US Must not Turn Blind Eye to Human Rights Crisis in Northwest Pakistan

This piece was originally posted on Huffington Post.

“I lost my sense when I reached the door of my house and saw and heard the crying of my close neighbors and relatives—as if hell fell on me. When I saw people putting the dead bodies of my children, parents, and other relatives in bed I couldn’t bear it anymore and fell on the ground…”

A 25-year-old man who lost nine family members when two shells fired by security forces hit his house during the battle of Loi Sam (FATA).

A young girl from Maidan flees her village carrying her younger brother on her back, they are trying to escape the fighting between the Taleban and Pakistani government forces in Lower Dir, North West Frontier Province, 27 April 2009. (c) AI

This shocking testimony by a resident of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) is a reminder that it is civilians who suffer as a consequence of the fighting between the Taleban and Pakistani government forces in northwest Pakistan. In the United States, this conflict is too often described from a pure counter-terrorism angle: “For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world.” President Obama forgot to mention that this region is also home to millions of people, who do not support or take part in the violence and are simply trying to farm, raise livestock, weave fabrics, transport goods, raise families, build, repair, or teach.

We too rarely hear their stories. They give a human face to the suffering of millions of Pakistanis in the northwest tribal areas.

The consequence of this ignorance is that today many of the residents in northwest Pakistan live in a human rights free zone  where they have no legal protection by the government and are subject to horrific abuses by the Taleban. Unfortunately, many areas of northwest Pakistan now resemble the Taleban-ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s. The world should be alarmed by the way living conditions have deteriorated under the increasingly brutal control of the Pakistani Taleban and its allied insurgent groups; instead, the suffering of the people of this area has been largely ignored, sacrificed in the name of geopolitical interests. Most disturbing is the fact that civilians are increasingly hit on three different fronts: by the Taleban, by the Pakistani army and by U.S. Drone strikes.


Human Rights: Time to Practice What We Preach

Originally posted on

In a recent speech to the American Society of International Law (ASIL) the legal advisor to the State Department, Harold Koh, stressed the “most important difference” between the Obama and the Bush administrations is their “approach and attitude toward international law.” Koh said this difference is illustrated by an emerging “Obama-Clinton Doctrine,” based on a commitment to four main principles: “principled engagement; diplomacy as a critical element of smart power; strategic multilateralism; and the notion that living our values makes us stronger and safer, by following rules of domestic and international law; and following universal standards, not double standards.”

The commitments to “principled engagement” and “living our values” are especially vital to advancing human rights. For years, U.S. leadership on the world stage has suffered because the U.S. seems to hold a double standard on human rights. Historically, notions of U.S. exceptionalism and selectively ignoring injustices and human rights violations at home and abroad have bred mistrust of U.S. leadership based on our incomplete commitment to universal human rights. The Obama administration, however, has committed to leading by example. According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this means “holding everyone to the same standard, including ourselves.”

In many areas, the administration’s actions have matched its rhetoric. Joining the United Nations Human Rights Council and signing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities have both sent the right message that President Obama is prepared to engage with the international community on new and more principled terms than previous administrations. The appointment of many officials who are self-defined human rights champions with careers both inside and outside the government promoting civil and human rights evinces a commitment to “a vision of common humanity, universal rights and rule of law.” Moreover, the willingness of this administration to work with members of civil society to align our human rights rhetoric with our human rights practices demonstrates a commitment to lead by example based on both “principled engagement” and “living our values.”

These efforts, however, are not enough. What we have yet to see are new bold steps that prioritize human rights at home. This administration has not adopted domestic policies designed to translate its rhetoric and commitments into reality. And although the administration has made positive statements about the indivisibility of rights and the importance of recognition of economic, social and cultural rights, there has been no concrete action to fully incorporate those principles into domestic policies. “Principled engagement” and “living our values” require nothing short of a complete reversal of the positions, policies and practices from which this administration has assiduously worked to distance itself. This is the type of change an Obama presidency promised. This is the hope on which many relied when casting their votes in the 2008 election.


Posted in USA

Bagram's New Black Hole

Last week the BBC reported that it had interviewed nine Afghan detainees who claimed to have been held in a secret detention facility on Bagram Air Base where they suffered abuse at the hands of US personnel.

