evidence of how the United States routinely twists international law and concepts of sovereignty depending on its geopolitical needs and whims at a given moment, the diplomatic spat over Crimea could hardly be better timed. Today, of course, is the 11th anniversary of the unprovoked, illegal war of aggression carried out by the United States against the sovereign nation of Iraq.

Joe Biden was instrumental in building up congressional support for that ill-fated war. As then-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he oversaw hearings which systematically excluded individuals who were critical of claims regarding Iraq’s alleged possessions of weapons of mass destruction, including former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter.

When Biden voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq, he falsely claimed on the Senate floor, “[Saddam Hussein] possesses chemical and biological weapons and is seeking nuclear weapons.”

With congressional authorization in hand, on March 19, 2003 (already the 20th in Iraq), President George W. Bush launched a bombing campaign of Baghdad followed by an all-out military assault which ultimately led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 5,000 U.S. soldiers. Another 100,000 Americans have been wounded.

As staggering as those numbers may be, they don’t fully convey the magnitude of the crime which was committed by launching this war 11 years ago. The impact on international norms was equally profound, and continue to reverberate today. Russian President Putin himself cited the Iraq invasion in his address to parliament on March 18.

“Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun,” he said.

They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.

This happened in Yugoslavia; we remember 1999 very well. It was hard to believe, even seeing it with my own eyes, that at the end of the 20th century, one of Europe’s capitals, Belgrade, was under missile attack for several weeks, and then came the real intervention. Was there a UN Security Council resolution on this matter, allowing for these actions? Nothing of the sort. And then, they hit Afghanistan, Iraq, and frankly violated the UN Security Council resolution on Libya, when instead of imposing the so-called no-fly zone over it they started bombing it too.

Regardless of what one might think of Putin’s policies — whether his domestic human rights record or his actions in Ukraine — the factual basis of his critique of U.S. foreign policy cannot be denied. While pundits and scholars may quibble over the lawfulness of theYugoslavia war, the Afghanistan invasion, or the bombing of Libya, what should be beyond dispute at this point is that the attack on Iraq was unequivocally criminal.

The violations of international law, which began even before the initial shock and awe bombing campaign, continued and intensified throughout the invasion, and the subsequent occupation and counterinsurgency campaign. To this date, no high-ranking officials have ever been held accountable for these actions.

Threats of Force

As early as January 2003 — three months before the U.S. actually launched its attack — the Pentagon was announcing its plans for the “shock and awe” bombing campaign.

“If the Pentagon sticks to its current war plan,” CBS News reported on January 24, “one day in March the Air Force and Navy will launch between 300 and 400 cruise missiles at targets in Iraq. … [T]his is more than the number that were launched during the entire 40 days of the first Gulf War. On the second day, the plan calls for launching another 300 to 400 cruise missiles.”

A Pentagon official warned: “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad.”

The intention of announcing these plans so early — before the UN weapons inspectors had finished their job and before diplomacy in the Security Council had been allowed to take its course — appeared to be a form of psychological warfare against the Iraqi people. If that was not the intent, it was certainly the effect.

A group of psychologists published a report in January 2003 describing the looming war’s effect on children’s mental health.

”With war looming, Iraqi children are fearful, anxious and depressed,” they found. ”Many have nightmares. And 40 percent do not think that life is worth living.”

The explicit threats being made against Iraq in early 2003 were arguably a violation of the UN Charter, which states that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”

Shock and Awe

A frightened young Iraqi girl in the early days U.S. bombing in 2003.

“Shock and awe” began with limited bombing on March 19, 2003 as U.S. forces unsuccessfully attempted to kill Saddam Hussein. Attacks continued against a small number of targets until March 21, 2003, when the main bombing campaign began. U.S.-led forces launched approximately 1,700 air sorties, with 504 using cruise missiles.

The attack was a violation of the UN Charter, which stipulates that “Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.” The only exception to this is in the case of Security Council authorization, which the U.S. did not have.

Targeting Civilians

Desperate to kill Saddam Hussein, Bush ordered the bombing of an Iraqi residential restaurant on April 7.  A single B-1B bomber dropped four precision-guided 2,000-pound bombs.  The four bunker-penetrating bombs destroyed the target building, the al Saa restaurant block and several surrounding structures, leaving a 60-foot crater and unknown casualties.

Diners, including children, were ripped apart by the bombs. One mother found her daughter’s torso and then her severed head. U.S. intelligence later confirmed that Hussein wasn’t there.

The deliberate attack on a civilian target was in breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention’s protection of non-combatants, which states:

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

Failure to Provide Security

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime on April 9, the U.S. action in Iraq took on the character of an occupation, and as the occupying power, the U.S. was bound by international law to provide security. But in the post-war chaos, in which looting of Iraq’s national antiquities was rampant, U.S. forces stood by as Iraq’s national museum was looted and countless historical treasures were lost.

Despite the fact that U.S. officials were warned even before the invasion that Iraq’s national museum would be a “prime target for looters” by the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), set up to supervise the reconstruction of postwar Iraq, U.S. forces took no action to secure the building. In protest of the U.S. failure to prevent the resulting looting of historical artefacts dating back 10,000 years, three White House cultural advisers resigned.

“It didn’t have to happen”, Martin Sullivan – who chaired the President’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Property for eight years – told Reuters news agency. The UN’s cultural agency UNESCO called the loss and destruction “a disaster.”

Cluster Bombs

During the course of the war, according to a four-month investigation by USA Today, the U.S. dropped 10,800 cluster bombs on Iraq. “The bomblets packed inside these weapons wiped out Iraqi troop formations and silenced Iraqi artillery,” reported USA Today. “They also killed civilians. These unintentional deaths added to the hostility that has complicated the U.S. occupation.”

