Killing Osama

Politicians from across the political spectrum in the United States have been quick to hail the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of US special forces as an act of justice.  The operation may have been many things, but the exercise of the due process of law it was not.

The Obama administration has yet to set out the legal grounds under which the operation in Pakistan was conducted, with senior officials characterizing it variously as an act of national self-defense or a military engagement. From a legal standpoint neither framework is a particularly good fit.

What the operation to ‘kill or capture’ bin Laden resembles most closely is the kind of targeted assassination mission frequently undertaken by the Israeli Defense Forces and this begs the question, has the US now fully embraced a similar policy?


Iraq Is Not Shining Example For Middle East

© Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

It’s rare to hear Iraq described as “heaven,” but that is how a Christian Iraqi described his hometown in northern Kurdistan after returning to the US from a trip to visit his family there. Electricity, food and clean water are in abundance, and Christians live in peace with their Kurdish neighbors.

In his speech last week, President Obama stressed the United States’ support for universal rights, including the freedom of religion “whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran.”

Later in his speech, he presented Iraq as an example of how other countries in the Middle East should proceed:

“In Iraq, we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy. There, the Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence for a democratic process, even as they have taken full responsibility for their own security. Like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress.”


President Obama and China's Human Rights: Real Change or Rehashed Rhetoric?

By T. Kumar, International Advocacy Director

The headlines are clear. President Obama exerted pressure on Chinese President Hu Jintao about China’s human rights record during this week’s summit.

While Amnesty International applauds President Obama for speaking publicly about human rights during the press conference, the question remains: will US policy in practice reflect President Obama’s rhetoric? The challenge for President Obama is to convert the overly positive publicity into real concrete action to bring improvements in China’s human rights.

Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo remains locked up in China.

The rhetoric at the press briefing should be matched by incorporating human rights into every aspect of U.S. policy, not only limited to the State Department’s human rights bureau and annual human rights dialogue.  Human rights should be part of the policy brief for all the U.S. departments that interact with the Chinese government. Importantly, human rights should play an equal and important part of the US – China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

Prior to the state visit, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations urged President Obama to meet former political prisoners from China who are currently residing in the United States. President Bush met these political prisoners before his trip to China to attend the Olympics. President Obama ignored our request for reasons known only to him. By refusing to meet these political prisoners, the administration missed an opportunity to demonstrate the seriousness by which the United States views human rights in China. President Obama’s inaction also raises the question whether he is hesitant to be tough on human rights, in the absence of giving speeches.

The repartee between the Presidents was covered extensively; but the question looms: did President Obama get any commitment from the Chinese president for any tangible improvement in human rights? Did President Obama set any benchmarks or timelines? There are several areas to focus starting with re-education through labor camps, where Chinese authorities arbitrarily detain around 200,000 people, to the execution of political prisoners, and the continued imprisonment of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo.

President Hu Jintao acknowledged the human rights issues in response to reporters’ questions. Will President Obama do his part to translate his human rights rhetoric into practice?

President Obama endorses the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples!

Kicking off the second annual White House Tribal Nations Conference this morning, President Obama announced that the U.S. would finally endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)!

The UNDRIP is a non-legally binding human rights instrument which affirms universal standards for the survival, dignity, and well-being of all Indigenous Peoples. It provides a framework for addressing indigenous issues and was adopted by the United Nations in 2007, with the United States as one of only four countries, along with Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, that voted against the Declaration. Australia and New Zealand reversed their initial positions, and on November 12, Canada announced its endorsement of the Declaration as well.

In April 2010, the United States announced it would formally review its position on UNDRIP. Led by the State Department, the Administration held a series of tribal and NGO consultations to review what endorsement of the international human rights declaration would mean for Indigenous populations in the U.S. We are grateful to the Administration for their commitment to ensuring the ongoing engagement and consultation of tribal leaders, federally recognized tribes, and other interested stakeholders throughout this process.

This is a tremendous and long-overdue victory for American Indians in the U.S. – by endorsing the UNDRIP, the U.S. government is affirming its commitment to protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples, both at home and abroad. 

A huge congratulation to all of our Native American and Alaska Native partners and friends for this long-awaited and well-deserved victory!

And a deep and heartfelt thank you to ALL of our activists and supporters who took action to let President Obama know that you support indigenous rights – without your action, support and commitment, this would not have been possible.