The detainees were held in a hitherto unidentified detention facility called “The Black Hole” by their American guards. Most of the detainees said they had been beaten at the time of their arrest – one was missing a row of teeth.

In the prison lights were kept on in the cells 24 hours a day and the constant hum machinery seemed designed to prevent detainees from sleeping. One detainee, Mirwais, claimed that he was made to dance by the guards every time he needed to use the bathroom.

There are several shocking aspects to this story. First, in all nine cases the abuse reportedly occurred after President Obama issued his Executive Order Ensuring Lawful Interrogations. The military denies the existence of the facility.

Second, it would appear that sleep deprivation is being used as deliberate tactic to soften up detainees in contravention of the Army Field Manual on Interrogations, which requires that detainees be allowed 4 hours sleeps in every 24 hour period.

Third, and perhaps most disturbing of all, is the complete lack of interest that the US media has taken in the story.  On the face of it the BBC report seems credible, meriting further investigation at the very least, but the silence has been deafening.

America seems to have lost its appetite for self-examination and, by refusing to investigate and punish the systemic use of torture by the Bush administration, President Obama has contributed to the culture of impunity that allows such abuses to flourish in the field.

The President made a commitment to run an anti-torture administration and now he has reached a moment of truth.  Apparently not everyone got the memo. He cannot turn the page on the BBC’s story. This is happening on his watch.

President Obama must order an immediate inquiry into these allegations. If offences have been committed criminal charges must follow.

The Commander-in-Chief sets the tone for the armed forces and actions speak louder than words. Only by acting decisively in the face of these new revelations can he make his repugnance at such tactics clear.

Message to Obama before Indonesian trip

Supporters rally for Yusak and Filep in front of the White House. © AIUSA

Supporters rally for Yusak and Filep in front of the White House. © AIUSA

Just this week, our Individuals at Risk team received a special message from Yusak Pakage and Filep Karma – two prisoners of conscience in jail for peacefully raising a flag – from their prison cells in Indonesia. Here’s what they wrote:

Since our being sentenced to prison, Amnesty International has opposed our being imprisoned for legitimately exercising our right to freedom of expression. We wish to express our appreciation for Amnesty’s advocacy.  

We will continue fighting for Filep and Yusak until they are freed and their rights restored.

President Obama is taking a trip to Indonesia in less than a week, and we want him to carry a message of freedom and hope to Filep Karma and Yusak Pakage. That’s why this past weekend, scores of Amnesty activists and supporters braved torrential rain to rally in front of the White House with flags, banners, and posters asking President Obama not to forget human rights and these two Prisoners of Conscience when he meets with Indonesian President Yudhoyono. Speakers from East Timorese Action Network (ETAN) joined us in calling for their immediate and unconditional release. It was indeed a powerful show of solidarity and our determination to secure the release of both Filep and Yusak!

President Obama spent four years of his childhood in Indonesia and this trip marks a special opportunity to forge an understanding between the two countries based on human rights. But this can only happen if President Obama commits to speaking up for those who were punished for speaking out.

If you weren’t at the rally, it’s not too late to help Filep and Yusak. Call on President Obama to pressure the Indonesian government to release Filep Karma and Yusak Pakage. 

Or if you have the time, call the White House comment line: 1-202-456-1111 (TTY/TDD 202-456-6213). Or if you have trouble getting through, call the White House switchboard: 1-202-456-1414 and ask to be connected to the comment line.

A Maternal Mortality FAIL in the U.S.

By Alicia Ely Yamin

mothersilocontrast-copyWhile the Republicans cynically stall efforts on health reform to gain political advantage and the Democrats wrangle over special deals, too many people continue to die in this country because they lack access to care. A report released today from Amnesty International highlights the scandalous fact that every day in the richest country in the world 2 to 3 women die in pregnancy and childbirth.

As Deadly Delivery: THE MATERNAL HEALTH CARE CRISIS IN THE USA notes, the U.S. “spends more than any other country on health care, and more on maternal health than any other type of hospital care. Despite this, women in the USA have a higher risk of dying of pregnancy-related complications than those in 40 other countries. “ For example, the likelihood of a woman dying in childbirth in the U.S. is five times greater than in Greece.