U.S. forces fired hundreds of cluster weapons into urban areas from late March to early April, killing dozens and possibly hundreds of Iraqi civilians. The attacks left behind thousands of unexploded bomblets that continued to kill and injure civilians weeks after the fighting stopped.

Because of the indiscriminate effect of these duds that keep killing long after the cessation of hostilities, the use of cluster munitions is banned by the international Convention on Cluster Munitions, which the United States has refused to sign.

Authorizing Torture

A victim of U.S. torture at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
A victim of U.S. torture at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

Possibly anticipating a drawn-out occupation and counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq, in a March 2003 memorandum Bush administration lawyers devised legal doctrines justifying certain torture techniques, offering legal rationales “that could render specific conduct, otherwise criminal, not unlawful.”

They argued that the president or anyone acting on the president’s orders are not bound by U.S. laws or international treaties prohibiting torture, asserting that the need for “obtaining intelligence vital to the protection of untold thousands of American citizens” supersedes any obligations the administration has under domestic or international law.

“In order to respect the President’s inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign,” the memo states, U.S. prohibitions against torture “must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his Commander-in-Chief authority.”

Over the course of the next year, disclosures emerged that torture had been used extensively in Iraq for “intelligence gathering.” Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh disclosed in The New Yorker in May 2004 that a 53-page classified Army report written by Gen. Antonio Taguba concluded that Abu Ghraib prison’s military police were urged on by intelligence officers seeking to break down the Iraqis before interrogation.

“Numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees,” wrote Taguba.

These actions, authorized at the highest levels, constituted serious breaches of international and domestic law, including the Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of Prisoners of War, as well as the U.S. War Crimes Act and the Torture Statute.

Supporting Death Squads

As part of its counterinsurgency campaign, the United States also played a key role in training and overseeing U.S.-funded special police commandos who ran a network of torture centers in Iraq and engaged in a brutal sectarian civil war.

A 15-month investigation by the Guardian and BBC Arabic revealed how retired U.S. colonel James Steele, a veteran of American dirty wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and another special forces veteran, Colonel James Coffman, worked with Steele and reported directly to General David Petraeus, who had been sent into Iraq to organize the Iraqi security services.

As the Guardian reported last year:

The Pentagon sent a US veteran of the “dirty wars” in Central America to oversee sectarian police commando units in Iraq that set up secret detention and torture centres to get information from insurgents. These units conducted some of the worst acts of torture during the US occupation and accelerated the country’s descent into full-scale civil war. …

The allegations, made by US and Iraqi witnesses in the Guardian/BBC documentary, implicate US advisers for the first time in the human rights abuses committed by the commandos. It is also the first time that Petraeus – who last November was forced to resign as director of the CIA after a sex scandal – has been linked through an adviser to this abuse.

(The full hour-long documentary can be seen here.)

While there had long been allegations that the U.S. was involved in fueling the sectarian violence as a way to curtail the Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation through classic divide-and-conquer techniques, the Guardian investigation is the first conclusive evidence that the U.S. was in fact involved in supporting the violence. At its height, the sectarian civil war between Shia and Sunni was claiming 3,000 victims a month.

Other Crimes

These are just a few of the more blatant examples U.S. violations of international law from the earliest days of the invasion of Iraq, for which no one has been held to account. There are of course, many others that we know about and others that we don’t.

There was the 2004 assault on Fallujah in which white phosphorus – banned under international law – was used against civilians. There was the 2005 Haditha massacre, in which 24 unarmed civilians were systematically murdered by U.S. marines.

And of course, there was the 2007 “Collateral Murder” massacre revealed by WikiLeaks in 2010 (for which the only person to be punished is the courageous whistleblower who brought it to light).

While each of the above-mentioned crimes should be dealt with individually, it is important to remember the words of American prosecutor Robert Jackson, who led the prosecutions of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. In his opening statement before the international military tribunal on Nazi war crimes, Jackson denounced aggressive war as “the greatest menace of our time.”

Jackson noted that “to start an aggressive war has the moral qualities of the worst of crimes.” The tribunal, he said, had decided that “to initiate a war of aggression … is not only an international crime: it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of whole.”

When it comes to Iraq, the accumulated evil of the whole is difficult to fully comprehend. Even now, 11 years after the initial U.S. invasion, the country is reeling from daily suicide bombings and sectarian violence, and an ongoing refugee crisis. According to Refugees International, Iraqi internally displaced persons number roughly 2.8 million.

“Internally displaced Iraqis are extremely vulnerable and live in constant fear, with limited access to shelter, food, and basic services,” notes the NGO.

As Al Jazeera reporter Dahr Jamail, who was one of the few unembedded journalists to report extensively from Iraq during the 2003 Iraq invasion, describes it, the reality in Iraq is “utter devastation.” He said on Democracy Now after returning from a trip to Iraq last year:

It’s a situation where, overall, we can say that Iraq is a failed state. The economy is in a state of crisis, perpetual crisis, that began far back with the institution of the 100 Bremer orders during—under the Coalition Provisional Authority, the civil government set up to run Iraq during the first year of the occupation. And it’s been in crisis ever since.

The average Iraqi is just barely getting by. And how can they get by when there’s virtually no security across much large swaths of country to this day, where, you know, as we see in the headlines recently, even when there’s not these dramatic, spectacular days of dozens of people being killed by bombs across Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, on any given day there’s assassinations, there’s detentions, there’s abductions and people being disappeared and kidnapped?

There is also the tragic legacy of cancer and birth defects caused by the U.S. military’s extensive use of depleted uranium and white phosphorus in Iraq. Noting the birth defects in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, Jamail says:

They’re extremely hard to bear witness to. But it’s something that we all need to pay attention to … What this has generated is, from 2004 up to this day, we are seeing a rate of congenital malformations in the city of Fallujah that has surpassed even that in the wake of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that nuclear bombs were dropped on at the end of World War II.

Still pressing for justice 11 years after the launching of this criminal war, several organizations, including Iraq Veterans Against the War, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq, and the Center for Consitutional Rights, have launched the “right to heal” campaign.  

The network of Iraqis and U.S. military veterans came together last year to hold the U.S. government accountable for the lasting effects of war and the rights of veterans and civilians to heal.

“The Iraq war is not over for Iraqi civilians and U.S. veterans who continue to struggle with various forms of trauma and injury,” says the Right to Heal website, “for Iraqis and veterans who suffer the effects of environmental poisoning due to certain U.S. munitions and burn pits of hazardous material; and for a growing generation of orphans and people displaced by war.”

The groups are working to highlight the lack of accountability for the ongoing human rights violations of Iraqis, Afghans, and U.S. military veterans, and on March 26 are holding a People’s Hearing on the Lasting Impact of the Iraq War.

Moderated by Phil Donahue, former host of The Phil Donahue Show and Co-Director of the film Body of War, the People’s Hearing will include Iraqi civil society leaders and U.S. military veterans who will testify to the lasting impact of the war and make the case that the U.S. government must be held to account for the serious damage it has caused.

Another effort for accountability is playing out in the courts.

On March 18, the Center for Constitutional Rights urged a federal appeals court to re-open a case brought by four Iraqi Abu Ghraib torture victims against private military contractor CACI Premier Technology, Inc. The men were subjected to sexual violence, electric shocks, forced nudity, broken bones, and deprivation of oxygen, food, and water.

U.S. military investigators concluded that several CACI interrogators directed U.S. soldiers to commit “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” of Abu Ghraib detainees in order to “soften” them up for interrogations, but a district court judge dismissed the case against CACI in June by narrowly interpreting the Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel v. Shell/Royal Dutch Petroleum to foreclose Alien Tort Statute (ATS) claims arising in Iraq.

Said Center for Constitutional Rights Legal Director Baher Azmy, “U.S. courts must at last provide a remedy for the victims of torture at Abu Ghraib. CACI indisputably played a key role in those atrocities, and it is time for them to be held accountable. The lower court’s ruling creates lawless spaces where corporations can commit torture and war crimes and then find safe haven in the United States. That’s a ruling that should not stand.”

What if there were international repercussions for U.S. aggression?

US-military-and-CIA-intervention

Setting aside for a moment the question of whether there was any justification for the Russian Federation to deploy troops to Ukraine’s autonomous region of Crimea in order to “defend our citizens and our compatriots” as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday, the intense international condemnation of that action raises another question: why is there never any comparable response to U.S. acts of aggression? And, if there were threats of genuine international repercussions, would it modify U.S. behavior at all?

Since Russia sent troops into Crimea, the United States and United Kingdom announced boycotts of the Sochi Paralympic Games, European Union leaders called a special summit at which they are expected to suspend talks with Russia on economic cooperation and liberalized visa rules, the U.S. suspended trade negotiations and all military-to-military engagements with Russia, U.S. lawmakers discussed sanctions on Russia’s banks and freezing assets of Russian public institutions and private investors, the Group of Seven major industrialized nations canceled preparations for the G8 summit that had been scheduled to take place in Sochi in June, and there is even talk of expelling Russia from the G8 altogether.

The Obama administration continues to discuss further ways to isolate and punish Russia, with members of the White House’s National Security Council spending more than two hours in the Situation Room on Monday discussing the administration’s options for pursuing additional diplomatic and economic consequences for Moscow.

“I think the world is largely united in recognizing that the steps Russia has taken are a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, Ukraine’s territorial integrity; that they’re a violation of international law; they’re a violation of previous agreements that Russia has made with respect to how it treats and respects its neighbors,” Obama said.

In short, the international response to Russia’s intervention could hardly be stronger. But even if this uproar is fully warranted (and there are certainly some doubts whether that is the case), it begs the question of why there has been such little international outcry, relatively speaking, over the decade-plus old war on terror that has violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countless countries, including most prominently, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya. When it comes to the U.S.’s ongoing drone wars, there have been some grumblings from the international community over concepts such as transparency, distinction, proportionality and sovereignty, but nothing along the lines of the international response to Russia’s Ukraine incursion.

It should be remembered that while the world is transfixed on this so far bloodless incursion of Russian forces into Ukrainian territory, the United States military deployed military forces to more than 130 countries last year, in near total secrecy.

As a January 16 report by journalist Nick Turse explained,

In 2013, elite U.S. forces were deployed in 134 countries around the globe, according to Major Matthew Robert Bockholt of SOCOM Public Affairs.  This 123% increase during the Obama years demonstrates how, in addition to conventional wars and a CIA drone campaign, public diplomacy and extensive electronic spying, the U.S. has engaged in still another significant and growing form of overseas power projection.  Conducted largely in the shadows by America’s most elite troops, the vast majority of these missions take place far from prying eyes, media scrutiny, or any type of outside oversight, increasing the chances of unforeseen blowback and catastrophic consequences.

So, the United States is operating in 134 countries around the world (more than half of the total number of UN Member States), and its actions elicit barely a whimper of complaint, but Russia sends forces to one country (arguably on a much firmer pretext and rationale), and the international community reacts as if World War III has just been declared.

The double standards are mind-boggling, and beg the question “why?”

