Peaches, the twenty-first century torchbearer of feminist punk, just released a video and track in support of Pussy Riot, the Russian female anarchist art group that has become the symbol of political oppression in Russia under Putin.
Unlike in the case of something like Kony 2012, this video is not a gratuite kind of protest. The whole point of Pussy Riot, and the wider protests in Russia of which it is a part, is the embeddedness in social media, and performing symbolic acts against the regime. That’s reflected in this ‘Free Pussy Riot’ video, which consists of footage sent in by Peaches fans.
Pussy Riot – whatever else it is – is also really an example for those Western hipster, a-political, “ironic” bands and the people who wallow in it (not excluding myself here). Punk, youth culture here once was a form of actual protest against the powers that be. That aspect of youth culture, thanks to the consumerist hipster, is long gone; grunge probably was the last vestige of it.
The three girls of this group, however, are literally risking everything. By staging an act of protest against spy-dictator Putin in an Orthodox cathedral, they have incurred the wrath of the most powerful institutions in the country. Pussy Riot is facing years in a Siberian prison camp – the worst imaginable place you can be in. This must have known this was going to happen, even though it’s an outrageous and thoroughly undemocratic and unjudicial sentence.
Throughout their trial, in their statements Pussy Riot have courageously pointed at the creeping dictatorship, the obliteration of the separation between church and state, and the squashing of free speech and right to demonstrate in Russia. They’ve even done this in an artful way, declaring themselves heirs to 1920s and 1930s absurdist collectives, and standing in a tradition of ‘last statements’ in show trials like dissidents of the Stalin and Soviet era.
As a political essay, the closing statement by Yekaterina Samutsevich, member of the group, is superb:
Why did Putin feel the need to exploit the Orthodox religion and its aesthetic? After all, he could have employed his own, far more secular tools of power—for example, the state-controlled corporations, or his menacing police system, or his obedient judiciary system. It may be that the harsh, failed policies of Putin’s government, the incident with the submarine Kursk, bombings of civilians in broad daylight, and other unpleasant moments in his political career forced him to ponder the fact that it was high time to resign; that otherwise, the citizens of Russia would help him do this. Apparently, it was then that he felt the need for more persuasive, transcendental guarantees of his long tenure at the pinnacle of power. It was then that it became necessary to make use of the aesthetic of the Orthodox religion, which is historically associated with the heyday of Imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself.
So, what these women have achieved is exposing the coming-into-being of dictatorship in Russia. They’ve shown that to the world. For that – even though Putin is probably feeling the heat and is already saying that the group shouldn’t be treated “too harsly” – they’ll probably end up in jail.
This Wednesday will be the tenth anniversary of the US prison camp at Guantánamo Bay. Opened by Bush and, despite all his campaign promises, kept open by Barack Obama, this camp represents the warped state the rule of law has been put into in the US by both these presidents.
The New York Times has an impressive op-ed by Lakhdar Boumediene, one of the most well-known former Guántanamo prisoners, who was held innocent and subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques for seven years before he was released by court order.
Boumediene was head of the Red Crescent’s humanitarian aid for children department in Bosnia-Herzegovina before he was captured off the streets on October 19, 2001 by the US Army, deported to Gitmo, and held incommunicado without recourse to a lawyer, the court system, or Geneva protections. While he was subjected to stress techniques, his two daughters had to grow up for seven years without him. Only when the Supreme Court intervened to stop the Bush administration’s lawless practices, Boumediene was granted access to court, found innocent, and released.
His case represents the entire argument against Guantánamo. No government on Earth should be allowed to indefinitely detain people and treat them like they want without any check by an independent judiciary. That is what we have human rights for. Barack Obama, moreover, is the president who has turned this once controversial policy into bipartisan consensus. Under this president, indefinite detention has even been signed into law.
So to remind everyone of this poignant fact, here’s the op-ed by Boumediene. There’s another one too, by the way, from yet another Guantánamo survivor, Murat Kurnaz.
ON Wednesday, America’s detention camp at Guantánamo Bay will have been open for 10 years. For seven of them, I was held there without explanation or charge. During that time my daughters grew up without me. They were toddlers when I was imprisoned, and were never allowed to visit or speak to me by phone. Most of their letters were returned as “undeliverable,” and the few that I received were so thoroughly and thoughtlessly censored that their messages of love and support were lost.
Some American politicians say that people at Guantánamo are terrorists, but I have never been a terrorist. Had I been brought before a court when I was seized, my children’s lives would not have been torn apart, and my family would not have been thrown into poverty. It was only after the United States Supreme Court ordered the government to defend its actions before a federal judge that I was finally able to clear my name and be with them again.
I left Algeria in 1990 to work abroad. In 1997 my family and I moved to Bosnia and Herzegovina at the request of my employer, the Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates. I served in the Sarajevo office as director of humanitarian aid for children who had lost relatives to violence during the Balkan conflicts. In 1998, I became a Bosnian citizen. We had a good life, but all of that changed after 9/11.
When I arrived at work on the morning of Oct. 19, 2001, an intelligence officer was waiting for me. He asked me to accompany him to answer questions. I did so, voluntarily — but afterward I was told that I could not go home. The United States had demanded that local authorities arrest me and five other men. News reports at the time said the United States believed that I was plotting to blow up its embassy in Sarajevo. I had never — for a second — considered this.
The fact that the United States had made a mistake was clear from the beginning. Bosnia’s highest court investigated the American claim, found that there was no evidence against me and ordered my release. But instead, the moment I was released American agents seized me and the five others. We were tied up like animals and flown to Guantánamo, the American naval base in Cuba. I arrived on Jan. 20, 2002.
