Category Archives: Domestic Politics

Reactions to last night’s Presidential Debate

by Katy Naples-Mitchell, Co-Coordinator

From a human rights perspective, both candidates were disappointing in last night’s debate. Governor Romney wholeheartedly supported the increased use of drones which has been a cornerstone of President Obama’s approach to combating terrorism; neither candidate talked about the civilian deaths that have been associated with drone strikes nor their violations of international law. Governor Romney was the only candidate to mention human rights nominally, but he immediately extrapolated to “freedom” and “elections,” an extremely limited and insufficient construction of what it means to champion human rights and uphold human dignity. Neither candidate gave sufficient specifics about how to transition out of Afghanistan, although President Obama assured us it should happen “in a responsible” way. President Obama’s comments on Syria were cautious but insufficiently specific, and Governor Romney simply regurgitated a version of the same basic policy approach to Syria, except one more stringently focused on arming the resistance movement. Syria is being ravaged and human rights are being aggressively trampled via indiscriminate air attacks from an unfettered army, but perhaps the focus should be on disarmament of the army and ending arms trade deals via a strong Arms Trade Treaty, which both candidates neglected to mention. Overall the candidates’ foreign policy positions were unsettling in their similar disregard for human rights.

I found one topic of the debate particularly surprising. Governor Romney repeatedly called for indicting Iranian President Ahmadinejad, but to indict him under the Genocide Convention would require Ahmadinejad to be tried in Iran for genocide (unlikely) or by an international tribunal or the International Criminal Court (ICC), to which the U.S. is not a party and for which Governor Romney has not expressed support in past public statements. In post-debate clarifications, Romney aides reportedly suggested that he meant that a World Court would arrest Ahmadinejad. Unfortunately, that’s not the way our international justice system works, and seems out of sorts with how I imagine a Romney administration would approach international law and its enforcement given previous Republican regimes and the Republican Party Platform which definitively rejects the jurisdiction of the ICC. Overall, in their foreign policy discourse the candidates focused too much on solutions that are not accountable to the American people and not considerate of basic human rights.

For a more comprehensive look at the issues of concern to Amnesty activists in this election, check out Amnesty’s human rights bingo:

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Full Disclosure: The Beginning of the End for American Torture

by Alex Emmons, Co-Coordinator

Yesterday the New York Times reported that the United States Justice Department has refused to prosecute CIA operatives for the deaths of two prisoners – one in an Afghanistan prison in 2002 who was shackled to a wall in a cold room, and the other in an Iraq prison in 2003 whose corpse had been photographed packed in ice.

According to Attorney General Holder’s official statement, the case would not proceed because “the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction.” But, according to my assessment, it seems the evidence is easily strong enough to convict. According to a 2006 Human Rights First Report, between 2002 and 2006 the CIA documented more than 30 prisoners killed by suspected or confirmed homicides, and more than 10 who died from abuse-related injuries. With access to classified information, a military tribunal could easily produce enough evidence.

So why did the Justice Department decide not to proceed with prosecutions? Perhaps the Obama administration did so to avoid addressing the prosecution in campaign debates. But I would prefer to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt – and instead point to a different reason.

According to the New York Times, when President Obama signed an executive order banning “enhanced interrogation techniques” his first day in office, he also said that he preferred to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards” – meaning that he preferred to ban torture going forward and not prosecute CIA employees for former actions or for carrying out the policies enacted under a previous administration.

I certainly understand President Obama’s reasoning. Despite being nominally banned, torture became the de facto policy of interrogation operatives under the Bush administration. Officials as high up as Donald Rumsfeld approved torture at Abu Ghraib. Attorneys in the White House Office of Legal Counsel drafted the memos that sanctioned torture under the cover of interrogation techniques. Prosecution after the Bush era would be prosecution ex post facto – that is, after it was actually made illegal – and thus a violation of the principles enshrined in our Constitution.

Should CIA employees be prosecuted for torture? Would it help end torture practices in the American military? It is hard to tell. But it is clear that suppressing investigation and burying the truth prevents Americans from questioning our torture practices. Any solution requires a full disclosure and an impartial investigation.

Even the Democrat-controlled Senate Committee on Select Intelligence seems unsure about disclosure. They have not yet decided whether to release a redacted report on interrogation practices that covered an investigation spanning three years. In addition, President Obama has refused to support Senator Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) proposed “truth commission” – a commission inviting CIA employees to testify on the acts they committed under the harsh interrogation policies and thereby receive immunity from criminal prosecution.

