If any video can show the corruption of President Obama, it is this one. This has nothing to do with the message and the spirit of Obama’s campaign four years ago – which, in hindsight, was one of the most cynical and deceitful political operations in history.
Yes, I know Obama during a debate with McCain once said that he would deploy missiles in Pakistan, and that’s what he has done. But this video below doesn’t have anything to do with what was a central plank of the Obama ’08 campaign and his main argument against Bush: a restoration of civil liberties and respect for international law.
Instead, this is primitive, tribal boasting at its worst, ugly American kind. “Hey, look at me! I ordered a man sitting in a house to be pumped full with bullets, and his body dumped in the ocean! I’m president!” And then implying that Mitt Romney wouldn’t have the “courage” to do so. Well, good for you. I hope you’re very proud of your “achievement” – because killing an already desolate man in a bunker in a desert somewhere is really the only thing that you have accomplished in the past four years.
Seriously everything about this Obama video is disgusting. But yeah, let’s hear it for those liberals mesmerizing about how “cool” Obama is.
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.
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.
I’d like to point out the difference between the way Europe and the US go after bad guys. The US invades countries, blows them to pieces, then goes into another country, blows that to pieces, only to find out that the guy they’re looking for is hiding in yet another country. One they thought was a friend. But regardless of the friendship, the US goes in without telling their friend and executes their bad guy.
Here’s how Europe does it. It holds a big carrot over the place where the bad guy is hiding: membership of the EU union. It creates an international court system, in this case the Yugoslavia court. And it waits. And slowly the bad guys get discovered by the locals. First Milosovic. Then Karadzic. Now Mladic.
No guns, no execution, no torture, just the patient power of the law. Just look at the dry headline on The International Criminal Tribunal’s website: “Tribunal Welcomes the Arrest of Ratko Mladić”. These thugs have to stand trial. No glorious, scandalous trial. No politicians fearing death and destruction. Just the slow-grinding, boring mill of justice. Milosovic died under the pressure. Karadzic is fading away. And now Mladic faces the same prospect in a very decent cell in Scheveningen.
America is a fantastic country to live in. But boy am I proud to be European on days like this.
Yes indeed. There is no conceivable reason why Osama bin Laden should, against all international law, be executed without a trial, while Ratko Mladic should be arrested and tried. Juridically, of course, anyone can point out that Mladic acted as officer of a state, while Bin Laden headed a stateless organization. But does that matter in terms of the crimes being committed? Of course not. Bin Laden could well have been charged for committing mass murder in an American court. But he never has been. Why? Because that’s not the way Americans work.
To be honest, I pretty much have my fill about the whole Bin Laden affair. This includes the revolting jingoism displayed by American politicians and establishment media such as the New York Times, as well as the ‘funny’ comics and internet memes. I wish we could turn to something else now.
Nevertheless, criticism must continue to be voiced, so here’s an op-ed by no one less than Noam Chomsky.
It’s increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law. There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by 80 commandos facing virtually no opposition—except, they claim, from his wife, who lunged towards them. In societies that profess some respect for law, suspects are apprehended and brought to fair trial. I stress “suspects.” In April 2002, the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, informed the press that after the most intensive investigation in history, the FBI could say no more than that it “believed” that the plot was hatched in Afghanistan, though implemented in the UAE and Germany. What they only believed in April 2002, they obviously didn’t know 8 months earlier, when Washington dismissed tentative offers by the Taliban (how serious, we do not know, because they were instantly dismissed) to extradite bin Laden if they were presented with evidence—which, as we soon learned, Washington didn’t have. Thus Obama was simply lying when he said, in his White House statement, that “we quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda.”
Nothing serious has been provided since. There is much talk of bin Laden’s “confession,” but that is rather like my confession that I won the Boston Marathon. He boasted of what he regarded as a great achievement.
