The Human Rights Reports that could: Analysis of the 2014 Department of State Country Reports

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to how the 2013 Human Rights Reports were the foundation of U.S. foreign policy and a statement to the world that the U.S. is watching to make sure that foreign governments protect the human rights of their citizens (Photo Credit: Mladen  Antonov/AFP/Getty Images).

(Photo Credit: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images).

By Adotei Akwei and Larissa Peltola*

After months of anticipation by the global community, the Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014 finally arrived on June 25, a mere six months into 2015. This beguiling page-turner, which provides us with a summary of the state of human rights around the world, highlights virtually every country yet somehow manages to gloss over, or omit altogether, the human rights violations occurring in the United States (#closeGuantanamo).

Amnesty International USA, along with several other human rights groups, continues to welcome the reports as a potentially valuable roadmap to guide U.S. foreign policy. They offer a detailed look at the human rights situation in particular countries and often indicate developing political and human rights crises, but sadly, they have historically been ignored by the very government that produces them.

The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that human rights are a priority of its foreign policy. If that is the case, then we urge the administration to look at the reports of the countries flagged below and assess whether those countries should be receiving security or financial assistance, or whether supporting governments that treat people so poorly is a sensible investment of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars.


Obama to Close Gitmo

Barack Obama has announced that he will close Guantanamo. Throughout the world, this announcement will be understood as an introduction to a new kind of American leadership, a repudiation of the unilateralism of the Bush administration, and a return to diplomacy and the rule of law.

Guantanamo prison cell © US DoD

Guantanamo prison cell © US DoD

Closing Guantanamo will be a complicated process, which must be accomplished in phases. But the first step clearly is the settlement of the 50 or 60 detainees who have been cleared for release but have nowhere to go. These men have been called the “Guantanamo refugees.” Some of these men are stateless, but most of them simply can’t be returned to their home countries because their lives would be in danger there.

A number of European countries have recently indicated a willingness to take in some of the Guantanamo refugees. But the U.S. must also take some of them.

A group of 17 ethnic Uyghurs from western China have been at Guantanamo almost since its opening. From very early on, they were known to be innocent. In September 2008, a federal court officially cleared them of “enemy combatant” status. In October, Federal Court Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered them released into the U.S, where Uyghur-American families were waiting to take them in. Justice Department lawyers obtained a stay pending appeal to the Court of Appeals. The appeal was briefed and argued in late November. The Government argued that only the President has the power to order the transfer of detainees and their release into the U.S. The appeal has not yet been decided by the Court. As President, Obama should either dismiss the appeal and comply with Judge Urbina’s order or exercise his power as President to bring the Uyghurs to the U.S.

They Can’t Get Away With It…

So it ain’t breaking news that the Bush administration concocted a legal flip-flam to justify the kidnapping, capture, detention and torture of hundreds of people from around the world, under the guise of national security. But to witness how and exactly what they did in meticulous detail – legal memos, public statements (ie, lies) by administration officials, accurate re-enactments of torture, and testimony from a few extraordinarily strong men who survived death-defying treatment – was beyond maddening.

This happened last night as my husband pulled me away from Facebook to watch Torturing Democracy, an excellent new documentary produced by National Security Archive and Washington Media Associates airing now on PBS. My blood was boiling by the end.

Perhaps most compelling were the half-dozen or more former military officers who denounced the detainee treatment policy. These guys weren’t paper-pushing, desk-weenies. One is a former Navy aviator and one is the former head of the Navy’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) program. They stated emphatically how this undercut America’s core values and how this will harm American servicemen and women “for decades.”

Here’s a transcript from Malcolm Nance, Chief of Training, US Navy SERE, (1997-2001):

“It will hurt us for decades to come. Decades. Our people will all be subjected to these tactics, because we have authorized them for the world now. How it got to Guantanamo is a crime and somebody needs to figure out who did it, how they did it, who authorized them to do it, and shut it down because our servicemen will suffer for years.”

Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, Senior Prosecutor, Office of Military Commissions, (2003-06):

“If we stoop and we compromise on our ideals as a nation, then these guys have accomplished much more than driving airplanes into the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon.”