Of course, we all know that the United States is the world’s economic and military powerhouse, but does that fully explain it? Perhaps the U.S. has just been throwing its weight around for so long – invading countries on a whim, disregarding international norms, violating territorial integrity and national sovereignty – that it all seems normal at this point. Or perhaps the U.S. and its allies actually fundamentally agree on the virtue of U.S. military action, and share the same view on Russia: namely that Russia is a negative force in world affairs that must be neutralized at any cost.

If this is the case, it seems that the international community as a whole is just as hypocritical as the United States is, and lacks any sort of guiding principle on what constitutes “normative behavior.” On the other hand, if nations are just afraid of standing up to the bully on the playground, one wonders what might happen if they ever do grow a spine. Perhaps U.S. lawlessness and military adventurism might finally be reined in.

U.S. pronouncements on international law carry little weight with Russia

Russian soldiers have taken up positions outside Ukrainian military barracks across Crimea.

Russian soldiers have taken up positions outside Ukrainian military barracks across Crimea.

As Washington responds with shock and outrage over the deployment of Russian troops to the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has stressed that if violence spreads in the eastern regions of Ukraine and Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population.

In a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday, Putin reportedly said that Russian citizens and Russian-speakers in Ukraine faced an “unflagging” threat from ultranationalists, and that the measures Moscow has taken – mainly sending troops to serve as a buffer between Ukrainian military forces and the local population – were appropriate given the “extraordinary situation.”

This situation includes outbreaks of violence between Ukrainian nationalists and Russian loyalists, as well as official acts of the newly formed Ukrainian government that have been widely seen as discriminatory against the Russian-speaking population. Last week, pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators clashed in front of the parliament building in Simferopol, the capital of Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea Region, leading to several hospitalizations and at least two deaths.

“Demonstrators slammed each other with flags and threw stones as leaders on both sides urged their followers to avoid provocations,” reported RT.

Further, Russia’s Federal Migration Service said it has seen a sharp spike in applications from Ukrainian citizens seeking refuge from outbreaks of violence following a U.S.-backed coup that toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22. As RIA Novosti reports,

The head of the migration service’s citizenship department, Valentina Kazakova, said 143,000 people had applied for asylum in the last two weeks of February alone.

“People are afraid for the fate of those close to them and are asking not just for protection, but also to help them receive fast-tracked Russian citizenship,” Kazakova said. “A large number of applications are from members of Ukrainian law enforcement bodies and government officials fearing reprisals from radically disposed groups.”

Many people living in Crimea, a 10,000-square mile peninsula on the Black Sea with historical and linguistic ties to Russia, agree with Moscow’s assertion that Ukraine’s revolutionaries are violent, western-backed far-right ultranationalists who intend to roll back the rights of Russian-speakers and restrict Crimea’s links with Russia itself.

Unfortunately, the actions of the Ukrainian government following the ouster of President Yanukovych have largely confirmed these fears. Last week, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, began immediately moving to prohibit the official use of the Russian language in Ukraine and block broadcasts of Russian television and radio programs in the country.

The Verkhovna Rada’s repeal of the law on the “Principles of the State Language Policy,” which provided for the use of the Russian language in Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, could lead to further division and unrest, warned the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Astrid Thors.

“The authorities have to consult widely to ensure that future language legislation accommodates the needs and positions of everyone in Ukrainian society, whether they are speakers of Ukrainian, Russian or other languages,” said Thors.

ukraine_map_region_language

In response to the blocking of Russian broadcasts, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, noted in a letter to Oleksandr Turchinov, Acting President of Ukraine and Chair of the Verkhovna Rada, that “Banning broadcasts is one of the most extreme forms of interference in media freedom and should only be applied in exceptional circumstances.”

It is in this context of official suppression of Russian rights, as well as the sporadic violence leading to a dramatic spike in asylum seekers, that Putin sought authorization from the Russian Parliament to deploy military forces to Crimea. Putin said he proposed military action because of “the threat to the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation,” and the Parliament passed his proposal unanimously.

Although no shots have been fired by the Russian troops and a Ukrainian colonel was quoted as saying that the Ukrainian and Russian sides had “agreed not to point our weapons at one another,” the presence of Russian forces in Ukraine is being denounced in the strongest terms by U.S. officials, including President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Appearing on ABC News’ This Week on Sunday, Kerry said,

What has already happened is a brazen act of aggression, in violation of international law and violation of the UN Charter and violation of the Helsinki Final Act. In violation of the 1997 Ukraine-Russia basing agreement. Russia is engaged in a military act of aggression against another country, and it has huge risks, George. It’s a 19th century act in the 21st century. It really puts at question Russia’s capacity to be within the G-8.

If the United States had a truly free press, the outrage expressed by the U.S. Secretary of State over the Russian deployment of troops and its alleged violation of international law would lead any honest journalist to follow up with a question like, “Excuse me, Mr. Secretary, but how can you possibly feign such outrage with a straight face when we all know that the U.S. has repeatedly invaded foreign countries and habitually violated the UN Charter with impunity for years? What gives the United States the moral authority or credibility to be the arbiter of international law and the legitimate use of force?”

Instead, George Stephanopoulos followed up with, “I understand it’s a violation, sir. So what’s the penalty for what Russia has already done?”

To which Kerry responded:

Well, we are busy right now coordinating with our counterparts in many parts of the world. Yesterday, the president of the United States had an hour and a half conversation with President Putin. He pointed out importantly that we don’t want this to be a larger confrontation. We are not looking for a U.S.-Russia, East-West redux here. What we want is for Russia to work with us, with Ukraine. If they have legitimate concerns, George, about Russian speaking people in Ukraine, there are plenty of ways to deal with that without invading the country. They have the ability to work with the government, they could work with us, they could work with the UN. They could call for observers to be put in the country. There are all kinds of alternatives. But Russia has chosen this aggressive act, which really puts in question Russia’s role in the world and Russia’s willingness to be a modern nation and part of the G8.

