By Andy Worthington
Last Sunday, in "A Cruel and Unusual Record," an op-ed in the New York Times, just two days before the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter delivered an impassioned plea for the U.S. to undo the ruinous effects of ten years of the "war on terror" -- or the "long war," as it is now more fashionably known -- and to regain its moral authority around the world.
The former President began by stating that the United States was "abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights," and seized, in particular, on the fact that senior officials in the Obama administration "are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens," and the recent revelation that President Obama personally approves drone attacks based on a "kill list" as "only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation’s violation of human rights has extended."
As President Carter stated, correctly:
This development began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public. As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues.
While the country has made mistakes in the past, the widespread abuse of human rights over the last decade has been a dramatic change from the past. With leadership from the United States, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” This was a bold and clear commitment that power would no longer serve as a cover to oppress or injure people, and it established equal rights of all people to life, liberty, security of person, equal protection of the law and freedom from torture, arbitrary detention or forced exile.
Crucially, President Carter noted that, although the declaration "has been invoked by human rights activists and the international community to replace most of the world’s dictatorships with democracies and to promote the rule of law in domestic and global affairs," we are now in such a "disturbing" situation that, "instead of strengthening these principles," the U.S. government’s counterterrorism policies "are now clearly violating at least 10 of the declaration’s 30 articles, including the prohibition against 'cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.'"
As well as complaining about the government's drone policy, the former President also complained about how "recent laws have canceled the restraints in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to allow unprecedented violations of our rights to privacy through warrantless wiretapping and government mining of our electronic communications," and how some laws, in individual states, "permit detaining individuals because of their appearance, where they worship or with whom they associate."
He also launched a withering attack on the passages in the National Defense Authorization Act, introduced by Congress, which "made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or 'associated forces,' a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress." While noting that this particular part of the NDAA was recently blocked by a federal judge, he added that it is fundamentally unacceptable because it "violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the declaration."
President Carter also discussed the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, although he did not explicitly draw parallels between the detention provisions in the NDAA and Guantánamo, which was a pity, as the men held in Guantánamo provided -- and still provide -- the supposed justification for "the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or 'associated forces,'" even though they have also, for the most part, been deprived of "the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty," through the founding document of the "war on terror," the Authorization for Use of Military Force.
Passed by Congress the week after the 9/11 attacks, the AUMF claims to justify the detention of prisoners seized in wartime to be held not as prisoners of war, according to the Geneva Conventions, but as "detainees," essentially without rights, who, the U.S. asserts, can be held until the end of hostilities, even though it is widely accepted that this ill-defined "war" may last for generations, and there are no mechanisms in place to challenge this claim.
In discussing Guantánamo, President Carter did, however, note that "the prison now houses 169 prisoners," and that about half of these men -- actually 87 of them -- "have been cleared for release, yet have little prospect of ever obtaining their freedom," a key component of our complaints here at "Close Guantánamo," and one which we are grateful to President Carter for highlighting.
He also explained that "[m]ost of the other prisoners have no prospect of ever being charged or tried either," which is clearly unacceptable, and, with a palpable sense of outrage, also commented on the torture of the "high-value detainees," and the manner in which evidence of their torture is being suppressed by senior officials. As he explained:
[I]n order to obtain confessions, some of the few being tried (only in military courts) have been tortured by waterboarding more than 100 times or intimidated with semiautomatic weapons, power drills or threats to sexually assault their mothers. Astoundingly, these facts cannot be used as a defense by the accused, because the government claims they occurred under the cover of "national security."
President Carter's powerful critique of U.S. policy under President Bush and President Obama also contained an implacable revulsion at the sleight-of-hand and fundamental illegality of the drone attacks. "Despite an arbitrary rule that any man killed by drones is declared an enemy terrorist," he wrote, "the death of nearby innocent women and children is accepted as inevitable."
Providing further detail, he specifically noted, "After more than 30 airstrikes on civilian homes this year in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has demanded that such attacks end, but the practice continues in areas of Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen that are not in any war zone. We don’t know how many hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed in these attacks, each one approved by the highest authorities in Washington."
Significantly, he added, "This would have been unthinkable in previous times."
After noting that the counterproductive effects of the attacks, which have "turned aggrieved families toward terrorist organizations, aroused civilian populations against us and permitted repressive governments to cite such actions to justify their own despotic behaviour," President Carter concluded by pointing out that, "when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
"But instead of making the world safer," he continued, "America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends. As concerned citizens, we must persuade Washington to reverse course and regain moral leadership according to international human rights norms that we had officially adopted as our own and cherished throughout the years."