I still had faith in American justice. I believed my captors would quickly realize their mistake and let me go. But when I would not give the interrogators the answers they wanted — how could I, when I had done nothing wrong? — they became more and more brutal. I was kept awake for many days straight. I was forced to remain in painful positions for hours at a time. These are things I do not want to write about; I want only to forget.
Unbeknownst to many people, Barack Obama’s ascendency to the presidency has, despite his 2008 campaign promises, done almost nothing to reverse one of the most heinous policies of the Bush-Cheney era: the practice of indefinitely detaining people whom the US state deems “enemy combatants”, or terrorism suspects. Without charges and without recourse to a judge. The mere charge of being a terror suspect can still lead to uncontrollable, unaccountable detention by the American government; this is viewed by both Bush-Cheney and Obama as an inherent, presidential prerogative. No one who is not out of his right mind would not view this as in straightforward contradiction to the rule of law.
But President Obama’s record has just gotten even worse. After months of threatening to veto a bill put forward by the partly Republican-controlled Congress allowing the U.S. military to indefinitely detain anyone, including American citizens, anywhere in the world, including in the U.S., without charges, he has now said that he will sign it into law.
Thereby Obama, the 2008 darling of liberals and progressives, has become the president who has made extrajudicial indefinite detention at the charge of being an “enemy combatant” official law and policy, rather than an exception. Obama is even worse than Bush-Cheney! This should be clear to anyone who is still an Obama fanboy.
When in the 1950s, the McCarthy era, Congress presented Harry Truman with a similar bill allowing the indefinite detention of Communists and other ‘subversive elements’ without charges, Truman vetoed it. But Obama is not such a person. The right not to be detained forever by the state without a fair trial is a fundamental human right, part of the Western juridical tradition, that has just been violated possibly forever by this president.
This becoming law will also mean two things. First, that the U.S. military can now be involved in domestic policing activities (!). Second, that the battleground of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ has now been extended to American soil too. Can you believe that?
At this point, I would officially hope that Obama gets defeated at the polls next year. If Ron Paul’s ideas on economic policy weren’t so nutty, I would support him – a Republican - if he was the nominee.
In one of the least surprising developments imaginable, President Obama – after spending months threatening to veto the Levin/McCain detention bill – yesterday announced that he would instead sign it into law (this is the same individual, of course, who unequivocally vowed when seeking the Democratic nomination to support a filibuster of “any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecom[s],” only to turn around – once he had the nomination secure — and not only vote against such a filibuster, but to vote in favor of the underlying bill itself, so this is perfectly consistent with his past conduct). As a result, the final version of the Levin/McCain bill will be enshrined as law this week as part of the the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). I wrote about the primary provisions and implications of this bill last week, and won’t repeat those points here.
The ACLU said last night that the bill contains “harmful provisions that some legislators have said could authorize the U.S. military to pick up and imprison without charge or trial civilians, including American citizens, anywhere in the world” and added: “if President Obama signs this bill, it will damage his legacy.” Human Rights Watch said that Obama’s decision “does enormous damage to the rule of law both in the US and abroad” and that “President Obama will go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in US law.”
Both groups pointed out that this is the first time indefinite detention has been enshrined in law since the McCarthy era of the 1950s, when — as the ACLU put it — “President Truman had the courage to veto” the Internal Security Act of 1950 on the ground that it “would make a mockery of our Bill of Rights” and then watched Congress override the veto. That Act authorized the imprisonment of Communists and other “subversives” without the necessity of full trials or due process (many of the most egregious provisions of that bill were repealed by the 1971 Non-Detention Act, and are now being rejuvenated by these War on Terror policies of indefinite detention). President Obama, needless to say, is not Harry Truman. He’s not even the Candidate Obama of 2008 who repeatedly insisted that due process and security were not mutually exclusive and who condemned indefinite detention as “black hole” injustice.
Barack Obama has abandoned a commitment to veto a new security law that allows the military to indefinitely detain without trial American terrorism suspects arrested on US soil who could then be shipped to Guantánamo Bay.
Human rights groups accused the president of deserting his principles and disregarding the long-established principle that the military is not used in domestic policing. The legislation has also been strongly criticised by libertarians on the right angered at the stripping of individual rights for the duration of “a war that appears to have no end”.
The law, contained in the defence authorisation bill that funds the US military, effectively extends the battlefield in the “war on terror” to the US and applies the established principle that combatants in any war are subject to military detention.
The legislation’s supporters in Congress say it simply codifies existing practice, such as the indefinite detention of alleged terrorists at Guantánamo Bay. But the law’s critics describe it as a draconian piece of legislation that extends the reach of detention without trial to include US citizens arrested in their own country.
Senator Lindsey Graham said the extraordinary measures were necessary because terrorism suspects were wholly different to regular criminals.
“We’re facing an enemy, not a common criminal organisation, who will do anything and everything possible to destroy our way of life,” he said. “When you join al-Qaida you haven’t joined the mafia, you haven’t joined a gang. You’ve joined people who are bent on our destruction and who are a military threat.”
Graham added that it was right that Americans should be subject to the detention law as well as foreigners. “It is not unfair to make an American citizen account for the fact that they decided to help Al Qaeda to kill us all and hold them as long as it takes to find intelligence about what may be coming next,” he said. “And when they say, ‘I want my lawyer,’ you tell them, ‘Shut up. You don’t get a lawyer.’”
Other senators supported the new powers on the grounds that al-Qaida was fighting a war inside the US and that its followers should be treated as combatants, not civilians with constitutional protections.
“We’re talking about American citizens who can be taken from the United States and sent to a camp at Guantánamo Bay and held indefinitely. It puts every single citizen American at risk,” he said. “Really, what security does this indefinite detention of Americans give us? The first and flawed premise, both here and in the badly named Patriot Act, is that our pre-9/11 police powers were insufficient to stop terrorism. This is simply not borne out by the facts.”