World’s Largest Democracy Really Good at Detaining Kids without Charge

Protests Against Indian Rule in Kashmir - copyright Majid Pandit, used by permission

Take action to free 14-year old boy from jail in Kashmir

US President Barack Obama hailed the total awesomeness of India during his state visit to the country last week.  While it certainly didn’t cost the $200 million per day that the tabloids in the US and India made up, it was certainly worth its weight in lofty rhetoric except in the realm of human rights.  Not only did he NOT mention any human rights concerns that the US ought to have regarding India (nor did India mention any human rights concerns that India ought to have about the US), he also went out of his way to extol India’s place on the center stage (including when he was talking about the human rights situation in Burma).  As if to highlight all the bling that India has to offer (and boy does it have the bling), he dragged (kicking and screaming presumably since Obama’s opponents allege that he is anti-business) 200 business executives to ink various weapons deals mainly to pump up American Empire’s gigantic military-industrial complex on the backs of the 380 million Indians still living on $1 per day (more than the entire population of the United States).  What better way to end malnutrition than to have really awesome chest-thumping parades in New Delhi with all that fancy weaponry!  Yummy, tanks.


Congress Moves on the 2009 Tribal Law and Order Act

On Thursday, December 10th, the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a hearing to discuss the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009, for which AIUSA was invited to submit written testimony. The bill, a close approximation of the early Senate draft of the bill, would make crucial and desperately needed reforms in tribal justice systems, helping to address the epidemic of sexual violence against Native American and Alaska Native women and girls.

Over the last few years, Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) has worked to document the disconcerting realities of law enforcement in Indian Country, especially as they impact the capacity and ability to prevent and respond to sexual violence against women and girls. Our research found that Native American and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the United States in general. In recent months, as both the House and Senate have made headway in pushing their respective bills through committee, it seems that Congressional leaders are finally realizing the true urgency of reforming tribal law enforcement.

Both bills would make crucial steps in ensuring justice in Indian Country. These bills mandate and create structures for improving communication, transparency, and data sharing between tribal, state, and Federal agencies, increase tribal prosecutorial authorities, expand and emphasize the importance of data collection and analysis, and call for the US Attorney General’s Office to document cases it refuses to prosecute. The bills also require training for law enforcement personnel on how to respond to domestic and sexual violent crimes and require Indian Health Services to improve services for victims of sexual assault.


Women of Zimbabwe Arise Report Increased Harassment

Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams, Women of Zimbabwe Arise

Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams, Women of Zimbabwe Arise

Last month, Magodonga Mahlangu was awarded the RFK Human Rights Award for the work she does as co-leader of Women of Zimbabwe  Arise (WOZA). Since her return to Zimbabwe, however, she and co-leader Jenni Williams are reporting increased harassment levels by police and Central Intelligence officers. Both Magodonga and Jenni have faced heightened intimidation efforts following past international recognition, but it was hoped that since this award was presented by President Barack Obama along with Ethel Kennedy, it might buy them a little breathing space since even Mugabe has hailed Obama as a pretty cool dude. Clearly Obama’s street cred as a brother will only carry you so far.

Magodonga and Jenni were back in court last week on pending charges from an arrest in October 2008. The Supreme Court verbally ruled almost six months ago that the charges were unconstitutional but has yet to put it in writing. In the spirit of continuing to drag the process out as long as possible, the ladies were now told that their file was missing and the magistrate would not make any ruling without it and these “political cases” are sensitive. Hmmm. Political cases? I seem to remember that Magodonga and Jenni were arrested because they were marching in the streets demanding equitable distribution of food aid. You say political case, I say oppression of human rights defenders. Tomato, tomatoe.

Magodonga and Jenni were ordered to reappear Monday, January 14th. Take Action! Demand justice for Magodonga and Jenni.

Beyond the Market: Health Care as a Civil or Human Right?

A dramatic disconnect between principles and policies has hampered current U.S. health care reform efforts. This became obvious when candidate Obama declared health care to be a right and then proceeded to treat it as a commodity when negotiating with insurance companies a requirement for individuals to buy a commercial health insurance product.

Similarly, early on in the debate the president championed the principle of universality by promising some form of health coverage – if not necessarily health care – for 46 million uninsured people, only to lower the policy goal to 30 million American citizens in his speech before Congress, excluding many immigrants and low-income people. Since then, further policy provisions that restrict access to health coverage for immigrants – documented and undocumented – and reduce affordability for lower-income people have appeared in the health care bill adopted by the Senate Finance Committee. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

A Tale of Two Taliban

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

In the last month, a spotlight has fallen on two sharply different terrorism cases that illuminate the best and worse of America’s efforts to defeat Al Qaeda:

  • The case of Mohammed Jawad, conducted with the gloves off, is a disaster.
  • The case of Bryant Vinas, conducted within the law, appears to be triumph.