There is also much media discussion of Washington’s anger that Pakistan didn’t turn over bin Laden, though surely elements of the military and security forces were aware of his presence in Abbottabad. Less is said about Pakistani anger that the U.S. invaded their territory to carry out a political assassination. Anti-American fervor is already very high in Pakistan, and these events are likely to exacerbate it. The decision to dump the body at sea is already, predictably, provoking both anger and skepticism in much of the Muslim world.
We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic. Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s, and he is not a “suspect” but uncontroversially the “decider” who gave the orders to commit the “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal) for which Nazi criminals were hanged: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country, the bitter sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region.
There’s more to say about [Cuban airline bomber Orlando] Bosch, who just died peacefully in Florida, including reference to the “Bush doctrine” that societies that harbor terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists themselves and should be treated accordingly. No one seemed to notice that Bush was calling for invasion and destruction of the U.S. and murder of its criminal president.
Same with the name, Operation Geronimo. The imperial mentality is so profound, throughout western society, that no one can perceive that they are glorifying bin Laden by identifying him with courageous resistance against genocidal invaders. It’s like naming our murder weapons after victims of our crimes: Apache, Tomahawk… It’s as if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes “Jew” and “Gypsy.”
There is much more to say, but even the most obvious and elementary facts should provide us with a good deal to think about.
Yesterday, I expressed the hope that with the demise of Osama bin Laden, America could return to being the constitutional democracy with the rule of law that it was before 9/11.
Luckily (and of course), I’m not the only one who sees this as possibly the most important aspect of yesterday’s operation. Here’s probably the best commentary that I’ve read so far in the wake of Bin Laden’s death, by Peter Beinart of The Daily Beast. Beinart argues that now the figurehead of the 9/11 attacks is gone, it’s time to call an end to the so-called ‘war’ on terror. This doesn’t mean that counterterrorism policies should come to a halt! On the contrary, in the coming time period they should probably be increased to prevent retaliation. But it does mean that the ‘war’ on terrorism should cease to be the primary paradigm through which US (and Western) foreign policy operates.
Because let’s face it: the threat of radical islamist terrorism is not the biggest policy problem the West faces. It isn’t now, and it wasn’t after 9/11. If I’d to point at anything, I’d had to choose between the rise of China or the long-term budgetary and financial problems the US and the West are facing. But certainly not the threat of a bunch of medieval rag tag terrorists who, admittedly, can do short-term symbolic (and personal) damage, but do not pose any fundamental threat to the existence of our society in this form.
The terrorist incidents of 9/11 and those after that can, however, present long-term problems when executive powers choose to overreact, and thereby aim to fundamentally transform the structures of constitutional democracy and the rule of law. This is what happened in America under Bush-Cheney, where an emergency became the pretext for a global, unending, infinite ‘war’ on terror in which anything was allowed. That’s when you got ‘enemy combatants’, indefinite detention, torture and a Gulag archipel of ’black sites’ and Guantánamo Bay. By and large, this ‘legal architecture’ for combating terrorism – with the exception of torture – has been retained by Obama, who added drone attacks and the targeting of American citizens abroad of his own.
When a state of emergency ceases to be the exception and starts to be the norm, then you have a problem. Either it expands (and turns on citizens), or it becomes the baseline on which to build yet other ‘emergency’ measures. So let’s say the state of emergency started on 9/11 (I don’t agree, but let’s say it did); can we then now say that with the demise of Osama bin Laden, who apparently was so important that streets are filled with chanting people, the state of emergency has ended? Can we please do away with renditions, indefinite detention, Guantánamo Bay, illegal wiretapping, and so forth?
[We] have more to be grateful for than this one villain’s demise. We must give thanks for something broader: The war on terror is over. I don’t mean that there is no threat of further jihadist attack. In the short term, the threat may even rise. I don’t mean that we should abandon all efforts at tracking terrorist cells. Of course not. But the war on terror was a way of seeing the world, explicitly modeled on World War II and the Cold War. It suggested that the struggle against “radical Islam” or “Islamofascism” or “Islamic terrorism” should be the overarching goal of American foreign policy, the prism through which we see the world.