Paul was backed by Senator Dianne Feinstein.
“Congress is essentially authorising the indefinite imprisonment of American citizens, without charge,” she said. “We are not a nation that locks up its citizens without charge.”
So let it be noted that Obama here has followed the line of the most conservative Republicans.
The Drone War is Obama’s original contribution to the “War” on Terror. In his term, by the president’s order more “terrorists” – that is, people suspected of being terrorists without any sort of judicial process involved – have been assassinated using unmanned drones than during the entire Bush administration.
While the Obama administration may make it look like there is nothing to worry about, of course there is. Drone strikes take place in foreign, sovereign countries, and are committed at the behest of the executive branch in the United States. These are extrajudicial, executive branch assassinations of people that have not been given any sort of trial.
With this practice, Obama effectively continues the “war model” approach to counterterrorism that was established by Bush-Cheney. In this paradigm, the world is a global battlefield in which anyone deemed a “terrorist” by the president of the United States can be summarily executed. This process takes place entirely outside the rule of law.
Unless you’re a neoconservative with no brain, you may appreciate what kind of precedents this creates. Imagine Russia taking out people it deems “terrorists” in foreign countries – for instance, in the US – and the response that would elicit. As a matter of fact, Russia has already expanded its definition of terrorists and embarked on its own policy of killing them internationally.
David Cole explains exactly why the Obama administration’s policy on drone strikes is so lawless and dangerous. It is to be noted, moreover, that there seems to be a rift within the administration about this policy.
On Friday, a front-page New York Times story reported that a rift has emerged within the Obama Administration over whether it has authority to kill “rank-and-file” Islamist militants in foreign countries in which there is not an internationally recognized “armed conflict.” The implications of this debate are not trivial: Imagine that Russia started killing individuals living in the United States with remote-controlled drone missiles, and argued that it was justified in doing so because it had determined, in secret, that they posed a threat to Russia’s security, and that the United States was unwilling to turn them over. Would we calmly pronounce such actions compliant with the rule of law? Not too likely.
And yet that is precisely the argument that the Obama Administration is now using in regard to American’s own actions in places like Yemen and Somalia—and by extension anywhere else it deems militant anti-US groups may be taking refuge. On the same day the Times article appeared, John Brennan, President Obama’s senior advisor on homeland security and counterterrorism, gave a speech at Harvard Law School in which he defended the United States’ use of drones to kill terrorists who are far from any “hot battlefield.” Brennan argued that the United States is justified in killing members of violent Islamist groups far from Afghanistan if they pose a threat to the United States, even if the threat is not “imminent” as that term has traditionally been understood. (As if to underscore the point, The Washington Post reports that the US has “significantly increased” its drone attacks in Yemen in recent months, out of fears that the government may collapse.)
In international law, where reciprocity governs, what is lawful for the goose is lawful for the gander. And when the goose is the United States, it sets a precedent that other countries may well feel warranted in following. Indeed, exploiting the international mandate to fight terrorism that has emerged since the September 11 attacks, Russia has already expanded its definition of terrorists to include those who promote “terrorist ideas”—for example, by distributing information that might encourage terrorist activity— and to authorize the Russian government to target “international terrorists” in other countries. It may seem fanciful that Russia would have the nerve to use such an authority within the United States—though in the case of Alexsander Litvinenko it appears to have had few qualms about taking extreme measures to kill an individual who had taken refuge in the United Kingdom. But it is not at all fanciful that once the US proclaims such tactics legitimate, other nations might seek to use them against their less powerful neighbors.
Yet as the New York Times report makes clear, when it comes to targeted killings, there is serious dispute, even within the administration, about what the law permits. Some, like State Department legal advisor Harold Koh, take the position that beyond the battlefield, we can attack only those “high-value individuals” who are actually engaged in plotting attacks on the United States, and only where their threats are specific enough to allow the US to claim the right to self-defense granted to all states under the UN Charter. The Charter permits nations to use unilateral military force only in self-defense against an armed attack, and has been interpreted to permit self-defense against threatened attacks only when they are imminent. Defense Department lawyers maintain, by contrast, that the ongoing war against al-Qaeda authorizes us to kill any of the thousands of rank and file members not only of al-Qaeda itself, but also of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—a Yemen-based group founded in 2009—and of al-Shabab, a Somalia-based militant group. Although both of the latter organizations were founded well after the September 11 attacks, the Defense Department considers them fair game because it deems them to be associated with al Qaeda.
Brennan further argued that the UN Charter requirement that a threat be imminent before a nation can exercise its right of self-defense makes less sense when a country faces a threat from a clandestine terrorist group, whose threats may be harder to spot in advance. But the purpose of that requirement was to ensure that military force is truly a last resort. Too many wars have been launched on the basis of ill-defined future threats. The watered-down imminence that Brennan seemed to advocate, especially when coupled with his suggestion that even a temporary disruption of “capabilities” is sufficient reason to strike, would seem to permit targeting even where no attack is in fact imminent. Such reasoning could also be used to justify lethal force in cases where it might well be possible to foil a possible attack through arrest, criminal prosecution, interdiction, or other means. As many countries, including Great Britain, Germany, Spain, and, Italy have shown, the fact that organized groups seek to engage in politically motivated violence does not necessitate a military response.
