I see this poster every day in the main hallway of our Amnesty International office: it depicts the Statue of Liberty and reads: “The America I believe in leads the world on human rights.”
It’s aspirational. And in too many ways, it’s proven the opposite of true. The United States is leading the world in perversely innovative human rights abuses, such as unlawful drone strikes and mass surveillance tapping into the Internet’s backbone.
And when it’s the US rather than another country committing human right abuses, there are additional consequences: the U.S. sets dangerous precedents for other nations to follow, while providing abusive regimes a ready-made excuse to flout their human rights obligations.
Still, I think there’s hope. July 4th is a celebration not just of U.S. nationhood, but of the country’s ideals and the best parts of its history. It’s those that I think of, when I hope for this:
- The America I Believe In Would Dismantle the Surveillance State
In the U.S., a surveillance state is tracking your license plate, the location of your cell phone, the calls you make, the most embarrassing photos you text your lover, your medical records – in a word, you.
But we all have a right to privacy, a right to be left alone as we go about our lives. If the government has probable cause to believe a crime has been committed, it can intrude on our private lives to the extent necessary. But in the absence of that or similar grounds, our lives are our own.
The U.S. and other governments have turned that privacy right upside down, vacuuming up the most intimate details of our lives through indiscriminate mass surveillance of our communications. This surveillance state has developed especially since 9/11, fed by billions of dollars and run by thousands of government agencies and contractors operating with little accountability.
Is there any reason to hope? On July 1, we learned that the UK surveilled Amnesty International. This is something we’ve long suspected, andit is still stunning. If the UK believes it can surveil Amnesty, who does it believe it can’t surveil?
- The America I Believe Would Never Kill in Secret
The U.S. has run a global drone killing program, ramped up under President Obama. For years that has meant near complete secrecy about who is being killed, particularly in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.
In April the President acknowledged the killing of U.S. and Italian nationals who were held hostage in Pakistan. We also learned from the Wall Street Journal that the administration’s policy guidelines for drone strikes contained a classified annex that exempted the CIA’s drone strikes in Pakistan. And reports this month suggest that the CIA, an agency with a long record of abuse and impunity, will retain its role in drone strikes despite White House pledges to the contrary.
That means we will likely to continue to be denied basic details about the thousands of other people killed in drone strikes. In April, we joined several other human rights groups in urging President Obama to end this ugly double standard of acknowledging the deaths of U.S. citizens, but not Yemenis and Pakistanis.
One of the cases we called for disclosure about is approaching its grim third anniversary: the July 7, 2012 drone strikes in Zowi Sidgi, Pakistan that killed 18 civilians. In 2013, Amnesty International documented these killings in a report, yet the White House still won’t acknowledge responsibility, and it won’t confirm or deny our findings. Who were these 18 individuals? They were likely laborers, ten of whom were killed by a second round of strikes targeting those who had arrived at the scene to help the wounded and recover the dead. At least 22 others were injured, including an eight-year-old girl who sustained shrapnel injuries to her leg.
- The America I Believe in Would Hold Torturers Accountable
Over the last three months especially, we’ve been campaigning to get the Obama administration to reopen and expand its investigations into CIA torture and the secret detention of more than 100 men from 2002 to 2008. No one has ever been charged with a crime in connection with the CIA’s detention program, which involved horrific abuses liked forced rectal feeding, near-drownings and sleep deprivation that lasted for days and weeks.
Together with the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, we recently delivered petitions signed by more than 110,000 people to the Attorney General and wrote to request the appointment of a special prosecutor to review evidence of human rights violations in the recently published Senate report on torture. Last Friday, activists in 9 cities marked the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture by demanding accountability for torture. Amnesty International USA and coalition partners held demonstrations in Amherst, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Our demand was simple: the U.S. government must live up to its obligations to hold those who authorized and committed torture accountable.
How will we achieve the aspiration of our “America I Believe In” poster? It will happen in ways big and small. You can join our work to hold human rights abusers accountable. And you can join us — every day — by using your voice to disrupt the politics of fear and hate that drive human rights abuses.
You can offer your vision for the America you want to believe in.