I remember how seductive that vision was in the aftermath of 9/11. It imposed order on the world and gave purpose to American power. But it was a mistake from the start. Even the Cold War was a dangerously overblown vision, which blinded American policymakers to the fact that much of what happened in, say, Vietnam or Angola, had little to do with Moscow or communism. But the war on terror was worse. It made East Asia an afterthought during a critical period in China’s rise; it allowed all manner of dictators to sell their repression in Washington, just as they had during the Cold War; it facilitated America’s descent into torture; it wildly exaggerated the ideological appeal of a jihadist-Salafist movement whose vision of society most Muslims find revolting.
Even before the U.S. killed bin Laden, the Arab Spring had already rendered him irrelevant. President Obama now has his best chance since taking office to acknowledge some simple, long-overdue truths. Terrorism does not represent the greatest threat to American security; debt does, and our anti-terror efforts are exacerbating the problem. We do not face, as we did in the 1930s, a totalitarian foe with global ideological appeal. We face competitors who, in varying ways, have imported aspects of our democratic capitalist ideology, and are beating us at our own game.
So now what? Legally speaking, there are two broad lessons to derive from the Obama administration’s latest salvo in the war on terror. One is that it shows the need to continue operating outside legal norms indefinitely. The other is that it allows us to declare a symbolic victory over terrorism and return once more to the pre-9/11 regime in which the rule of law is inviolate.
About all we can say with certainty is this: We tortured. We live in a world in which we must contend with information obtained by torture. We now need to decide whether we want to continue to live that way. Writers from ideological backgrounds as diverse as Matt Yglesias and Ross Douthat argue that it is time to return to the paradigm abandoned after 9/11. Let’s put the 9/11 attacks and the existential threat it created behind us. With Bin Laden’s death, let’s simply agree that the objectives of the Bush administration’s massive anti-terror campaign have finally been achieved, and that the time for extra-legal, extra-judicial government programs—from torture, to illegal surveillance, to indefinite detention, to secret trials, to nontrials, to the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay—has now passed. There will be no better marker for the end of this era. There will be no better time to inform the world that our flirtation with a system of shadow-laws was merely situational and that the situation now is over.
But for those who would argue for a continuation of the lawlessness of the post-9/11 legal era, the question is now this: When does it end? If the death of Bin Laden doesn’t signal the end of the 9/11 legal regime, what does? Do we continue to avail ourselves of these illegal methods until every last enemy of America is dead? If torture produced information about the men hiding Bin Laden, does that give America license to torture anyone, anywhere? If the prison camp at Guantanamo is the only reason we were able to obtain intelligence about Bin Laden’s protectors, shouldn’t Guantanamo be expanded and kept open forever? Shouldn’t we start shipping Americans there?
The “war on terror” language was always metaphorical, I realize, but it unloosed a very real Pandora’s box of injustice on a nation that prides itself on its notions of fairness. That makes the highly symbolic death of Bin Laden an apt time—perhaps the last apt time—to ask whether this state of affairs is to be temporary or permanent. If President Obama truly believes, as he said last night, that justice has finally been done, he should use this opportunity to restore the central role of the rule of law in achieving justice in the future.
As of yet, MasterCard, Visa and PayPal have all cut off payment systems to WikiLeaks, likely under pressure from the U.S. government, even though this organization has done nothing illegal by the law of any country. Yet one can continue to donate to American organizations that fund Israeli settlements on the West Bank – clearly illegal, in defiance of international law and Israeli law, as well as U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Visa, Mastercard and PayPal all enable donations to be made to US-registered groups funding illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank in defiance of international law.
It appears at least one of the major credit cards also enables donations to an extremist Jewish group that has placed a bounty on the lives of Palestinians.