Perhaps even more scandalous, “African-American women are nearly four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women. These rates and disparities have not improved in more than 20 years.”

Amnesty’s report rightly asserts that this is not just a public health scandal; it reflects widespread violations of women’s human rights, including the right to life, the right to freedom from discrimination, and the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Patterns of marginalization and exclusion in this society are exacerbated by a discriminatory and dysfunctional health system.

Throughout the health care reform debates, there has been scarcely a mention of health care being a fundamental human right. But the fact is that the U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not recognize a legal entitlement to health care.


Posted in USA

Palestinian Nonviolent Resistance Has Strong Roots

Remarks made by Bono , New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof and President Barack Obama stating they hoped Palestinians would find their Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) or Gandhi completely ignore Palestinian nonviolent resistance to brutal oppression.

The presumption that the Palestinian struggle is mainly violent is disturbing. And the dismissal of the people who have sacrificed time, money and even their lives to fight injustice with nonviolence is callous.

Although Palestinian nonviolent resistance dates back to the early 1900’s, the image of armed and violent Palestinians still prevails.   In the 1970’s and 80’s, Palestinian refugees from camps in foreign countries, seeing no resolution after decades of displacement, chose armed struggle and  more recent suicide bombings in Israel  reinforced the perception.

Several factors have hindered a single, iconic figure from emerging or a cohesive civil disobedience movement from blooming despite its continued use by different sectors of Palestinian society.

Israeli policies are repressive and brutal.  The use of live ammunition, beatings, destruction of property,  rejection of building permits, constant threats, repeated administrative detentions and the escalation in arrests is discouraging and has been effectively obstructive.

Nongovernmental delegations, employees and individuals who are perceived as critical of Israel or sympathetic to Palestinians are increasingly denied entry or proper work permits for the Occupied Territories.

Sami Awad, Coordinator for the Holy Land Trust, a not-for-profit community support organization committed to nonviolence and the teachings of MLK and Gandhi, aptly points out, “Nonviolence is not something that happens overnight.  It’s not a means to end the conflict tomorrow. It’s something that evolves over long periods of time.”


Haiti Through Satellite Images

Click to enlarge (c) Digital Globe 2010

Click to enlarge (c) Digital Globe 2010

Satellite images of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince show the effect of the major earthquake that hit the island earlier this week. In addition to destroyed houses, the images also capture displaced people gathering in open spaces – like soccer fields – as there is no place left to go (and to be safe from aftershocks). The previous blog post outlines our human rights concerns, and urges President Obama to grant temporary protected status to all Haitians in the United States. The satellite images only provide one more piece of evidence why no-one should be returned to Haiti at this point.

In a different example of how geospatial technologies are being used to respond to the crisis in Haiti, our colleagues from Ushahidi have put out a Haiti platform in order to track developments on the ground and to support relief efforts. Check it out (works best with Firefox at this point).

See additional satellite images at the Huffington Post.

(c) Digital Globe 2010

(c) Digital Globe 2010

President Obama: Protect the Human Rights of Haitians

Haiti is devastated.

According to media reports, the earthquake has resulted in thousands of deaths, more injuries, and likely countless people missing and displaced. Amnesty International researchers are monitoring the situation. The US government quickly reacted on Wednesday by pledging humanitarian, technical and financial support to the people of Haiti, and this is to be welcomed. The Department of Homeland Security stated that it is temporarily halting all deportations to Haiti, which will provide some relief to the Haitians already here, and their family and friends in Haiti who will likely rely on them for financial support.

At the same time, however, there has been no move to provide protection or secure status to Haitians in the US, or suspend specific immigration policies that discriminate against Haitian nationals. Haitians fleeing persecution or other serious human rights violations have the right to seek protection in the US, but in flagrant violation of international law, the US government stops them on the high seas and returns them to Haiti (interdiction).

President Obama Should Extend Temporary Protected Status to All Haitians in the United States
Temporary protected status (TPS) is a form of protection provided to foreign nationals whose countries have experienced environmental disasters or armed conflicts posing a serious threat to the personal safety of foreign nationals if returned. By definition it is temporary in nature and provides protection and work authorization.

