Leading By Example: The US and Human Rights Abuses

The US administration, in making the case for the Iraq War and justifying it afterwards, repeatedly invoked the concept of human rights abuses. They reminded us that Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against his own people and that he and his sons and cronies were known as perpetrators of frequent and brutal human rights abuses ranging from executions of political dissidents to rapes of women in nightclubs. But what about the United States’ own human rights record?

Thanks to highly visible solidarity campaigns and international trials in the past few years, it might be safe to say that public awareness of global human rights issues is higher than ever. But even as the US claims to be defending human rights in Iraq and Afghanistan, since the Sept. 11 attacks the administration has not only been violating the human rights of its own residents, citizens and detainees, but by the examples it is setting, undermining overall gains in the international human rights landscape.

The concept of holding human rights abusers accountable for their actions rose to new prominence with the indictment of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet by a Spanish judge in 1998. There have been truth commissions, trials and tribunals regarding war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and other countries, and US civil courts have gotten into the act with the trials of Salvadoran and Honduran generals living in the US for crimes committed during the 1980s in their countries.

But now along with increasing human rights violations committed as part of the war on terror, the Bush administration has been actively seeking to undermine what could be a powerful new weapon in the fight for international human rights -- the International Criminal Court.
The International Criminal Court, which has been ratified by close to 100 countries and swore in its first prosecutor in June, will be the first permanent international judicial body capable of trying individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The US was one of only seven countries to vote against the court when it was introduced in 1998, though ironically the US was a leader in the post-World War II efforts to hold war criminals accountable, which were the seeds for the court. Ken Hurwitz, a senior attorney with the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, notes that while the Clinton administration had reservations about the court but was willing to keep the door open for future participation, the Bush administration has been outright hostile to the court, even though it was specifically constructed to meet concerns of the US including protections against its politicization.

"What we’re all concerned about is that the Bush administration refuses to take a policy of constructive engagement with the court," Hurwitz said. "The Clinton administration didn’t take part in the court, but it also didn’t undertake a campaign to kill it. The best thing would be for the US to watch it and see it develop. The US could provide prosecutors and staff members even if it’s not becoming a full-fledged party to the treaty. But that’s not what we’re doing. As respect for international law in many countries has grown enormously, I think the US has really undermined its position as a traditional champion of international law."

Additionally, the matter of which human rights abusers are brought to light by the US administration and media is a highly politicized matter. For example, the latest rounds of detentions and executions by Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba have drawn plenty of attention to Castro’s alleged status as a human rights abuser. But relatively few Americans know that while the US is carrying out its massive domestic war on terror, there are anti-Castro Cubans living within our borders with the knowledge and support of the current administration who meet every definition of "terrorist" and "human rights abuser."

One such man is Orlando Bosch, an anti-Castro activist who has been implicated in at least 30 bombings, kidnappings and assassination attempts in the US itself and around the world, including the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. He was sentenced to 10 years in a US prison in 1968, serving several years of it before being released and going back to Latin America to continue his rampage. Despite this incredible history, Bosch was later given asylum in the US, and lives in Miami. Former president George Bush Sr. actually pardoned Bosch and intervened on his behalf against INS efforts to deport him. Bosch is just one of a number of Cuban expatriates with terrorist histories currently living in Miami. As reported by The New York Times and other sources, the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation is known to provide funding and support for terrorist acts that can clearly be considered "human rights violations."

In Colombia, meanwhile, the US is supporting the government with an additional $1.7 billion for Plan Colombia this year, supposedly as part of the war on drugs, despite the fact that members of Colombian military and paramilitary operations carry out frequent massacres and the systematic intimidation and execution of trade unionists and other civilians.

Even in Mexico, human rights abuses by the military, police and paramilitary groups aligned with the government continue against indigenous people and dissidents in Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero and other states. Yet the US continues to work closely with President Vicente Fox on trade and immigration issues while turning a blind eye to murders and rapes.