The legal parameters defining the use of military force against terrorists are unquestionably difficult to draw. On the one hand, no one disputes that it is permissible to kill an enemy soldier on the battlefield in an ongoing armed conflict. On the other hand, absent extreme circumstances, constitutional and international law bar a state from killing a human being in peacetime without a trial (and even then, many authorities hold that capital punishment violates international human rights law). Al-Qaeda has not limited its fight to the battlefield in Afghanistan, and most agree that, as long as sovereignty concerns are met, the use of military force can follow this enemy beyond the battlefield at least in some situations. Killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan—whose tribal areas are for all practical purposes part of the theater of war—was the justified targeting of the enemy’s leader. But are al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or al-Shabab the same “enemy,” or merely sympathetic adherents of a terrorist philosophy? They certainly did not attack us on September 11, nor are they harboring those who did. Can we summarily execute all terrorists who we fear might someday commit a terrorist act against us? Brennan’s speech offered no answers.
And that makes it especially disturbing that the contours of US policy and practice in this area remain largely secret. Presumably the administration has developed criteria for who can be killed and why, and a process for assessing who fits those criteria and when their targeting is justified. But if so, it hasn’t told us. Instead, it exercises the authority to kill, not only in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan, but in Yemen,Somalia, and presumably elsewhere, based on a secret policy. We learn more about its outlines from leaks to The New York Times than from the cryptic comments of US officials in speeches like Brennan’s. If we are engaging the enemy within the rule of law, as Brennan insisted we must, we should have the courage to make our policies transparent, so that the people, both in the United States and beyond, can judge for themselves. And if, by contrast, we continue to justify such practices in only the vaguest of terms, we should expect other countries to take them up—and almost certainly in ways we will not find to our liking.
In yet another confirmation that the Obama administration’s handling of counterterrorism policy is nothing but a continuation and, in fact, reinforcement of Bush-era policies, the US Department of Justice decided on Thursday that all cases against (former) low-level CIA and military employees suspected of having employed torture, sometimes leading to murder, are to be dropped, except two.
So there’s not gonna be any accountability for the breaches of human rights and the Geneva Conventions conducted under the last administration in the name of the ‘War on Terror’.
Back in August 2009, the Obama White House already decided that there would be no torture investigations regarding former administration officials (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld) and government lawyers (John Yoo, Jay Bybee) who invented and implemented the ‘legal’ architecture for things like indefinite detention, military commissions and ‘enhanced interrogation methods’ (torture), which eventually spread from Guantánamo Bay and the secret ‘black sites’ to Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan. Neither would there be investigations regarding CIA and military employees who stayed ‘within the lines’ of the new torture regime (even though a lot of people, including JAG lawyers, protested at that time).
The only exception to this immunity granted by Obama would be for those employees who went beyond even what was permitted by the Bush administration in terms of torture. And of those 101 cases, all are now dropped except two.
Those two cases are the most gruesome imaginable: one is of a detainee who froze to death in an American secret prison in 2002 after being stripped and chained to the floor, and the other is of the Abu Ghraib detainee who was photographed in 2003 with a guard holding her thumbs up. All other horrors perpetrated under the Bush administration will now be fully, legally protected.
Change we can believe in. And what’s more: except for one executive order ordering a halt to ’enhanced interrogation methods’, there’s nothing that can prevent a future president from starting to employ torture again…
Consider what’s being permanently shielded from legal accountability. The Bush torture regime extended to numerous prisons around the world, in which tens of thousands of mostly Muslim men were indefinitely imprisoned without a whiff of due process, and included a network of secret prisons – ”black sites” — purposely placed beyond the monitoring reach of even international human rights groups, such as the International Red Cross.
Over 100 detainees died during U.S. interrogations, dozens due directly to interrogation abuse. Gen. Barry McCaffrey said: ”We tortured people unmercifully. We probably murdered dozens of them during the course of that, both the armed forces and the C.I.A.” Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who oversaw the official investigation into detainee abuse, wrote: ”there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”
Thanks to the Obama DOJ, that is no longer in question. The answer is resoundingly clear: American war criminals, responsible for some of the most shameful and inexcusable crimes in the nation’s history — the systematic, deliberate legalization of a worldwide torture regime — will be fully immunized for those crimes. And, of course, the Obama administration has spent years just as aggressively shielding those war criminals from all other forms of accountability beyond the criminal realm: invoking secrecy and immunity doctrines to prevent their victims from imposing civil liability, exploiting their party’s control of Congress to suppress formal inquiries, and pressuring and coercing other nations not to investigate their own citizens’ torture at American hands.
All of those efforts, culminating in yesterday’s entirely unsurprising announcement, means that the U.S. Government has effectively shielded itself from even minimal accountability for its vast torture crimes of the last decade. Without a doubt, that will be one of the most significant, enduring and consequential legacies of the Obama presidency.
As Glenn Greenwald notes, the Obama administration has blocked all attempts by detainees to sue torture facilitators with its generous use of the state secrets doctrine.
What that means is that the only thing preventing a future Republican president from using torture techniques is a flimsy, reversible executive order from the president himself, because no court has ever made a determination that the interrogation techniques themselves were illegal. Both the new Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and the new CIA chief David Petraeus, both once among the most prominent opponents of torture, have now expressed support for the idea of using coercive interrogations in “limited” circumstances. Torture became an issue of partisan dispute because Republicans rallied to the defense of their former president. What happens if the same thing happens with Obama supporters, and they feel the need to minimize the magnitude of what happened under Bush in order to defend the lack of accountability sought by their president?
The fact that so few people, if any, will face professional, civil or criminal sanction for torture bothers me far less than the possibility of torture itself becoming American policy again. Between the absence of strong legal barriers to torture and the deterrent factor of criminal or civil accountability, that outcome seems quite possible.
Interesting piece on Salon that once again highlights how the Obama era, in terms of counterterrorism policy, has for the most part been one of continuation and intensification of the Bush-Cheney era, rather than the break it was promised to be.
At Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, thousands of detainees are being held under conditions defying international law. And while at Guantanamo Bay the number of detainees is relatively stable, the inmate population at Bagram is growing. Because the Obama administration, like the Bush-Cheney administration before it, regards these detainees – people captured during the Afghanistan war or in the “war” on terror – as “illegal enemy combatants” or “unprivileged belligerents” (a legal category made up by the Bush administration that does not exist in international law), they are deprived of basic legal rights. That is, they have no idea what they are charged with, do not have access to proper legal defence, and so can be held indefinitely.
The article’s author Justin Elliott rightly calls this ‘the Gitmo no one talks about’. Hopefully it will after this article and the Human Rights First report it refers to, because it once again highlights how Obama in this respect is nothing different from his predecessors.
President Obama has presided over a threefold increase in the number of detainees being held at the controversial military detention center at Bagram Air Base, the Afghan cousin of the notorious prison at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. It’s the latest piece of news that almost certainly would be getting more attention — especially from Democrats — if George W. Bush were still president.
There are currently more than 1,700 detainees at Bagram, up from over 600 at the end of the Bush administration.
The situation at Bagram, especially the legal process that determines whether detainees are released, is the subject of a new report by Human Rights First. It finds that the current system of hearings for detainees “falls short of the requirements of international law” because they are not given “an adequate opportunity to defend themselves against charges that they are collaborating with insurgents and present a threat to U.S. forces.” Human Rights First also argues that cases of unjustified imprisonment are damaging the broader war effort by undermining Afghans’ trust in the military.
What legal status do the detainees at Bagram have? Are they prisoners of war?
The U.S. doesn’t call any of the prisoners we keep in the context of the war on terror — including Afghanistan — “prisoners of war.” They’re called “unprivileged belligerents” which means that they don’t have POW status. That’s because we’re at war with organizations like the Taliban or al-Qaida rather than a country or official government. But these detainees are supposedly being held under the rules of armed conflict.
What does this mean in practice about what sort of legal process they face and what rights these detainees have?
It depends who you ask. There are no laws under the rules of war governing how you treat detainees in this kind of armed conflict. So the position of most other civilized nations, most European commissions and human rights bodies is that international human rights laws should apply. The U.S. government says that those laws don’t apply beyond its own borders, and therefore no laws apply.
Early on at Bagram, there were terrible abuses. There were reports of people being killed in custody and tortured. We believe that is not happening anymore. There is still something called the black jail at Bagram, what the government calls a “screening facility.” It’s called the black jail because there are no windows and no natural light, and no one knows what time of day it is. The conditions there are much worse than at the main prison. People who have been at the black jail complain of being strip-searched in humiliating ways, being subjected to extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, and not having a mattress. But still nothing as bad as the kind of torture that was reported early on.
You went to Afghanistan and attended some of the hearings for Bagram detainees. How does this all work and what did you find?
They are supposed to get a hearing on their detention after 60 days and then at six months and every six months after. The hearings sound good on paper but then when you actually attend them — I hate to use the cliché — it’s Kafkaesque. They’re not allowed to see much of the evidence against them because it’s classified. So a military person will stand up and read the charges — say that the detainee was found to be an IED maker. And the accused will say, “Well what is the evidence against me?” And the military won’t produce it because it’s classified. The accused does not get a lawyer; they get what’s called a personal representative. That’s a field-grade soldier who is assigned to represent a detainee — but they have no legal training beyond a 35-hour course. Many former detainees told me they did not trust their representatives, who are uniformed soldiers. And at least in the public sessions, we did not see the representatives ever challenge evidence. There are also classified sessions, where we of course don’t know what happens.
Obama’s shame is getting bigger and bigger. Yesterday, 250 of America’s most eminent legal scholars have signed a letter protesting the inhumane treatment of Bradley Manning – the 23-year old soldier who was the original whistleblower to WikiLeaks. The signatories include Laurence Tribe of Harvard University, a foremost authority on US constitutional law, former professor of Obama, and backer of his 2008 campaign.
As featured extensively on the Internet (including this blog, see here, here, here and here) and lately also in the mainstream media, Manning is treated in ways that are cruel and inhumane, if not amounting to torture. He is permanently stripped of clothes during the night and public morning inspection; solitarily confined for 23 hours a day; permanently shackled during his one hour of outside-cell time; and under constant surveillance, even though he is not suicidal.
Manning’s treatment, clearly unlawful and unconstitutional, seems very much meant to intimidate future whistleblowers. All this is occurring under the watchful eye of Barack Obama. So no wonder the American legal establishment is (finally) starting to protest – including regarding the constitutionality of Manning’s treatment. Read the full letter here.
Bradley Manning is the soldier charged with leaking US government documents to Wikileaks. He is currently detained under degrading and inhumane conditions that are illegal and immoral.
The sum of the treatment that has been widely reported is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against punishment without trial. If continued, it may well amount to a violation of the criminal statute against torture, defined as, among other things, “the administration or application…of… procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality.”
Private Manning has been designated as an appropriate subject for both Maximum Security and Prevention of Injury (POI) detention. But he asserts that his administrative reports consistently describe him as a well-behaved prisoner who does not fit the requirements for Maximum Security detention.
The administration has provided no evidence that Manning’s treatment reflects a concern for his own safety or that of other inmates. Unless and until it does so, there is only one reasonable inference: this pattern of degrading treatment aims either to deter future whistleblowers, or to force Manning to implicate Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in a conspiracy, or both.
If Manning is guilty of a crime, let him be tried, convicted, and punished according to law. But his treatment must be consistent with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. There is no excuse for his degrading and inhumane pretrial punishment. As the State Department’s P.J. Crowley put it recently, they are “counterproductive and stupid.” And yet Crowley has now been forced to resign for speaking the plain truth.
The Wikileaks disclosures have touched every corner of the world. Now the whole world watches America and observes what it does, not what it says.