All three have in the last week ceased enabling donations to WikiLeaks. Neither Mastercard nor Visa have explained the basis for their decision to do so. PayPal has backed away from its initial claim that the US State Department told PayPal WikiLeaks had broken the law after the claim was discredited. This is the third occasion on which PayPal has suspended payment services for WikiLeaks.
Israel subsidises over 100 settlements in the West Bank in defiance of international law. Another 100+ are “illegal outposts” even under Israeli law. All benefit from extensive support from the United States, channelled through a range of Jewish and right-wing Christian bodies, all of which have charitable status under US law. The International Crisis Group’s report on settlements in July 2009 identified the important role played by US charities. Israeli newspaper Haaretz has investigated the strong support provided via US charities, and Israeli peace groups have also targeted the generous support provided via private donations from the US and Canada.
At this stage WikiLeaks has breached no international law and no laws of any country, but Mastercard, Visa and PayPal have all blacklisted it. All three continue to enable the support of settlements that are in breach of international law, in some cases of Israeli law, and in defiance of US policy on settlements under successive Republican and Democrat administrations.
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.
Light Sound Dimension is happy to present a contribution by guest blogger blsd. His post is about the less publicized referendum results on the state and local level in the recent mid-term elections. Mark already wrote about this for the case of Oklahoma.
Ok, the Republicans took the House. Media worldwide are busy analyzing the consequences of this national shake-up. Yet some of most interesting trends can be found in the less publicized election results on local and state level.
Take the ballot measures in Oklahoma. Apart from voting for the Senate, House and Governor (all but one House seat overwhelming victories for the Republicans), voters were asked to give their opinion on no less than 11 specific proposals. And they did. The people of Oklahoma voted against mandated health care (64.7%), in favour of making English the language of official state actions (75.5%) and to forbid use of international law or sharia law in state courts (aka the “Save our State” amendment) (70.0%).
So this is what “taking back the country” looks like: trying very hard to keep out any federal or foreign influences. What could be the consequences? If states can indeed reject the federal health care bill, which is still an open debate, many poor Oklahomans will likely lose their insurance, again. Making English the official language of state actions will make it more difficult for non-English (read Spanish) speakers to access government services. And prohibiting courts from looking “to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures” will not only complicate the work of judges, it might also deter international business from entering the state, as it creates uncertainty about the enforceability of international contracts or judgments of foreign courts and tribunals.
Some other states demonstrated similar tendencies. In Kansas, voters found it necessary to guarantee the right to bear arms (88.6%). Arizona joined the protest against mandated health care (55.4%). On the other hand, the rally against “Obamacare” seems not to have been successful in Colorado (with 88% of the votes counted, 52.8% voted against prevention of mandated health care). Hopefully, these remain local outbursts of paranoia – listening to the ads and speeches of Republican victors last night, they might not be.
One of the my least favourite things about American politics is the way that states often load up election ballots with referendum questions. I am some skeptical of referendums to start with, and I simply think that they should be conducted independently of actual elections, notwithstanding additional costs, to decide controversial questions. In part because it takes the issues outside the ugliest elements of electoral politics and in part because of the way that referenda have been used to influence election outcomes (see this article for a description of how referenda were used to re-elect Bush in the 2004 presidential election results; and this one for effects on voter turnout).
Beyond the failure of Prop 19 in California to legalize marijuana, it seems that considerably fewer election measures were on tap in the mid-terms. The only other measure I saw much attention paid to was Oklahoma’s measure on whether to allow or bar Sharia law in the state. Or at least that is how it was covered to the degree I saw much coverage at all in the media. Well here is the actual measure courtesy of ballotpedia:
This measure amends the State Constitution. It changes a section that deals with the courts of this state. It would amend Article 7, Section 1. It makes courts rely on federal and state law when deciding cases. It forbids courts from considering or using international law. It forbids courts from considering or using Sharia Law.
International law is also known as the law of nations. It deals with the conduct of international organizations and independent nations, such as countries, states and tribes. It deals with their relationship with each other. It also deals with some of their relationships with persons.