Meanwhile, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias, a staunch critic of the US and its free trade policies, has frequently been called a human rights abuser by the US administration for his proposed legislation putting limits on the media. Chavez’s supporters say that the press actually enjoys wide freedom in Venezuela, as evidenced by the existence of numerous virulently anti-Chavez media outlets.

This double standard is evident in the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the US justified its invasions of these countries largely under the pretext of freeing their citizens from governments who were violating their human rights, numerous reports have shown that now the US is playing a role in perpetuating human rights abuses in both countries.
For example in Afghanistan, recent reports from the ground indicate that since the fall of the Taliban, violence, instability, repression of women and general poverty and despair are worse than ever.

"Human rights abuses in Afghanistan are being committed by gunmen and warlords who were propelled into power by the United States and its coalition partners after the Taliban fell in 2001," stated Human Rights Watch Asia Division executive director Brad Adams this summer. "These men and others have essentially hijacked the country outside of Kabul. With less than a year to go before national elections, Afghanistan’s human rights situation appears to be worsening."

While one of the US’s major justifications for toppling the Taliban was its repression of women, a Human Rights Watch report also notes that attacks on women in chaotic post-war Afghanistan have actually increased since the Taliban fell, preventing most women and girls from going to school or working.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the killing of civilians and mass destruction of property during the war could easily be labeled as human rights abuses, and since the so-called end of the war these incidents are even clearer violations of universally protected human rights. An Amnesty International memorandum on law and order in Iraq released recently explains the required treatment of Iraqi prisoners and civilians under international human rights law and the failure of US-led Coalition forces to abide by this code. Among other things, it noted that Iraqi detainees were not being granted fair reviews of their cases or the chance to take their own cases before a court, and that the Coalition forces were illegally overriding the authority of Iraqi courts in deciding a suspect’s fate. Coalition forces were also found to be refusing to release detainees on bail as required by law, and refusing detainees access to lawyers or family members.

Among the numerous specific cases of human rights abuses that Amnesty documents in Iraq are the killing of Sa’adi Suleiman Ibrahim al-Ubaydi in Ramadi on May 14 and Coalition troops’ firing on protesters in Baghdad on June 18. In the early morning on May 14 two US armed vehicles crashed through the stone wall surrounding Sa’adi’s house, the report notes, and drove right up to the house. When Sa’adi came out unarmed and in his night clothes to close the door, US soldiers forced their way into his house and beat him with their rifles. Then as he tried to flee the abuse they shot him to death. The killing of at least two demonstrators by US soldiers during a protest outside the Republican Palace on June 18 was just one of several recent cases in which US forces shot at protesters who weren’t using firearms.

There are also human rights abuses here at home. The Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security abuse human rights everytime they hold an undocumented immigrants in inhumane conditions for indeterminate periods pending deportation, or designate US citizens and legal residents as "enemy combatants" without access to legal representation and other basic rights.

Amnesty International reports that of the at least 650 detainees currently at Guantanamo Bay, many of them have been held for over a year and subject to "cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment in violation of international law."

On July 3, 2003, President Bush decided that six foreign nationals held at Guantanamo would be tried under Military Order meaning they are facing indefinite detentions, trials before military tribunals and possible execution as suspected terrorists with no independent review and a lower standard of evidence than typical trials. The British and Australian governments intervened on the behalf of the three detainees from their countries, however, and these three will now reportedly avoid the death penalty. The other three, whose nationalties are being kept secret, are still subject to the death penalty. These incidents have dangerous ripple effects around the world.

"In the past most countries have by and large had a sense of good will toward the US and considered the US a champion of freedom, but there’s a lot of squandering of this goodwill capital," said Hurwitz. "If the US starts doing secret trials, detaining people without charges and without access to their families and lawyers, other countries are going to do the same and countries that are doing that are going to feel vindicated. There’s a lot of harm the US is doing to itself and to people in its control like in Guantanamo Bay, but the biggest harm is the license which it inadvertently has given to other countries to increase their human rights violations."

Kari Lydersen is a regular contributor to AlterNet and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago. She can be reached at karilyde@aol.com.

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