President Obama was once a professor of constitutional law, and entered the national stage as an eloquent moral leader. The question now, however, is whether his conduct as commander in chief meets fundamental standards of decency. He should not merely assert that Manning’s confinement is “appropriate and meet[s] our basic standards,” as he did recently. He should require the Pentagon publicly to document the grounds for its extraordinary actions—and immediately end those that cannot withstand the light of day.
Some signatories: Brucke Ackerman, Jack Balkin, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Alexander M. Capron, Norman Dorsen, Michael W. Doyle, Randall Kennedy, Mitchell Lasser, Sanford Levinson, David Luban, Frank I. Michelman, Robert B. Reich, Kermit Roosevelt, Kim Scheppele, Alec Stone Sweet, Laurence H. Tribe, and more than 250 others. Check the full list here.
Ai Weiwei, China’s best-known artist, is rapidly becoming the symbol of the victims of the increasing level of repression the Chinese government is enacting on its own citizens. Afraid of a Jasmin Revolution at home in the wake of the Arab uprisings, Chinese dissidents, activists and human rights advocates are being intimated, ‘disappearing’ or rounded up in increasing numbers.
The fact that Ai Weiwei, who is well-known, has a prominent poet father and co-designed the Olympic stadium is missing now too is a sign that, as far as the government is concerned, the gloves are off.
Ai Weiwei, China‘s best-known artist, remains missing more than a day after he was detained. Police have confiscated dozens of items from his studio.
Officers released his wife and several assistants late last night, following questioning, but Ai and a friend remain uncontactable. Assistants said that police removed more than 30 computers and hard drives from his studio and home in north Beijing on Sunday, as well as notebooks and documents. They also searched at least two more properties connected to the artist.
The scope of the police operation, and the fact that Ai was detained at Beijing airport on Sunday morning – not turned away from his flight, as had happened before – has increased the concern of friends. Officials had also visited his studio three times in the week before his detention.
“There is no news of him so far,” his wife, Lu Qing, told the Associated Press.
“They asked me about Ai Weiwei’s work and the articles he posted online … I told them that everything that Ai did was very public, and if they wanted to know his opinions and work they could just look at the internet.”
She said police gave no indication of her husband’s whereabouts or why he was being held. She added that his mother, who is in her 80s, was very anxious about her son’s fate.
Beijing police told the Guardian they knew nothing of Ai or the other missing man, Wen Tao. An airport police spokesman said he had no obligation to give out information.
Although the 53-year-old artist has repeatedly clashed with authorities owing to his outspoken criticism of the government, he was thought to enjoy greater latitude than most thanks to his father’s status as a revered poet and his own high international profile. He also helped to design the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium.
Ai created last year’s Sunflower Seeds installation at the Tate Modern turbine hall in London. His exhibition at the Lisson Gallery, also in London, is due to open next month, shortly after his recreation of a Chinese zodiac sculpture is unveiled at the courtyard in Somerset House.
In an interview last year, asked about the possibility of retribution from the authorities, he told the Guardian: “I have to deal with it, but not to prepare for it, because it is a kind of stupidity. If you prepare for it too much, you become a part of it.”
His detention comes amid a widespread crackdown on activists and dissidents in China, which has seen more than 20 people criminally detained, three formally arrested for incitement to subversion and a dozen go missing.
“It is getting worse and worse. Ai Weiwei is a very influential figure … [if] even people like him are taken away, it gives a very bad sign to other human rights defenders and netizens [socially concerned internet users],” said Patrick Poon, executive secretary of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.
Five human rights lawyers are among those missing since February and Poon said it had now emerged that another one, Liu Zhengqing, was taken away on 24 March.
Liu had been travelling for several weeks and friends lost contact with him when he returned to his home in Guangzhou. Poon said it was unclear why Liu was held, but that it might be related to his agreement to represent one of the lawyers who had already gone missing.
Great news coming out of Tunisia today. The incredibly impressive William Schabas who heads up the Irish Centre for Human Rights, a top institution in its field, posted on his (must read) blog after getting home from Tunisia and work he is doing there with respect to a new National Investigation Commission into Violations Committed since 17 December 2010. That, as noted in the post is the day when Mohamed Bouazizi set hims aflame, starting a revolutionary fire that is now burning across the Middle East. The sense you get from reading Schabas’ post is how incredibly radical the change in Tunisia actually is and how fast it is occurring. This is not of course to say everything is perfect, or will be. But man is it optimistic! Yalla!
I’ve spent the last couple of days in Tunis, participating in a seminar on truth commissions and transitional justice organised by the Kawakibi Democracy Transition Centre. The seminar was focussed on the new National Investigation Commission into Violations Committed since 17 December 2010. This is the date when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in a gesture of outrage, frustration and rebellion, and it launched the events that Tunisians call a revolution and that have shaken the entire Arab world, and perhaps even further afield.
Many countries wait years before undertaking transitional justice measures. In Sierra Leone, where I was involved with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and about which I spoke today, the institution was called for in the 1999 Lomé Peace Agreement but it took three years to begin operations. In Tunisia, the Commission is already at work. In fact, there are three commissions. Another one, headed by Abdulfattah Amor or the UN Human Rights Committee, is charged with investigating corruption in the old regime.
Today, the star of the show as Taoufik Bouderbala, who is president of the new Commission. He was accompanied by several members of the Commission. We also heard from Mohsen Marzouk, the eloquent and dynamic secretary general of the Arab Democracy Foundation and President of the Kawakibi Centre.
When I arrived in Tunis yesterday, there were big crowds at the airport. These were Tunisians returning from neighbouring Libya. We drove past the Libyan embassy on our way to the hotel. I’m told the Libyan ambassador has resigned. There were crowds outside the Libyan embassy.