The law of nations is formed by the general assent of civilized nations. Sources of international law also include international agreements, as well as treaties.
Sharia Law is Islamic law. It is based on two principal sources, the Koran and the teaching of Mohammed.
Shall the proposal be approved?
For the proposal
Against the proposal
The measure passed with support of 70% of voters, which is no surprise. There is no legitimate chance that Sharia law will ever be adopted in America. This was just populist politicking. More interesting though is that not only did the measure ban sharia law, but it also forbids Oklahoma courts from considering international law and treaties. Resisting aspects of international law is nothing new for the US (for example, they have resisted the International Criminal Court). But forbidding the consideration of treaties that America has already ratified? Bloody hell.
UPDATE: Anyone who is interested in this post should read the excellent contributions from commentator Susan below!
UPDATE II: Commentor Susan updates us on the proceeding of the hearing seeking an injunction against amending the Oklahoma constitution over at her blog.
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.
Interesting. I would like to hear the opinion of an international law expert specialized in the jurisdiction and workings of international courts on this. It seems that me that if major powers disagree with criminalizing “aggression” (which includes invasions and pre-emptive strikes), a move by a host of smaller nations to give the International Criminal Court a mandate for prosecution on this will only weaken the Court, making it more of a paper tiger. I’d say you can’t “push” the development of international law, as you risk turning international institutions like the ICC into a League of Nations.
More than 100 nations, contingents of human-rights groups and lawyers from around the globe, will begin a meeting on Monday in Kampala, Uganda, tackling issues that could fundamentally expand the power of international law.The thorniest question on the agenda, one certain to dominate the conference, is a proposal to give the International Criminal Court in The Hague the power to prosecute the crime of aggression.
If approved, it could open the door to criminal accusations against powerful political and military leaders for attacks the court deems unlawful. Those could range from full-scale invasions to pre-emptive strikes.
The court, the world’s first permanent criminal court, already has a mandate to prosecute three groups of grave crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Adding aggression to this list “would be a game-changer in international diplomacy,” said Noah Weisbord, a member of the expert group that has drafted a definition of the crime for the meeting.
Many of the court’s 111 member countries have said that they favor adding the crime of aggression to its mandate. They include Germany and numerous small countries that see the change as a form of legal protection. But others, including Britain and France are opposed, arguing that it would overwhelm the court and trap it in political disputes.
The United States, Russian and China, which cannot vote because they have not joined the court and are in Kampala only as observers, are strongly against expanding the court’s purview and are expected to work hard behind the scenes to postpone any action on the issue.
Not making this up. Also, he’s lying about it, saying that U.S. soldiers are subjected to it as part of their training program (not true: what they do in the army is way less harsh than the 12-hour sessions repeated 200 times in Gitmo), and that it is in conformity with international law (it obviously isn’t, by any standards). If you’re interested in what waterboarding actually is and how it constitutes torture, read this.
A senior adviser to former US President George W Bush has defended tough interrogation techniques, saying their use helped prevent terrorist attacks. In a BBC interview, Karl Rove, who was known as “Bush’s brain”, said he “was proud we used techniques that broke the will of these terrorists”.
He said waterboarding, which simulates drowning, should not be considered torture.
In 2009, President Barack Obama banned waterboarding as a form of torture.
But the practice was sanctioned in written memos by Bush administration lawyers in August 2002, providing legal cover for its use.
Mr Rove said US soldiers were subjected to waterboarding as a regular part of their training.
A less severe form of the technique was used on the three suspects interrogated at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, he added.
“I’m proud that we used techniques that broke the will of these terrorists and gave us valuable information that allowed us to foil plots such as flying aeroplanes into Heathrow and into London, bringing down aircraft over the Pacific, flying an aeroplane into the tallest building in Los Angeles and other plots,” Mr Rove told the BBC.
“Yes, I’m proud that we kept the world safer than it was, by the use of these techniques. They’re appropriate, they’re in conformity with our international requirements and with US law.”