Incidentally, the 90-minute phone call between Putin and Obama that Kerry referred to was initiated by the Russian president, who called Obama to explain why Russia was sending troops to the Crimean Peninsula. The Russian government released a statement on the phone call, which reads:

In response to the concern shown by Barack Obama regarding possible plans of the use of Russian armed forces on the territory of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin drew attention to the provocative criminal acts by ultra-nationalist elements, which are in fact encouraged by the current authorities in Kiev.

The Russian President stressed the existence of real threats to the lives and health of Russian citizens and compatriots on Ukrainian territory. Vladimir Putin stressed that in the case of further spread of violence in the eastern regions of Ukraine and Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population.

The White House’s readout of the phone call was quite different. According to an account posted on the White House website,

President Obama expressed his deep concern over Russia’s clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is a breach of international law, including Russia’s obligations under the UN Charter, and of its 1997 military basing agreement with Ukraine, and which is inconsistent with the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the Helsinki Final Act. The United States condemns Russia’s military intervention into Ukrainian territory. …

President Obama made clear that Russia’s continued violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would negatively impact Russia’s standing in the international community. In the coming hours and days, the United States will urgently consult with allies and partners in the UN Security Council, the North Atlantic Council, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and with the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum. The United States will suspend upcoming participation in preparatory meetings for the G-8. Going forward, Russia’s continued violation of international law will lead to greater political and economic isolation.

It is clear from this statement that the United States is committing itself to a confrontational course that intends to rally the world in isolating the Russian government, including perhaps by expelling Russia from the G-8. But as the AP reported on Saturday,

Despite blunt warnings about costs and consequences, President Barack Obama and European leaders have limited options for retaliating against Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, the former Soviet republic now at the center of an emerging conflict between East and West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far dismissed the few specific threats from the United States, which include scrapping plans for Obama to attend an international summit in Russia this summer and cutting off trade talks sought by Moscow.

“There have been strong words from the U.S. and other counties and NATO,” said Keir Giles, a Russian military analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London. “But these are empty threats. There is really not a great deal that can be done to influence the situation.”

Perhaps what the U.S. hopes is that simply reminding Russia of its “obligations under international law” will somehow lead to changes in Russian policy; that Moscow will just bend to the will of Washington on this issue. The problem is, U.S. pronouncements about international law are largely empty rhetoric, and no one is more aware of this than the Russians.

It was just last summer that the Russian government was admonishing the Obama administration for its drive to war with Syria, largely basing its opposition to a possible U.S. bombing campaign on the grounds of international law.

“The potential strike by the United States against Syria,” Putin wrote in an op-ed published by The New York Times, “despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. … It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”

Putin also chided the U.S.’s over-reliance on military force to settle its disputes, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and the narrowly averted intervention in Syria:

It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”

But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.

With all those military interventions in its recent past – all carried out in violation of the UN Charter – the U.S. is certainly in no position now to lecture Russia on international law, and Moscow knows this.

Then of course, there is also the matter of the U.S.’s drone wars – the ongoing remote-controlled bombing campaigns of countries including Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Just last week, the UN Special Rapporteur on terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, published the second report of his year-long investigation into drone strikes, highlighting dozens of strikes where civilians have been killed.

The report identifies 30 attacks between 2006 and 2013 that show sufficient indications of civilian deaths to demand a “public explanation of the circumstances and the justification for the use of deadly force” under international law.

But somehow the U.S. manages to get a pass when it comes to these unpleasant realities, and is able to maintain a veneer of credibility when it rebukes others for violating international law. At least as far as Russia’s concerned though, these rebukes are not likely to work.

Lessons to be drawn from contradictory U.S. approaches to Ukraine and Bahrain

Demonstration in Bahrain in 2012.

Demonstration in Bahrain in 2012.

The last three months of protests in Ukraine have provided eye-opening insights into the dynamics of effective strategies for toppling governments that revolutionaries around the world would do well to take note of. Perhaps more noteworthy, however, are the insights offered into the mindset of U.S. policymakers, namely how shamelessly hypocritical they can be in their treatment of protest movements depending on the goals and geopolitical alignments of those movements.

While U.S. officials vocally supported the Euromaidan protests from the beginning, publicly chastising Ukrainian authorities for using force against demonstrators and declining from forcefully condemning acts of violence committed by protesters, U.S. policy towards Bahrain, which has been in the grips of peaceful popular protests for democracy since 2011, has taken a much different approach.

For three years, the U.S. government has been turning a blind eye to the wanton abuses committed in Bahrain, continuing to sell weapons to the Bahraini regime and docking the Navy’s Fifth Fleet on the country’s shores. The three years of unrest has compelled the Obama administration to reluctantly place a hold on sales of some military equipment that could easily be used against protesters, but the U.S. has continued to supply equipment for Bahrain’s “external defense capabilities.”

Human rights groups, however, point out that some of the equipment the U.S. continues to provide, such as Cobra helicopters, have been used against protesters and that the United States cannot be sure that sales to and training of Bahraini military forces is not being used to crush unrest.

Amnesty International’s 2013 country report on Bahrain noted that “The authorities continued to crack down on protests and dissent” and “Scores of people remained in prison or were detained for opposing the government, including prisoners of conscience and people sentenced after unfair trials.”

Further, human rights defenders were harassed and imprisoned and “security forces continued to use excessive force against protesters, resulting in deaths, and allegedly tortured or otherwise ill-treated detainees,” Amnesty reported.