At today’s session we spoke at length about truth commissions and their relationship with the existing justice system. Tunisia has a very functional and professional justice system – unlike countries like Sierra Leone – but obviously it remains tainted by the regime with which it was associated. The new commissions seem an exciting way to help push along the democratisation process in Tunisia.
I’ve been to Tunisia several times in the past. The atmosphere was always stifling because while foreigners could of course say what they wanted about human rights, we knew that terrible abuses were going on too, and from time to time we would hear that our Tunisian colleagues had been imprisoned. We would write letters to embassies, that sort of thing.
How thrilling it was yesterday to get off the plane and breathe the fresh air of freedom. Now, I think the Tunisians also want to breathe the fresh air of justice.
WikiLeaks is a gift that keeps on giving. Just by accident – I was looking for a document that revealed that the Netherlands, together with Germany and Italy, proposed to remove American nuclear weapons from its soil – I stumbled on this report of a meeting between John Bellinger (above), legal advisor of then-State Secretary Condoleezza Rice, and a couple of important European counterterrorism figures, back in 2006. These include John Cooper, Director-General for Common Foreign and Security Policy at the EU Council Secretariat, and Gijs de Vries, EU Coordinator for the Fight against Terrorism.
The report reveals nothing new, but it does provide a great summary of the legal (or quasi-legal) architecture of the Bush-Cheney War on Terror. On the meeting, Bellinger tries to explain this legal architecture – why suspected terrorists can be held indefinitely at Guantánamo, how extraordinary renditions can be justified, why the Geneva Conventions don’t apply – and tries to convince his European counterparts of their appropriateness. I was very relieved when reading the reactions of the Europeans at the table: very critical, and not very convinced at all.
So if you’re interested in how the Bush administration, rather candidly I must say, defended its treatment of terrorism suspects abroad, and how well it fared in this case in Europe, read on.
Secstate Legal Adviser John Bellinger met with a comprehensive array of EU interlocutors in Brussels on February 7-8 to discuss U.S. views on the legal framework for the war on terrorism. He stressed that U.S. decisions on how to deal with an unprecedented global terrorist threat had been made after serious consideration of all legal and political options, and that European officials must publicly underline U.S. EU solidarity in the fight against terror. On Guantanamo detainees and Al Qaeda, Bellinger argued that the U.S. was and is acting in the context of a new form of international armed conflict, and that therefore, while the Geneva Conventions do not fit this new situation well, the rules of war provide a more appropriate framework than domestic criminal law. He discussed European concerns about the treatment of detainees. Bellinger also argued that rendition is a vital tool against terror. Finally, he urged the EU not to support a Cuban resolution at the UN Human Rights Commission on Guantanamo. The EU response to the visit was for the most part extremely positive, with the Legal Adviser of the Austrian EU presidency underlining that ”the fight against terror is our (shared) struggle.” Europeans, however, remain concerned about protection issues.
Note how the Bush-Cheney administration reasoned in terms of a “new paradigm”: the idea that the War on Terror is not a metaphorical construct, but an actual war, an international armed conflict, to which the rules of war apply. Yet, the rules of war according to Bush-Cheney only apply selectively, to the extent that the U.S. President deems fit. The Geneva Conventions and the Torture Convention, after all, to them do not apply to terror suspects.
Here we see more of this:
Bellinger stressed that the situation in which the U.S. and its allies find themselves is unprecedented –faced with thousands of Al Qaeda and associated terrorists around the globe whose goal is to inflict mass casualties on innocent civilians by any means possible. The legal frameworks that are readily available, the Geneva Conventions or domestic criminal law, do not fit this unprecedented situation well.
The U.S. believes that the continuing struggle against Al Qaeda remains a legal state of international armed conflict.
Al Qaeda is not the same as domestic European terrorist groups like the IRA or RAF because it is global and operates outside the U.S. and across borders. It is in effect a new manifestation on the battlefield, that of “armies of terrorists.” Conceptually, this is a military conflict, not a police action to round up criminals.
Yet even though this is apparently an international armed conflict, the Geneva Conventions to the U.S. do not apply. Al Qaeda is not a ‘High Contracting Party’ to the Conventions, they are not soldiers wearing uniforms, and neither are they ‘protected persons’ (civilians caught up in a conflict). So what are they then?
If not covered as POWs or protected persons, what, then, is the status of Al Qaeda and Taliban combatants? (…) [They] are best defined as unlawful combatants who do not have a right to any protections under the Geneva Conventions.
And this, then, is a new category of people that can be held indefinitely, have no right to a hearing in court, and can be tortured and extradited at will. Of course the Bush-Cheney administration and Mr. Bellinger ignored completely that large parts of the Geneva Conventions, and the Torture Convention, are simply common law – they apply regardless of the state of conflict or the participants in it. Each person in the world is free from being detained indefinitely without recourse to a legal court, and free from torture.
Yet the Americans apply international law only selectively, to the extent to which “military necessity” allows it. And what military necessity is, is of course to the unreviewable discretion of the U.S. President. This is the war paradigm reasoning again.
Accordingly, to clarify U.S. policy towards detainees President Bush issued a public directive on February 7, 2002, titled “Humane Treatment of Al Qaeda and Taliban Detainees.” This directive orders that all detainees under the control of the Armed Forces be treated humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, consistent with the Geneva Conventions. In addition, the U.S. remains bound by, and committed to, the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. This includes Article 4, which prohibits torture, and Article 3, which prohibits transfers of persons to countries where there is substantial likelihood that they will be tortured. Article 3 is applied on a case-by-case basis.