America cannot end torture without knowing the truth. Sign the Human Rights First Petition urging the Senate Intelligence Committee to release their report on torture practices.

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When Lunacy Rules, the Arms Trade Treaty Fails

by Alex Emmons, Co-Coordinator

I grew up in Fairfax, Virginia, 10 minutes from the national headquarters of the NRA. I know a lot of gun owners. I also know that local gun owners understand the responsibility that comes with being armed. I respect gun ownership – on the condition that gun owners are nonviolent and law-abiding. I also maintain that if someone demonstrates violence or insanity, they should not be given a gun.

That was the message of a June 2012 Amnesty International protest in Times Square. This message, however, was not about local gun owners. Protestors were instead demonstrating for stronger controls on the international arms trade. Under present rules, arms merchants are free to sell military weapons to dictators, terrorists, and perpetrators of gender-based violence.

By selling guns to human rights violators, arms dealers profit from enabling oppression, slaughter, and rape. The international arms trade has been guilty of keeping dictators like Bashir Al-Assad and Saddam Hussein in power. Arms merchants have also enabled civilian violence and mass rape – like that committed by the army of and various militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Representatives to the UN convened in July to negotiate a solution. With the world’s first ever Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the UN attempted to ban the export of weapons to the world’s worst human rights violators. Contrary to the criticisms of the NRA, the ATT did not address domestic gun sales or ownership.

But that didn’t stop President Obama from killing the treaty. On the final day of negotiations, American delegates declared that they had not been given enough time to read the 11-page treaty. Their interests were all too clear. The United States is the largest exporter of weaponry. American arms exporters make about 25 billion dollars a year by arming the world. Any regulation at the international level would come with a noticeable cost to American industry.

Treaty negotiations ironically failed one week after the terrible tragedy in Aurora Colorado. President Obama had just finished calling the nation to “prayer and reflection” about arming dangerous men. It is clear that he is not willing to stand strong on that point in the international arena. And the world will continue to suffer for it.

The ATT is a necessary measure for a world safe from dictators and terrorists. Tell heads of state to support the ATT by signing the Control Arms Campaign’s petition.

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Intentional Ambiguity: The NDAA Explained

by Alex Emmons, MC ’15, Co-Coordinator

On December 15, 2011, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Just like they had the year before. And the year before that. The NDAA is a 700 billion dollar appropriations bill required to fund the Department of Defense. But, like so many appropriations, it comes with strings attached.

The 2012 NDAA quickly became the epicenter of a national controversy. Pundits declared that the law allowed indefinite detention of American Citizens without trial, ignoring due process rights. Republican officials defended the bill, claiming that it does not apply to American citizens.

The truth is unclear. Section 1021E of the NDAA asserts “Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens.” The ambiguity rests in the phrase “existing law.” Tragically, “existing law” probably does not refer to the Bill of Rights.

Many legal scholars believe that it likely refers to the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force–a law that conferred unchecked authority on the military. To add to the uncertainty, the Supreme Court has failed to settle the issue. In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court ruled that due process for detainees can be limited and the burden of proof suspended.

The lack of clarity in the 2012 NDAA naturally concerned a group of US journalists. Fearing that honest reporting could lead to detention without due process, they filed suite in a New York Court on the grounds that the NDAA could violate the freedom of the press.

When District Court Judge Katherine Forrest interrogated the government’s attorneys about their interpretation of the NDAA. They repeatedly replied, “We are not prepared to answer that question.” Their failure to respond was so astounding that it indicated something worse than a lack of preparation. They did not intend the law to be clarified by judicial review. In May, Katherine Forrest courageously struck down the “indefinite detention” provisions in the NDAA. But her verdict fell on deaf ears. The Obama administration replied that her verdict applied only to the plaintiffs of the case.

The detention of any individual–citizen or non-citizen–without due process is wrong. The case of the 2012 NDAA demonstrates the need for clarity on the matter. While scholars remain uncertain, ambiguity leads to impunity. By passing legal codes too unclear to enforce, Congress has sanctioned human rights violations. Congress instead needs to assertively illegalize indefinite detention, for both citizens and non-citizens.

This July, the Senate will consider the NDAA for 2013. Senator Mark Udall (D-UT) is leading the fight against indefinite detention. Help him by signing his online petition.

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