With these human rights abuses in mind, the continued U.S. military aid to the country is likely being carried out in violation of humanitarian obligations under international law. According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,

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

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

Earlier this month, Human Rights First pleaded with the U.S. government to use the third anniversary of the Bahraini uprising to at least push for the release of human rights defenders who have been imprisoned since the peaceful democratic uprising began.

“Human rights activists in Bahrain wonder when President Obama will act on his 2011 pledge that the United States ‘cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just,’” said Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley. “The Bahraini government’s repression over the last three years, including its jailing of political dissidents, has made the country more unstable. It’s time the United States told its ally that its relationship with Bahrain can’t afford another year like the last three.”

While the Obama administration won’t even call for the release of Bahraini political prisoners, much less move towards implementing sanctions against the Bahraini regime for its gross human rights abuses over the past three years, U.S. policymakers wasted no time in threatening sanctions against President Viktor Yanukovych’s government in Ukraine after police attempted to quell the pro-EU demonstrations this winter.

The first threat of sanctions came on Jan. 7, a little more than a month after protests began, in a Senate resolution which warned the Ukrainian government that “in the event of further state violence against peaceful protestors, the President and Congress should consider whether to apply targeted sanctions.”

These threats were reiterated by President Obama on Feb. 19, warning that “there will be consequences if people step over the line,” and saying he holds the government “primarily responsible” for showing restraint in dealing with the opposition.

Going beyond diplomatic reprimands of the Ukrainian government, policymakers have gone to absurd and unprecedented lengths to make clear their solidarity and support for the Euromaidan protesters. In mid-December, U.S. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) – both members of the Foreign Relations Committee – flew to Ukraine and addressed a crowd of demonstrators in Kyiv.

GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS -  Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), left, takes a photograph as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) makes a speech to pro-European integration protesters in Kyiv.

GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS – Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), left, takes a photograph as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) makes a speech to pro-European integration protesters in Kyiv.

“We are here,” said McCain, “to support your just cause: the sovereign right to determine [Ukraine’s] own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe.” Murphy added, “Ukraine’s future stands with Europe, and the U.S. stands with Ukraine.”

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland feeds cookies to Ukraine protesters.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland feeds cookies to Ukraine protesters.

Not to be outdone, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt went to the barricades in Kyiv to hand out cookies and buns to the demonstrators, in a move widely seen as an implicit message of official U.S. support to the Euromaidan protests. As Voice of Russia reported,

The recent handing-out of buns and cookies to protesters by the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, has become a graphic illustration of the West’s “policy of non-interference”. First, she shook hands with and embraced the demonstrators and only then left for a meeting with President Yanukovych, whom she lectured for a couple of hours on the poor treatment of the opposition.

President Obama also forcefully defended the rights of the protesters, despite the violent turn that the demonstrations took since the initially peaceful gatherings in late November. After renewed violence on Jan. 19 that left 60 policemen injured and a reported 40 or so protesters hurt, the White House said in a statement that the blame for the bloodshed laid squarely with the Ukrainian authorities.

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

While it may be confounding to the casual observer why the U.S. government would take such divergent and contradictory approaches to the two situations in Ukraine and Bahrain, there are a couple of important differences to keep in mind that may help explain the difference in U.S. policy. On one hand, Bahrain is ruled by an unelected dictatorship, while Ukraine’s deposed government was democratically elected.

Also, the Bahraini protests have maintained a commitment to nonviolence, while the Ukrainian protests quickly turned militant following the authorities’ attempt to clear the Maidan of demonstrators on Nov. 30. Following that crackdown, Kyiv was rocked by riots, in which a group of protesters commandeered a bulldozer and attempted to pull down the fence surrounding the Presidential Administration building. Others threw bricks and Molotov cocktails at Berkut guards.

But perhaps the biggest difference between Ukraine and Bahrain, as well as the anti-government protests that have gripped each country, is the geopolitical orientation of the governments. In Bahrain, the Sunni royal family is closely aligned with U.S. ally Saudi Arabia while the Shiite protesters are feared to have support from Iran.

In Ukraine, the deposed leader Viktor Yanukovych had close relations with Moscow, a U.S. adversary. Although Yanukovych also attempted to maintain good relations with Brussels, when it came to choosing between the European Union and the Moscow-led Eurasian Union, he chose the latter. This sealed his fate in the eyes of Western leaders, who seemed intent on embracing the pro-EU demonstrators, no matter how violent or militant their tactics.

This leads to a few lessons that can be drawn from these recent events.

Electoral legitimacy does not matter to U.S. policymakers.

If you were under the misimpression that the United States cares about whether leaders are legitimately elected or not, you would be wrong. Despite his flaws, the fact is Yanukovych was voted into office by Ukrainians in an election that the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said “met most OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections and consolidated progress achieved since 2004.”

Bahrain, on the other hand, has been ruled by the al-Khalifa dynasty since 1783. The current King of Bahrain, since 2002, is Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and the head of the government, since 1971, is Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, appointed by the king. In other words, Bahrain is an outright dictatorship, yet, there are no cookies handed out for the demonstrators who have risen up in that country, and no words of support for the political prisoners who languish in Bahraini jails.

It doesn’t matter whether protests are peaceful or violent.

As long as protests have policy goals that are shared by the U.S. government, such as overthrowing a leader who has sympathies with a U.S. adversary such as Russia, the U.S. will support those protests no matter how violent they may be. On the other hand, peaceful protests that pose a dilemma to U.S. strategy, for example by threatening a government that hosts a U.S. naval fleet, will be abandoned by U.S. policymakers. No cookies for them.

Violent protests are more effective than peaceful protests, as long as the protests have Western backing.