Bellinger however does address the obvious question: if detainees can be held for the duration of the “war”, and if the War on Terror is only over when America declares it over (which willl, probably, never occur), does that mean that people can be held forever? Why, yes, they can:
Can detainees be held indefinitely? What if some are innocent? The U.S. recognizes that these are troubling questions, but does not believe such questions could justify a decision not to detain people who represent a danger to American citizens. To deal with this problem at Guantanamo, the U.S. has created an annual Administrative Review Board process to determine, for each individual detainee, whether that detainee should still be considered as in a state of war with the U.S.
The question has also been raised as to the possible innocence of Guantanamo detainees. As the Geneva Conventions dictate, if there is any doubt about whether or not an individual is a POW, there must be an Article 5 tribunal. Since Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters clearly did not meet the conditions necessary to be granted POW status, the President decided that Article 5 tribunals were not necessary.
So, in a twisted rendering of the language of international law, individuals can be determined to be “in a state of war” with the U.S., whereas status determination tribunals for terror suspects need not be established, as there is no doubt as to their status: they are terrorists.
Bellinger than goes on to the address the European concern that people have been snatched from the street by the CIA, and transported to Guantánamo, or secret “black sites” that we don’t even know about. Although it has by now been confirmed that people (and sometimes innocent people) have been abducted by the CIA, back in 2006 it could still be denied. He also chooses not to go into CIA flights:
Bellinger sought to dispel allegations that hundreds of people had been kidnapped from European streets. He pointed out that there is no evidence for such allegations, and that the United States respects the sovereignty of European governments. On renditions, CIA flights, and other intelligence operations, the U.S. will not confirm or deny specific allegations, in order not to compromise the confidentiality of intelligence operations as such.
After that, Bellinger tries to bully the Europeans into not supporting a motion by Cuba against American actions at Guantánamo in the U.N. Human Rights Commission:
Some EU interlocutors expressed concern that some EU member states would support a Cuban resolution against U.S. actions in Guantanamo at the upcoming UN Human Rights Commission, that might be modeled after a European Parliament resolution on the subject. Bellinger warned that European support for a Guanatanamo resolution would be a serious setback to U.S.-EU cooperation against terrorism, and give the unacceptable impression that the EU was aligned with Cuba against the U.S.
Soo… Having come at the end of his expose, how did the Europeans at the table react?
Although Bellinger tries to cover it up in diplomatic language, and calls the paragraph “European Reactions Positive for U.S.”, I’d say it’s pretty clear that they were critical and not convinced. Which, by the way, creates the question why Bellinger would report that European reactions were positive. Maybe to make himself look good back home?
By and large, Bellinger’s European interlocutors responded very positively to his visit. Their questions were many and varied, and all of the meetings were marked by vigorous but constructive discussion. It is clear that many Europeans continue to believe that Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions can be applied to enemy combatants, and still afford the United States the flexibility it seeks. It is also apparent that lingering concerns (fed by negative public perceptions) remain about the treatment of detainees, and protection against wrongful detentions. Some governments remain focused on renditions, and the possibility that there will be negative revelations that impact on them directly.
That said, the visit was very helpful in beginning to dispel European misunderstandings and misgivings about our pursuit of the war on terror. Continued engagement on these issues is critical in the coming months to persuade EU governments to stand more firmly and publicly in the face of their public’s concerns and suspicion regarding Guantanamo, renditions, and the legality of U.S. actions against Al Qaeda. The Austrian Chair of the COJUR meeting, Ferdinand Trauttmansdorf, concluded the meeting with the following message: “We leave this discussion with the notion that America is carefully considering these difficult questions in good faith.” He said also that the fight against terror was a burden shared by the EU, and that the U.S. has as much of a right to ask questions of the EU, as the EU does of the U.S. On the upcoming Human Rights Commission, urgent consultations with the EU will be necessary to avert the possibility of EU support for a Cuban Guantanamo resolution.
Note the quasi-objective and kinda manipulative tone that seems to be common to confidential diplomatic memos (we saw it earlier in the secret CIA document on the manipulation of European public opinion on the war in Afghanistan). Lingering concerns are “fed by negative public perceptions”. The meeting was helpful in beginning to “dispel” European “misunderstandings” and “misgivings” about the war on terror. “Continued engagement” by the U.S. is necessary to push European governments in line vis-a-vis their publics critical of Guantánamo Bay and illegal CIA flights.
Finally, I found it very interesting that the U.S. administration was so worried that the EU would support a Cuban resolution in the U.N. on Guantánamo Bay. Does anyone know how that played out?
In conclusion, what do we learn from scrutiny of this document? Well, as I said, nothing really new. It only confirms again the extent to which the Bush-Cheney administration reasoned from a “war paradigm”: the idea that the fight against Al Qaeda is a new kind of actual international armed conflict, to which the rules of war however only apply limitedly. This reasoning allows them to treat terror suspects in utter disregard of international law. Moreover, since an end to the ”War” on Terror is not in sight, since it is not limited to boundaries, and since it is ultimately to the President’s unreviewable discretion whether military necessity exists, this makes the U.S. kind of a universal imperial policeman, with nothing that can be put in its way. Is that clear-cut authoritarianism? I’d say it is. Happily, at least also behind the scenes, some people stood up.
Via PhD studies in human rights (a must read blog) comes news that the UN Human Rights Council has released its investigation into Israel’s handling of the humanitarian aid flotilla:
Yesterday, the fact-finding commission appointed by the Human Rights Council to investigate the attack by Israeli forces on the humanitarian aid flotilla issued its report, which is available on the website of the Human Rights Council. According to the summary, ‘The fact-finding mission concluded that a series of violations of international law, including international humanitarian and human rights law, were committed by the Israeli forces during the interception of the flotilla and during the detention of passengers in Israel prior to deportation.’
It will be interesting to see whether this becomes an issue in the current round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks being supported by the United States and whether or not there is any effort to enact sanctions on Israel.