TPS also provides a critical lifeline to the family and friends of people remaining in the home country because TPS beneficiaries can work legally and provide financial support overseas. The US government has made very clear that Haiti is in critical need of financial support. Ensuring that Haitians in the US have the opportunity to work complies with US human rights obligations under international law and standards, and by enabling them to support their families in Haiti, helps indirectly to provide financial assistance to that country.


Eric Holder and the Seven Dwarves

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

Last Friday seven former Directors of Central Intelligence wrote an open letter to President Obama calling for him to reverse the Attorney General’s decision to reopen an investigation into alleged criminal acts committed by CIA interrogators.

This letter marks a new low point in the debate about accountability. Can it really be true that none of the authors are in any way troubled that officers in an agency they once ran tortured prisoners in their care?

The authors state that these cases have already been reviewed and discarded by career Department of Justice prosecutors and should thus remain closed. They neglect to note that the Justice Department was hardly a disinterested party at the time these investigations occurred.

They seem to suggest that good faith and government service should somehow immunize civil servants from being held accountable for their actions. Yet war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, and even genocide are by their very definition committed by public servants.

Men and women in uniform have known for more than a hundred years that they have to act within certain boundaries in war. Those who cross these boundaries commit criminal acts pure and simple. This is the standard we hold other nations to and it is the standard we should hold ourselves to.

The authors argue that prosecutions will discourage American intelligence officers from taking risks to protect their country. Certainly it will force them to consider the consequences of their actions and that is no bad thing. No good can ever come of an intelligence agency that considers itself to be above the law.

The argument that disclosing the interrogation methods now discontinued might provide operational advantage to Al Qaeda is patently absurd. Not least, because the Bush administration has already released numerous former detainees who have told their stories in the Arab media.

Equally, western intelligence services are much more concerned at the potential criminal liability incurred by cooperating and assisting a rogue US intelligence community apparently unconstrained by consideration of international legal standards than by any perceived America inability to keep secrets.

It is not difficult to understand or even admire the loyalty and sense of esprit de corps that prompted this letter. But there are much bigger issues in play here than team spirit.

It is no exaggeration to argue that what is at stake here is the very soul of America. Are we a civilized people that stands resolutely for the principles enshrined in our constitution or do we cut and run at the first sign of trouble?

The Founding Fathers rejected arbitrary imprisonment, torture and total war in favor of something greater – the first modern state built on a foundation of individual human rights and the rule of law.

‘He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard’ cannot ever be standard by which guilt or innocence is judged in a mature democracy. We undermine this foundation at our peril.

Netanyahu ok's settlement expansion despite US displeasure

Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, has approved the construction of hundreds of new homes in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem despite statements by the U.S. government, including many by President Obama, that settlements are an obstacle to peace.

This BBC News video with Paul Wood aired on the BBC September 7th gives a good summary of situation.

There are approximately 500,000 Israelis living on settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.  All settlements are illegal according to international law and no country, with the exception of Micronesia and Israel itself, view it otherwise.  

Israel does not recognize the West Bank and east J’lem as occupied, but the majority of the international community, including the United States continue to hold both the territories as occupied and should be afforded the protections under the Geneva Conventions and other international bodies of law.

Under international law, an occupying power cannot transfer it’s population into territory it is occupying or change the demography unless it is for the benefit of the population being temporarily occupied. Some say that the Israeli gov’t (GOI) is not transferring it’s population; the population is voluntarily moving there so this argument is mute.  This is disingenuous though as east J’lem and the West Bank are considered occupied territory and the GOI provides infrastructure and military support for the settlements to exist.  Without government subsidies, support and encouragement, the settlements would not exist, nor would the growth continue at such a rate.

This McClatchy created graphic shows the expansion of settlements since the 1960's.

This McClatchy created graphic shows the expansion of settlements since the 1960

Although the current U.S. position supported by President Obama calling for a freeze on settlement expansion including so-called ‘natural growth’ is considered ‘unreasonable’ by some, it actually doesn’t go far enough.

The GOI has been changing the demography and encouraging settlement of east J’lem and the West Bank for over 40 years against international law.  Obama is simply asking Israel to cease illegal activity.  The GOI should not only halt construction, but begin implementing removal of all illegal settlers from occupied territory since all settlements and outposts are illegal, including those in east J’lem and compensate those Palestinians displaced or forced from their homes due to home demolitions or evictions.