FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

U.S. Human Rights Abuses in the War on Terror

by JOANNE MARINER

Since September 2001, the U.S. government has been directly responsible for a broad array of serious human rights violations in fighting terrorism, including torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, and unfair trials. In many instances, US abuses were carried out in collaboration other governments.

To cite one example—albeit a particularly notable one—Pakistan’s intelligence agencies worked closely with the CIA to “disappear” terrorist suspects, hold them in secret detention, and subject them to torture and other abuses.

With Barack Obama’s term as U.S. president, the U.S. approach to fighting terrorism has changed. The scope of the Obama administration’s reforms is not yet clear, but it is obvious that the new administration wants to rethink many of the policies that were instituted over the past eight years.

This change in the U.S. approach is long overdue. What is called for, however, is not only for the United States to reform its own abusive policies, but also for U.S. officials to try to counteract the negative influence of past policies worldwide. As a brief review of US counterterrorism efforts will suggest, the human rights impact of the US-led “war on terror” has been felt across the globe.

Collaboration and Assistance in U.S. “War on Terror” Operations

In carrying out post-9/11 “war on terror” operations—including the detention, interrogation, and transfer of terrorist suspects—the United States relied on the assistance of a broad array of countries, from close allies like Britain to pariah states like Syria.

A few states in this long list stand out. Among the leading partners of the United States in the “war on terror” were Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Jordan. Other countries that played a crucial role in facilitating abusive U.S. practices were Egypt, Thailand, Poland, and Romania.

Some governments carried out abuses at the behest of the United States, as a means of gaining U.S. favor or counterterrorism funding. More often, however, the collaboration was genuine, because the perceived interests of the two countries were aligned. Libya, for example, took custody of a number of Libyan nationals who were rendered to Libya by the CIA in 2004-2006. While the detention and interrogation of these men were deemed to serve U.S. interests, the Libyan authorities had independent reasons for wanting to hold them.

The forms of cooperation varied from intelligence sharing to prisoner transfers to allowing the U.S. to hold prisoners in secret detention on a country’s territory. It is worth noting that many of the countries that were most deeply implicated in abusive U.S. practices received millions of dollars in U.S. military and counterterrorism assistance.

Some governments adopted abusive practices in response to direct US pressure. Most notably, the US encouraged a number of countries to pass draconian counterterrorism laws, often laws that expand police powers, reduce due process guarantees, and set out vague and overbroad definitions of terrorism.

Leading by Negative Example

The negative global impact of US human rights abuses post-9/11 does not, however, end there. Besides direct collaboration and pressure, the US also led by example. Many governments latched onto the Bush administration’s “war on terror” arguments to justify their own abuses, particularly the notion that defeating terrorism trumps any countervailing human rights obligations.

As then-Justice Department official John Yoo expressed the idea in a March 2003 memo, abuses against suspected terrorists can be justified by reference to a “national and international version of the right to self-defense.” The torture of terrorist suspects, according to this rationale, may be deemed necessary and defensible because of the government’s overriding obligation “to protect the nation from attack.” When fighting terrorism, in other words, the stakes are so high that respect for human rights is optional.

While the United States is not the first government to put forward such arguments, its post-9/11 iteration of these views had tremendous global resonance. The political and economic power of the United States, its historical reputation as a defender of human rights, and the vehemence with which it expressed its positions on the “war on terror” all amplified the negative global impact of these views.

Repressive governments, always seeking rhetorical cover for their violations, were quick to adopt the language of counterterrorism to help shield their abuses from critical scrutiny. In Egypt, for example, the government specifically cited the “war on terrorism” and new security laws passed in the United States and elsewhere to justify the 2003 renewal of long-standing emergency powers.

The Bush Legacy

By closing Guantanamo, shutting down CIA prisons, and condemning rather than justifying torture, the new administration will have made enormous strides. It should know, nonetheless, that the global legacy of the past eight years may not be quick to disappear.

The prisoners that the United States handed over to Libya and Syria will still be held without charge; the repressive laws that were passed will remain on the statute books, and the example of U.S. abuses will not be easily forgotten. Not only should the U.S. reform its own practices, it should remedy their impact on the rest of the world.

JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer living in Paris.

JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer living in New York and Paris.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

May 25, 2017
Jennifer Matsui
The Rise of the Alt-Center
Michael Hudson
Another Housing Bubble?
Robert Fisk
Trump Meets the New Leader of the Secular World, Pope Francis
John Laforge
Draft Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Unveiled
Benjamin Dangl
Trump’s Budget Expands War on the Backs of America’s Poor
Alice Donovan
US-Led Air Strikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria
Andrew Moss
The Meaning of Trump’s Wall
Leslie Scott
Trump in the Middle East: New Ideas, Old Politics
George Wuerthner
Environmental Groups as Climate Deniers
Pauline Murphy
The Irish Dead: Fighting Fascism in Spain, 1937
Brian Trautman
Veterans on the March
Eric Sommer
Trumps Attack on Social Spending Escalates Long-term Massive Robbery of American Work
Binoy Kampmark
Twenty-Seven Hours: Donald Trump in Israel
Christian Hillegas
Trump’s Islamophobia: the Persistence of Orientalism in Western Rhetoric and Media
Michael J. Sainato
Russiagate: Clintonites Spread the Weiner Conspiracy
Walter Clemens
What the President Could Learn from Our Shih-Tzu Eddie
May 24, 2017
Paul Street
Beyond Neoliberal Identity Politics
Daniel Read
Powder Keg: Manchester Terror Attack Could Lead to Yet Another Resurgence in Nationalist Hate
Robert Fisk
When Peace is a Commodity: Trump in the Middle East
Kenneth Surin
The UK’s Epochal Election
Jeff Berg
Lessons From a Modern Greek Tragedy
Steve Cooper
A Concrete Agenda for Progressives
Michael McKinley
Australia-as-Concierge: the Need for a Change of Occupation
William Hawes
Where Are Your Minds? An Open Letter to Thomas de Maiziere and the CDU
Steve Early
“Corporate Free” Candidates Move Up
Fariborz Saremi
Presidential Elections in Iran and the Outcomes
Dan Bacher
The Dark Heart of California’s Water Politics
Alessandra Bajec
Never Ending Injustice for Pinar Selek
Rob Seimetz
Death By Demigod
Jesse Jackson
Venezuela Needs Helping Hand, Not a Hammer Blow 
Binoy Kampmark
Return to Realpolitik: Trump in Saudi Arabia
Vern Loomis
The NRA: the Dragon in Our Midst
May 23, 2017
John Wight
Manchester Attacks: What Price Hypocrisy?
Patrick Cockburn
A Gathering of Autocrats: Trump Puts US on Sunni Muslim Side of Bitter Sectarian War with Shias
Shamus Cooke
Can Trump Salvage His Presidency in Syria’s War?
Thomas S. Harrington
“Risk”: a Sad Comedown for Laura Poitras
Josh White
Towards the Corbyn Doctrine
Mike Whitney
Rosenstein and Mueller: the Regime Change Tag-Team
Jan Oberg
Trump in Riyadh: an Arab NATO Against Syria and Iran
Susan Babbitt
The Most Dangerous Spy You’ve Never Heard Of: Ana Belén Montes
Rannie Amiri
Al-Awamiya: City of Resistance
Dimitris Konstantakopoulos
The European Left and the Greek Tragedy
Laura Leigh
This Land is Your Land, Except If You’re a Wild Horse Advocate
Hervé Kempf
Macron, Old World President
Michael J. Sainato
Devos Takes Out Her Hatchet
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail