America’s Moral Failings under Obama

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Obama ran, promised, won and betrayed. Like so many others that came before him, he has been one of the greatest disappointments of our time. Under his watch, the USA continues to abandon its role as the global champion of human rights.

As former president Jimmy Carter has noted recently in a scathing critique of the Obama administration, top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens. Recent laws have canceled the restraints in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to allow unprecedented violations of people’s rights to privacy through warrantless wiretapping and government mining of electronic communications. Popular state laws permit detaining individuals because of their appearance, where they worship or with whom they associate. (New York Times, June 24, 2012)

This tragic development began after 9/11 and has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without, regrettably, dissent from the general public. “As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues,” Carter commented.[1]

He condemned the drone attacks. He is not alone. In a report issued to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Christof Heyns, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, called on the Obama administration to explain under what legal framework its drone war is justified and suggested that “war crimes” may have already been committed.[2] Citing reports that the US has conducted follow-up drone strikes aimed at people coming to the strike scene to rescue the injured, Heyns said, if it is true, “those further attacks are a war crime.” Citing figures from the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, Heyns said US drone strikes killed at least 957 people in Pakistan in 2010 alone and that thousands total have been killed in over 300 drone strikes there since 2004.

Carter noted that of the 800 men and boys held since 2002 at the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, 169 remain. Of those prisoners, 87 have had their release approved by military review boards established during the Bush administration, and later by the Guantanamo Review Task Force established by President Obama in 2009. Yet they continue to languish in the prison camp.[3] They have little prospect of ever obtaining their freedom. American authorities have revealed that, in order to obtain confessions, some of the few being tried (only in military courts) have been tortured by water-boarding 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’. Most of the other prisoners have no prospect of ever being charged or tried either,” commented Carter.

And what is worse: on June 11, the Supreme Court denied certiorari in seven different cases dealing with the Guantanamo Bay prisoners. The apex court’s refusal to hear the cases preserves the decisions of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, including the case of Latif v. Obama in which the court ruled that the government’s evidence should be given a presumption of accuracy unless the defendant can establish otherwise. It is worth noting here that Latif, a Yemeni man, has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay since January 2002, after being detained while traveling to seek medical treatment.

It should also be noted that four years ago, the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration’s argument that the detainees at Guantanamo had no right to contest the legality of their confinement in US courts. In Boumediene v. Bush, the Court upheld the habeas corpus rights of the detainees, saying they must be given “a meaningful opportunity” to challenge their detention.

Latif petitioned a federal district court for a writ of habeas corpus. The Obama administration opposed the petition, relying on information from an interrogation report. In the US District Court for the District of Columbia, Judge Henry Kennedy granted Latif’s habeas petition. The government appealed the district court ruling to the conservative US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which reversed the grant of habeas corpus.

The seven detainees, including Latif, took their cases to the Supreme Court, hoping that the high court would do justice. After all, during the Bush administration, the Court had struck down illegal and unjust executive policies. These included the denial of habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo detainees, the refusal to afford due process to US citizens caught in the “war on terror” and the holding of military commissions because they violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to review the appellate court decisions in these cases has rendered Boumediene a dead letter. Since 2008, two-thirds of detainees who have filed habeas corpus petitions have won at the district court level, yet not one of them has been released by judicial order.

Also on June 11 the court declined to hear the appeal of US citizen Jose Padilla challenging the dismissal of his lawsuit against US officials for illegally detaining him at a military jail in South Carolina. In Lebron v. Rumsfeld, Padilla argued that the Defense Department’s methods of detaining him as an "enemy combatant" were unconstitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which pursued Padilla’s case, expressed disappointment with the court’s denial of certiorari, saying: "The Supreme Court’s refusal to consider Jose Padilla’s case leaves in place a blank check for government officials to commit any abuse in the name of national security, even the brutal torture of an American citizen in an American prison."[4]

Andy Worthington, author of “The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison”, recently noted, “June 11, 2012 will go down in history as the day that the Supreme Court hurled the remaining Guantánamo prisoners back into the legal black hole from which they had first been given the hope of rescue in the habeas rulings in June 2004 and June 2008. It turns out, however, that those rulings were made by a Court that remembered that arbitrary and indefinite detention is a crime against decency, and against the ideals on which the United States was founded.”[5]

There is little doubt that the USA is failing miserably in moral leadership. Four years ago Obama campaigned on closing the facility in Cuba and now, four years later, as he seeks his second term, the end of Guantánamo is nowhere in sight. He could have done more to persuade Congress and fellow Americans that this is the right thing to do. And what is simply incredible is that this former Chicago University law lecturer had no moral problem in having his administration contest the granting of habeas corpus. Obama’s strategy has been to assassinate "suspected militants" or people present in "suspicious areas" with drones, obviating the necessity of incarcerating them and dealing with their detention in court. He did not qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize that was bestowed on him, and it is high time that the Nobel Committee make an exception by asking him to return it. After all, it is absolutely unfair and illogical to put Count Dracula in charge of the blood-bank. Nor should a mass-murderer be rewarded for his indiscriminate killings.

As the Guardian poll suggests, some 88% of people concur with ex-President Carter that the US has lost its right to speak with moral authority on human rights. And this is deplorable given the fact that when in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” the USA played a vital role in its adoption.

According to Carter, at a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the US should be strengthening, not weakening "basic rules of law and principles of justice". He called on Washington to "reverse course and regain moral leadership". And we agree with his clarion call.

Notes:

[1]. http://tinyurl.com/7fw6lev

[2]. http://tinyurl.com/83e6q4y

[3]. For a detailed report on the subject, see, e.g., http://tinyurl.com/c5mbjeb

[4]. http://tinyurl.com/7ylgve4

[5]. http://tinyurl.com/dyqh49o

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