President Barack Obama would like the world to know that the US can do whatever it damn well pleases, thank you very much.
Obama also wants the whole, wide world to get this through its thick skull: only rogue governments that implement a policy of rendition, torture, indefinite detention and extrajudicial assassination are guilty of human rights abuses and should be held accountable.
That's the clear-cut message Obama articulated late last Friday when he issued a proclamation commemorating the 63rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“All people should live free from the threat of extrajudicial killing, torture, oppression and discrimination, regardless of gender, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or physical or mental disability,” Obama's proclamation states.
Apparently, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president doesn't believe the indefinite detention of detainees at Guantanamo, especially those who have already been cleared for release; or the administration's refusal to allow prisoners detained and tortured by the US government in Afghanistan, rises to the level of human rights abuses as outlined in his stunningly hypocritical proclamation. Nor does the former constitutional law professor believe that the extrajudicial killing of Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and propagandist Samir Kahn, US citizens accused of aiding terrorists who were assassinated without due process by a drone strike Obama personally authorized, is a noteworthy human rights issue.
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Obama's proclamation also contained another embarrassing contradiction: it declared the week of December 10th as Human Rights Week, the same week Congress debated and is set to pass the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a controversial piece of legislation that would give the president the power to indefinitely imprison without charge or trial or a court hearing anyone suspected of terrorist activity in the US.
On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama's senior advisers would recommend to the president that he should not veto the bill, as Obama had promised to do, because Congress made minor changes Monday to the provisions in the legislation related to the treatment of terrorism suspects with which the administration is now satisfied.
When the US voted in favor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, it promised to uphold several ideals, including one that said, “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile.”
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said if Obama signs the bill, he will “go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in US law.”
[UPDATE: The Senate passed the NDAA Thursday afternoon by a vote of 86-13, exactly 220 years to the day the Bill of Rights was ratified. The NDAA will now be sent to Obama where he is expected to sign it into law.]
Obama's quagmire of contradictions on human rights is laid bare in a powerful and timely new book written by Juan Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur For Torture and Marjory Wentworth, a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet, teacher and longtime human rights activist.
In “Taking A Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights,” Méndez and Wentworth interweave Méndez's personal story as a lifelong human rights activist and lawyer into human rights themes.
“Each chapter is [centered] around a particular human rights issue, [Méndez's] role in shaping the dialogue around the issue and ideas for the future,” Wentworth said during an online book salon at Firedoglake two weeks ago hosted by this reporter.
Since his first days in office, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have promoted the narrative that the US is a human rights leader. But as former Amnesty International Secretary General Ian Martin notes in his introduction to “Taking A Stand,” that assertion has been severely “undermined by [the US government's] inability to rise above political alliances and increasingly by its own direct violations of human rights.”
Obama has severely damaged the US's standing in the world by refusing to investigate and prosecute the widespread human rights abuses that took place during George W. Bush's tenure in office, Méndez said he has invited “other nations to follow the U.S. example of impunity for torture” and has provided “rogue regimes with a ready-made excuse for rejecting international community concerns about their own abuses,” Méndez and Wentworth write in a chapter devoted to accountability.
Méndez described Obama's attitude, during the Firedoglake book salon, as a “twisted version of US exceptionalism,” where the “rules” only apply to “others.” Here's a fresh example of that type of “twisted exceptionalism”: On Wednesday, the State Department announced that the US government had implemented sanctions against two Iranian officials for committing “serious human rights abuses,” including the indefinite detention of Iranian citizens, in connection with massive protests that took place in the country in 2009 over the disputed presidential election.
“This is the fourth time we have designated individuals and entities under human rights sanctioning authority” under a September 2010 executive order signed by Obama, said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, a former top aide to Dick Cheney who misled the media about the extent of the CIA's rendition program and asserted that the Bush administration did not torture detainees. [h/t Jeffrey Kaye]
According to a State Department fact sheet issued in 2010, Iranian “protesters were detained without formal charges brought against them and during this detention detainees were subjected to beatings, solitary confinement and a denial of due process rights at the hands of [Iranian] intelligence officers….”
“In addition, political figures were coerced into making false confessions under unbearable interrogations, which included torture, abuse, blackmail and the threatening of family members,” the State Department's fact sheet said.
Sound familiar? Under policies sanctioned by Bush, Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, war-on-terror detainees were imprisoned at secret, black site facilities and at Guantanamo Bay without formal charges brought against them. Those prisoners were also subjected to beatings, solitary confinement and a denial of due process rights and were coerced into making false confessions under unbearable interrogations, which included torture, abuse, blackmail and the threatening of family members.
Need another example of the administration's “twisted version of American exceptionalism”? Last June, the White House issued a statement condemning Hamas for abducting Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit five years ago and holding “him hostage without access by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in violation of the standards of basic decency and international humanitarian demands.”