Mohammed Jawad was detained in Kabul in December 2002 after a grenade was thrown at US soldiers, injuring three members of a patrol. Jawad’s age has not been established with any degree of certainty but it is not disputed that he was a minor at the time of the attack. According to Afghan government, he may have been as young as twelve.

Although the US government has yet to produce any credible evidence that Jawad was responsible for the attack – in July 2009 US District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle described the government’s case as “an outrage” and “riddled with holes” – he was labeled as a terrorist and eventually transferred to Guantanamo Bay. Read Amnesty International’s report on Jawad’s case.

Jawad was subjected to a range of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques including forced sleep deprivation and physical abuse. Judge Huvelle, who eventually heard Jawad’s habeas corpus petition, threw out every statement he made in US custody as “a product of torture”. On July 30, she ordered that Jawad be released by August 21.

Jawad has been illegally detained for more than six and a half years. Worse still – the United States tortured a child. And for what? Jawad could offer no actionable intelligence. The government can’t even prove he committed a crime. His detention has cost the American taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is a lose-lose scenario emblematic of the dark side approach promoted by Dick Cheney.

Bryant Neal Vinas, alias Bashir al-Ameriki, a twenty-six year old Hispanic man from Long Island, converted to Islam in 2004 and travelled to Pakistan to make contact with Al Qaeda in late 2007 or early 2008.

Vinas received weapons training from Al Qaeda with a particular concentration on explosives. In September 2008, he took part in a rocket attack on a US military base in Afghanistan.

Vinas even agreed to undertake a suicide bombing, although his handlers let him off the hook. He was, in short, a terrorist who engaged in hostile acts against the United States.

In November 2008, he was arrested in Peshwar by the Pakistani authorities. Because Vinas was an American citizen he was not shipped to Guantanamo or Bagram but instead treated like an ordinary criminal and transferred to the custody of the FBI.

Vinas’ case was handled entirely within the American criminal justice system. He was interviewed by FBI investigators within the constraints of domestic US law and with all the protections that the US constitution affords US citizens.

Operating within these constraints experienced FBI agents were able to persuade Vinas to cooperate with the US authorities and provide valuable and timely intelligence regarding potential terrorist plot.

Federal prosecutors were able to build a strong case against Vinas successfully charging him with conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens, providing information to a terrorist organization, and receiving “military-type training” from a Al-Qaeda.

Vinas eventually pled guilty to these charges. He has agreed to appear as a key witness in a number of other terrorist trials and is currently a protected witness in the federal witness protection program living inside the United States.

What a contrast exists between these two cases – one effectively and efficiently handled within the law and the other, a Kafkaesque nightmare in which a minor has been abused and incarcerated for more than six years to no purpose whatsoever.

These two cases could not make it any plainer. Our criminal justice system not only can handle complex terrorism cases, it actually does a substantially better job of it than the cack-handed shadow warriors unleashed by the Bush administration.

The real tragedy is that this lesson seems to be lost on the Obama White House. Jeh Johnson’s admission before Congress that the administration may consider detaining individuals acquitted by the Military Commissions seems to set the stage for further miscarriages of justice and for yet further damage to America’s battered international reputation.

We don’t need to keep going down this path. There is a better way. We know how to do this smarter and we know how do this right. Just ask Bryant Vinas.

Crisis in Honduras…Obama and Chavez agree?

Unrest in Honduras flared today as protesters spared with police over the recent exile of President Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya was ousted over the weekend by the Honduran military after disagreements among officials about a controversial constitutional referendum Zelaya had asked Hondurans to vote on last Sunday. The referendum would have changed the constitution to allow Zelaya an additional term as president — a move some have argued looks suspiciously close to the referendum Hugo Chavez proposed for Venezuela in 2007.

Amnesty International has issued a press release on the crisis arguing that President Zelaya must be allowed to return to Honduras immediately and safely. Amnesty also raised concerns about the safety of protesters and increased media censorship.

Interestingly, the Obama administration has tepidly stood on the side of leftist Zelaya — arguing that his exile was illegal and he should be reinstated to office immediately, a stance shared with Chavez. But as Paul Richter of the Los Angles Times points out, the U.S. has not gone so far as to remove its ambassadors from Honduras or declare the incident a coup d’etat.

However, I think Obama made a great statement today that shows some insight into U.S.-Latin American relations when he said, “The United States has not always stood as it should with some of these fledgling democracies, but over the last several years I think both Republicans and Democrats in the United States have recognized that we always want to stand with democracy, even if the results don’t always mean that the leaders of those countries are favorable towards the United States.”

As AI stated in their press release, I hope that this crisis will get resolved quickly and peacefully but am ready to roll up my sleeves and start writing letters if the situation gets worse.