As for me, I’m not religious, but I love how Col. Couch simply framed this issue:

“God means what he says. And we were created in his image, and we owe each other a certain level of dignity — a certain level of respect. And that’s just a line we can’t cross.”

As a human being, I was heartbroken and astonished that anyone could survive torture of this sickness and duration. As the daughter of a 32-year decorated Viet Nam veteran (U.S. Marine), I can only imagine that my dad is turning in his grave at Quantico National Cemetery. As an Amnesty International staff member, I am both fired up and proud that my organization is unwaveringly committed to fighting this unspeakable crap wherever it occurs, no matter who does it and no matter how far ahead of public opinion we may be.

Skip late-night Friends re-runs, this is must-see TV — if you care what your government does in your name.

Most Americans are ready to move beyond the nightmare of the last eight years. Yep, I’m all for massive change. But for some things in life the perps really ought to pay. And the U.S. war-on-terror detainees’ policy is one of them.

Sign Amnesty International’s petition for accountability. They just can’t get away with this.

Watch the trailer to Torturing Democracy

US Must Monitor Use of US Weapons in Gaza

Amnesty International has called on the US State Department to suspend all transfers of military weaponry and equipment to Israel until it conducts an investigation into whether US weapons were used in human rights violations.  Israel has been using F16’s, Apache helicopters, gunboats and bunker buster bombs in a week-long series of devastating attacks on the Gaza Strip.

Israel Gaza Conflict Enters Twelfth Day. (c) Getty Images

Israel Gaza Conflict Enters Twelfth Day. (c) Getty Images

Monitoring of the use of American-made weaponry is not unprecedented.  The State Department monitored the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories during the second intifada after Israel dropped a 2,000 pound bomb from an F-16 on an apartment building killing not only the Hamas target Saleh Shahadeh, but also 14 civilians, including 9 of his children in 2002.

The U.S. Arms Export Act of 1976 was passed to help guarantee that US made weapons would only be used for legitimate self-defense reasons and not for violations of internationally recognized human rights.  The act requires the State Department to report to Congress when there is a ”substantial violation” of the law.

An incident similar to the 2002 case of Saleh Shahadeh happened during the latest series of attacks on the Gaza Strip. Israeli forces dropped a one-ton bomb on the home of a well-known Hamas leader, Nizar Rayan, killing him along with over a dozen members of his family, including most of his children.  Additionally, civilian residential homes and other civilian buildings, including a university, police compounds, schools and fire stations have been targeted by Israeli air strikes.

While it’s unclear whether any US weapons have been directly used by Israeli security forces for human rights violations in Gaza, given the types of weapons and attacks Israel security forces have recently used and the large amount of civilian casualties, there is a strong likelihood that US weapons could be used in such violations.

According to the US government’s most recent annual report to the US Congress on US arms sales, in 2007 alone, the US approved or delivered millions of dollars worth of arms and ammunition to Israel, including items in the category of rockets, bombs and missiles.  In the past, the US has also sold Israel F-16s, attack helicopters, and cluster munitions.   A Jerusalem Post article outlines the use of GBU-39 ‘bunker buster’ bombs in this latest military operation against the Gaza Strip that were just sold to Israel by the US this past September.

Although it is widely understood and accepted that Israel has the right and duty to protect its citizens, it is still obligated to do so respecting international humanitarian and human rights laws.  They must use the least intrusive means available, respecting proportion, necessity and distinction (non-combatant vs. combatant).  Israel has failed to do this, using extraordinarily powerful weapons against the Gaza Strip such as the one ton bomb on a home to kill one member of Hamas.  The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated locales on earth where 1.5 million people inhabitant a strip 4-7 miles wide and 25 miles long.  Air strikes with ‘smart bombs’ no matter how precise have resulted in a shockingly large number of civilian deaths; sometimes entire families at the same time.

The United States is obligated to enforce the law, regardless of who the offending party may be.  We are a nation based on ‘rule of law’.  If we suspect our weapons are being used in attacks that are indiscriminately killing civilians, we must act.

These concerns were raised in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last Friday by Amnesty International.  Until we can be certain that the US Arms Export Act is not being violated, we must suspend all transfers of weapons and immediately open an investigation.