In three short months, Ukrainian militants managed to topple the Yanukovych government, while in three long years, Bahraini protesters appear no closer to achieving their goals than they were in 2011. The main difference appears to be the fact that Western governments, including the U.S., quickly moved to de-legitimize the Yanukovych government through policy pronouncements that made clear that the government had lost credibility in the eyes of the world. Threats of sanctions appear to have had an effect on many members of the Yanukovych government who began jumping ship and leaving the president out to dry.

U.S. officials are shameless in their hypocrisy.

While U.S. officials insist that foreign governments listen to their people, they obviously couldn’t care less about what the American people have to say about anything. The White House laid the blame for the tension in Ukraine squarely on the government for “failing to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of its people,” called on the authorities to withdraw riot police and effectively absolved protesters for any role they may have had in the violence.

But when Americans rose up in 2011 and 2012 in protest against corruption and income inequality as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Obama administration was virtually silent when the police carried out a nationwide violent crackdown on the encampments. When asked about the police violence against Occupy Oakland in October 2011, White House spokesman Jay Carney laid the blame on the protesters, despite the fact that YouTube videos clearly demonstrate that the police were the instigators.

“As to the violence,” he said, “we obviously believe and insist that everyone behave in a lawful manner, even as they’re expressing, justifiably, their frustrations. It’s also important that laws are upheld and obeyed.”

This is essentially the exact opposite of what administration officials were saying regarding the violence in Kyiv, which was blamed entirely on the police.

So, what we can infer from all this is that all of the U.S. talk of democracy is just that, talk. What the United States is really interested in is geostrategic advantage and global dominance, so if you want to have a protest that the U.S. will back, you should make sure that your protest will advance U.S. geopolitical goals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ignoring right-wing elements, U.S. hypocritically blames Ukrainian government for Kyiv violence

Protesters clash with police in Ukraine on 24 November 2012, following President Yanukovych's announcement he would not sign the EU Association Agreement.

Protesters clash with police in Ukraine on November 24, 2012, following President Yanukovych’s announcement he would not sign the EU Association Agreement.

The escalating crisis in Ukraine, triggered by President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision in late November to forego closer ties with the EU in favor of strengthening ties with Moscow, has reached a boiling point in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, with intense clashes between protesters and police over the weekend.

Following Yanukovych’s decision on Saturday to sign a new set of laws criminalizing some tactics of the pro-EU movement and clamping down on NGOs that receive funding from foreign sources, violence erupted when police tried to stop hardliners from marching on government buildings.

The demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails, attacked officers with sticks, stones, and flares, and set police buses on fire. The police threw stun grenades and tear gas and fired water cannons.

Bus torched by pro-EU demonstrators in Kyiv.

Bus torched by pro-EU demonstrators in Kyiv.

The Ukrainian interior ministry said 60 policemen were injured, while newswires report 40 or so protesters hurt. The violence on the part of the protesters was at times vicious, as seen in this video footage of demonstrators beating two police officers:

Ukrainian opposition leader and former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko was also assaulted by demonstrators when he tried to prevent protesters and riot police from clashing Sunday. Klitschko was sprayed with a fire extinguisher by the same protesters he had been rallying for weeks in an attempt to overthrow the government.

Although the situation in Ukraine has been volatile for some time, with sporadic outbreaks of violence committed by both protesters and police throughout December and January, the United States was quick to lay the blame for the new escalation of violence squarely with the Ukrainian authorities.

“The increasing tension in Ukraine is a direct consequence of the government failing to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of its people,” the White House said in a statement on Sunday.

Instead, it has moved to weaken the foundations of Ukraine’s democracy by criminalizing peaceful protest and stripping civil society and political opponents of key democratic protections under the law. We urge the government of Ukraine to take steps that represent a better way forward for Ukraine, including repeal of the anti-democratic legislation signed into law in recent days, withdrawing the riot police from downtown Kyiv, and beginning a dialogue with the political opposition.

From its first days, the Maidan movement has been defined by a spirit of non-violence and we support today’s call by opposition political leaders to reestablish that principle. The U.S. will continue to consider additional steps — including sanctions — in response to the use of violence.

The White House statement followed similar remarks by Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State, at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. Asserting that demonstrators in Ukraine have been nonviolent, she said, “The whole world has watched the peaceful protest of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians on the Maidan in Kyiv and tens of thousands in other cities across Ukraine.”

She noted that protesters were first inspired by the government’s decision to halt the Association Agreement negotiations with the European Union, but claimed that their resolve “deepened and broadened into something much more in the ensuing weeks as events snowballed.”

These included, she said, “the violent attempt by security forces to clear the Maidan of protestors on November 30 and the lack of government accountability that followed; the second attempt to use security forces to shut down the Maidan in the wee hours of December 11; and finally the Ukrainian government’s decision to accept $15 billion in Russian bail-out money.”

What is completely absent from her “analysis” is the role played by far-right hardliners in Ukraine, who have had a deep influence over the direction of the protests from the beginning.

One of the early outbreaks of violence in Kyiv was on December 1, when clashes broke out on Bankova Street near the building of the Presidential Administration, where the special Ukrainian police force, the Berkut, held a line against hundreds of violent demonstrators. The protesters threw flares, smoke bombs, Molotov cocktails and stones at the police, beat them with chains, fired tear gas, and brought up an excavator to break through the police cordon.

Protesters use a tractor to break through police lines near the president's office on Dec. 1, 2013. [Reuters]

Protesters use a tractor to break through police lines near the president’s office on Dec. 1, 2013. [Reuters]

Media reports referred to this hardcore group – many of them masked – as “unknown activists,” largely because it was unknown whether their actions were, in fact, sanctioned by the opposition.

Since the opposition had specifically renounced any use of violence, the media soon started to refer to these men as “provocateurs.” An analyst at OpenDemocracy.net, however, said that the situtation is more complicated.