“Abduction,” also known in US intelligence circles as “extraordinary rendition,” and hiding prisoners from the ICRC, sounds familiar as well. Of course it does, the latter was a policy enacted by Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and other former Bush officials. In fact, a January 2, 2004, memo drafted for military police and interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and signed by Col. Marc Warren, the top legal adviser to Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who was commander of US forces in Iraq, was entitled “New plan to restrict Red Cross access to Abu Ghraib.” The contents of that memo have never been released.
Moreover, in 2004, Rumsfeld admitted that at the request of then-CIA Director George Tenet, he authorized the US military in the fall of 2003 to hide an Iraqi prisoner from the ICRC and other organizations that monitor the treatment of prisoners.
Rumsfeld told reporters at a June 17, 2004, press briefing that Tenet sent him a letter asking the US military to imprison the Iraqi who was believed to be a high-ranking member of Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish terrorist group suspected of links to al-Qaeda. Tenet further told Rumsfeld to be sure the detainee was kept off the prisoner rolls, which he was for six months.
The White House's decision to weigh in on Shalit, who Hamas has since released, is another example of the Obama administration's contradictory stance on human rights whenever Israel's track record is raised.
In their book, Méndez and Wentworth documented Israel's own human rights abuses, and they were critical that the US condemned a report of a United Nations investigative team led by Richard Goldstone regarding Israel's treatment of Palestinians in Gaza. Méndez said he cannot explain why “Israel is generally shielded from effective action on human rights,” by the US, but he does not believe its purely a political decision.
“I suspect the [US government's] reasons are complex and not just political expedience,” Méndez said during the book salon. “But complexity is no excuse in this case, especially because the US could use its influence positively and, in general, I don't think it does. Israel is by no means the worst offender in the region, nor are some forces innocent of abuse on the Palestinian side either. But the human rights issues are real and Israel's ability to fend them off with support of the US and other Western governments is not only a problem for the victims of abuse; it is also an obstacle to peace.
Overall, Méndez said Obama's “failure of leadership” and his decision to “look forward, not backwards,” on human rights abuses that took place during the Bush years is “seen [by foreign government leaders] as a decline in [US] influence and moral authority … that hurts other foreign policy interests as well.”
Speaking of “looking forward,” this is perhaps the best example of Obama's “twisted version of American exceptionalism”: in March of 2010, Obama spoke to an Indonesian television reporter who queried him about whether he was satisfied the Indonesian government was taking proper steps to address past human rights abuses.
Obama said, “We have to acknowledge that those past human rights abuses existed. We can't go forward without looking backwards.” (Emphasis added.)
Méndez and Wentworth understand that Obama will never exercise his responsibility as dictated in the Convention Against Torture, and initiate an investigation into past human rights abuses that took place during the eight years George Bush occupied the White House.
“Juan and I feel strongly that you pay for it in the end,” Wentworth said in an interview following the book salon. “I think we're going to pay a price in ways we don't even know.”
Méndez agreed, but he still remains hopeful.
“None of us can really hold our breath while we wait for the [US government] to live up to its obligation to investigate, prosecute and punish every act of torture committed by its agents,” Méndez said during the book salon. “The lack of delivery on the promise to have a day of reckoning [which Attorney General Eric Holder had said the public was owed] is truly disappointing. But again, experience shows that issues of accountability do not go away. Of course, it is preferable to have accountability in real time. But justice, even if it comes late, will come and be welcome.”
That brings to mind the maxim, “the wheels of justice grind slowly but exceedingly fine,” which would apply to recent court action in Argentina where a dozen former military and police officials, including a Navy officer who earned the nickname “Angel of Death,” were sentenced to life in prison last month for the kidnapping, murder and torture of leftist activists during the height of the country's military dictatorship in the 1970s. Méndez was one of the activists tortured. There's a riveting section in “Taking A Stand” where he describes in detail how his torturers used an electric prod on his genitals and other parts of his body until he begged them to kill him. That he survived and went on to shape the modern human rights movement is nothing short of a miracle.
Méndez's criticisms of the US government's human rights record is not limited to its treatment of war-on-terror detainees. He also butted heads with the Obama administration over the military's treatment of Pfc. Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst who is accused of leaking government secrets to WikiLeaks and faces life in prison. A pretrial hearing for Manning is scheduled for Friday at Fort Meade, Maryland.
Méndez said he became concerned about Manning when he started to hear reports about his abusive treatment, which included being held in solitary confinement for 23-hours a day, during his incarceration at Quantico. Méndez said he had “frank conversation[s] with the [Department of Defense] about the conditions of [Manning's] incarceration” and requested that he be permitted to visit and speak with the soldier confidentially.
“I was allowed to see him but with no guarantees of confidentiality, terms that I could not accept,” Méndez said during the Firedoglake book salon. “I offered to see Manning nonetheless, through his lawyer, if he wanted to see me, but he preferred not to waive his right to a truly private conversation. In the meantime, when he was moved from Quantico to Fort Leavenworth, his conditions changed and since last April he is no longer in solitary confinement. I am still insisting on seeing him. In a few weeks I will release my views on the case, since the exchange of information with the [US government] is essentially over.”