“What is clear,” wrote Anton Shekhovtsov on 3 December, “is that the hardcore of the violent crowd was not the titushki [provocateurs], but right-wing extremists and far right football hooligans. Almost all of them wore masks and yellow armbands with the wolf’s hook symbol; and were clearly battle-equipped.”

Shekhovtsov pointed out that the black wolf’s hook on yellow armbands indicated their political affiliation: the Social-National Assembly (SNA), a neo-Nazi organization. In addition to the SNA, the violent extremists likely included members of ‘Tryzub’ (Trident) and ‘Bily Molot’ (White Hammer).

The U.S., however, appears more than happy to ignore those elements and place all the blame for Ukraine’s escalating violence with the government. In explaining why the outcome of the struggle in Ukraine matters to the United States, Victoria Nuland claimed last week that “these same principles and values are the cornerstone of all free democracies, and America supports them in every country on the planet.”

The Ukrainian protesters, she said, “are all calling for the same basic rights we hold dear here in the United States. They want to live in a country where their government truly represents the wishes of the people and where they can safely exercise their rights without the fear of oppression.”

Ironically, on the same day that Nuland was offering this testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the largest civil rights settlement for protest-related mass arrests in U.S. history was being handed down in New York City.

After nearly a decade of legal wrangling, the deal reached last Wednesday offered some degree of justice — albeit delayed — for more than 1,800 peaceful protesters arrested during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. The settlement comes 15 months after a ruling by a federal judge in September 2012, which determined that “there was no probable cause to arrest protestors.”

Yet, some said that the agreement was bittersweet.

“This settlement is not justice, but it is positive closure,” Zachary Miller, who attended the RNC protests as a journalist with the Urbana-Champaign, Illinois Independent Media Center and was held for 23 hours after being swept up in a mass arrest, told Common Dreams.

“Settlements are symbolic and will never curb repression,” said Barucha Peller, who was also arrested at the protests.

Indeed, after spending almost $16 million dollars of taxpayer money defending itself during nearly ten years of litigation, the New York Police Department has continued to violate protesters’ civil rights, most notably in the violent crackdown on Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and 2012.

In an attempt to clear out a downtown encampment in November 2011, the NYPD, decked out in riot gear with batons drawn, used teargas and “sonic cannon” crowd control weaponry to attack peaceful protesters. About a dozen demonstrators were injured. One 19-year-old protester was photographed being taken away with blood dripping down his face, with a possible skull injury resulting from a baton strike to the head. Witnesses saw police push protesters to the ground and one young woman was reportedly dragged away by police by her hair.

Occupy Wall Street protesters are arrested during a march in Manhattan, October 2011.

Occupy Wall Street protesters are arrested during a march in Manhattan, October 2011.

As CBS News reported at the time, “some of these altercations … seemed unprovoked. Others appeared touched off in part by protesters removing barricades erected to control the demonstrations. But in both cases the level of violence suggested, at best, indiscipline by individual cops and at worst official license to cause bodily harm.”

On the other side of the country, Oakland police used “an overwhelming military-type response” to disperse Occupy Oakland demonstrators in October 2011 and intentionally fired at Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen who was critically injured in the protests, according to a report issued by an outside monitor of the Oakland Police Department.

Video taken of the October events shows that when fellow demonstrators went to the aid of Olsen, another cop threw a flash grenade into the crowd, further endangering the injured protester and those who were coming to his aid.

In response, Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling on police to respect the fundamental rights of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators across the country.

“The United States’ tradition of peaceful protest is protected not only in U.S. law but also under international law,” said Alison Parker, U.S. program director at Human Rights Watch. “Even when protesters’ actions warrant police intervention, force should only be used where strictly necessary and then only to the degree necessary.”

Amnesty International also weighed in, urging authorities “to ensure that police show restraint in their response to Occupy Wall Street protests, following critical injuries suffered by a man in Oakland, Ca. in clashes between police and demonstrators.”

“The increasingly heavy-handed policing tactics used to quell the Occupy Wall Street protests are deeply alarming,” said Guadalupe Marengo, deputy program director for the Americas. “The police must not resort to using excessive force, such as tear gas, unless strictly necessary.”

All in all, nearly 8,000 overwhelmingly peaceful protesters were arrested over two years of Occupy Wall Street-related protests.

At the height of the Occupy movement, public opinion surveys indicated that 79% of Americans agreed with the protesters’ main grievances, particularly the statement that the “The big banks got bailed but the middle class got left behind.” On the other hand, when it comes to the political crisis in Ukraine, the situation is much murkier.

As far as the primary issue that sparked the demonstrations in Kyiv — the decision by the Ukrainian government to forgo the EU Association Agreement in favor of the Moscow-led Customs Union — the Ukrainian public seems rather evenly split, and seems to understand that there are complex geopolitical and economic concerns that the government is trying to balance.

Among the findings of a public opinion poll from December, conducted by the Research & Branding Group on Euromaidan 2013, include the following:

Union

Reasons

benficial

Despite this more nuanced and complicated picture, U.S. officials are not hesitating to paint this issue as black-and-white, with the Kyiv protesters righteously defending the will of the people, and the authorities attempting to violently crush Ukraine’s democratic aspirations.

Ukrainians “want to live in a country where their government truly represents the wishes of the people and where they can safely exercise their rights without the fear of oppression,” Victoria Nuland said last week.

Perhaps if she also spoke out on behalf of U.S. protesters repressed by their government, it would be easier to take her comments seriously, but as it stands, it looks obvious that U.S. policy towards Ukraine is just another attempt to undermine the foreign policy goals of the Yanukovych government and Russia — as well as any country not within the U.S. sphere of influence.

%d bloggers like this: